The Proliferation of Suicide Bombing in the Middle East and Beyond

By Rachel Ehrenfeld
Tuesday, February 18th, 2014 @ 3:28AM

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’’A nation that does not wage jihad cannot exist…God is with us and Satan with them. We will fight and fight until we regain our rights… God willing.’ — Muslim Brother Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’s founder and spiritual leader, October 1997

Suicide bombings make for frequent headlines in most newspapers.  Today, AP reported the suicide bombing of a bus full of South Korean Christian tourists waiting at the Egypt-Israel border crossing in Sinai.

While suicide attacks to achieve martyrdom are not new, they have gradually become a more prominent feature in the Islamist arsenal.  Particularly troubling is the extent to which most are directed at civilian targets.

In 2006, researchers in Australia showed that between 1981 and 2006, 1200 suicide attacks constituted 4 percent of all terrorist attacks in the world and killed 14,599 people–32 percent of all terrorism-related deaths.  The study also revealed that 90% of these attacks occurred in Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka.

Another study reports that in the ten years after September 11, 2001, there were 336 suicide attacks in Afghanistan and 303 in Pakistan, while there were 1,003 documented suicide attacks in Iraq between March 20, 2003, and December 31, 2010.

There are many studies that attest to the increased frequency of suicide bombing and its spread beyond the Middle East and South Asia.  Researchers have conducted extensive interviews, mostly with Sunni suicide bombers, to study the psychological profiles of males and females who were caught before having the opportunity to become celebrated martyrs. Many studies profiled their family interactions, as well as the social and economic background that led to their recruitment. Additional research focused on the pressure extracted on the “chosen” living bombs by their families who often receive substantial financial rewards and elevated social status.

The Palestinian religious and political system’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood led to the use of suicide bombing as the cheapest and most effective unconventional weapon against Israeli and other targets. However, the proliferation of suicide bombing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East seems to turn this tactic into a conventional weapon in radical Islamists asymmetrical warfare.

The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center has conducted a study of suicide bombing as a weapon in Syria and Lebanon that yields startling results and reinforces the fear that this weapon will be increasingly used against the U.S. and the West.

Using Suicide Bombers as Weapons
The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center

Using Suicide Bombers in Syria and Lebanon*

1. Using suicide bombers to attack the Syrian regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon is a modus operandi adopted from Al-Qaeda attacks in Iraq and other Islamic confrontation zones. In the three years of the Syrian civil war, suicide bombing attacks have become the trademark of the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (“the Islamic State”), both affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad. Suicide bombing attacks were carried out extensively in 2012 and 2013 and inflicted heavy losses on the Syrian regime in terms of casualties and damage to property and infrastructure. They also had a detrimental effect on the symbols of its governance and sovereignty, and raised the standing of the suicide bombing organizations. At the beginning of 2014 they began carrying out suicide bombing attacks in Lebanon as well, where it became the leading modus operandi of the struggle against Hezbollah and the Shi’ites.

2. The Al-Nusra Front, a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria, is the rebel organization responsible for the largest number of suicide bombing attacks in Syria during the civil war. Between its founding in January 2012 and the end of December 2012, the organization claimed responsibility for 43 of the 50 suicide bombing attacks against the Assad regime (LongwarJournal.org). In 2013 the Al-Nusra Front carried out 34 suicide bombing attacks. Nine others were carried out by the Islamic State, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which began suicide bombing attacks in Syria at the end of May 2013. In 2013 the two organizations carried out a total of 43 suicide bombing attacks (similar to the number carried out by the Al-Nusra Front in 2012). Fifty-three suicide bombers participated in the attacks. The attacks in Syria accounted for approximately 15% of all the suicide bombing attacks carried out around the globe in 2013.[1] Suicide bombing attacks have since seeped into Lebanon, where five have been carried out since the beginning of 2014, four by the Al-Nusra Front and one by the Islamic State.

3. The attacks in Syria were carried out by suicide bombers wearing explosive belts who blew themselves up at targets associated with the Syrian regime. In some instances they detonated cars or trucks loaded with large quantities of explosives to cause more casualties and destruction. Some of the attacks were combined and involved two and sometimes even three car bombs which were detonated simultaneously or in succession. According to our analysis, some of the suicide bombing attacks were highly sophisticated and expertly planned: six suicide bombing attacks were carried out simultaneously in two nearby locations. Some of the attacks against preferred targets were carried out by several suicide bombers. Most of them were foreign fighters, mainly from the Arab-Muslim world (especially Saudi Arabia).

4. The organizations in Syria affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad have gained experience and expertise in orchestrating suicide bombing attacks. In our assessment, that expertise poses a threat whose implications go beyond the Syrian arena. Current proof of the threat is that the suicide bombing attacks have seeped into Lebanon, where they are being used to attack Hezbollah, undermining of Lebanon’s fragile internal stability. The longer the Syrian civil war continues, the greater the chances that suicide bombing attacks originating in Syria will seep into other countries. Foreign jihadist fighters who return to their countries of origin from Syria are liable to initiate or participate in suicide bombing attacks, utilizing the operational experience they gained and the operational contacts they made with Al-Qaeda and global jihad handlers. In addition, in our assessment the organizations in Syria affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad are liable to initiate suicide bombing attacks in Western countries, the State of Israel and Arab countries (although their top priority is still overthrowing the Assad regime).

Methodological Notes

5. This study analyzes 43 suicide bombing attacks carried out in Syria during 2013, 34 by the Al-Nusra Front and nine by the Islamic State. It is based primarily on claims of responsibility issued by the organizations. In our assessment, they correspond approximately to the number of suicide bombing attacks actually carried out. In addition, there were suicide bombing attacks that were prevented or went awry about which we have no information. We have not included attacks carried out by other Islamic and jihadist rebel organizations, which account for only a small fraction. In addition, the study analyzes five suicide bombing attacks carried out in Lebanon by the Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State from the beginning of January 2014 to the beginning of February 2014.

6. The attacks in Syria referred to include six combined suicide bombing attacks carried out simultaneously by two suicide bombers at two locations in the same area. Each one of them is counted as two attacks. However, a combined attack of two or more suicide bombers carried out at one target is considered as one attack.

7. Our main sources of information were the Internet sites of the jihad organizations, especially postings of responsibility and videos issued by the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. They were cross-referenced with information from Arab and Western media about the civil war in Syria and events in Lebanon.
Results of the Analysis of Suicide Bombing Attacks in Syria in 2013

8. The main findings were the following:

1) Suicide bombing attack targets: Most of the attacks targeted facilities, bases and individuals associated with the Syrian security forces and administration. Prominent were attacks on roadblocks, headquarters, military bases and camps belonging to the Syrian army and security and intelligence entities affiliated with the regime. Institutions affiliated with the government were also attacked (police station, prison, munitions factory), as were the residences of Syrian security force personnel. Although the attacks were directed at government and security targets, they often caused collateral damage in the form of heavy civilian losses. On occasion civilian targets where members of the security force congregated were also attacked. The harm done to civilians created a problem for the organizations’ image, especially the Al-Nusra Front, which makes an effort to gain the support of the Syrian population (the Islamic State is less sensitive about its image).

2) Modus operandi: Most of the attacks were carried out by a lone suicide bomber who either detonated an explosive belt or blew himself up in a car bomb. In some instances the attack was the combined effort of three, four or even five suicide bombers, either at one location or simultaneously at several adjacent locations. The complex attacks were carried out by the Al-Nusra Front, whose operational capabilities are higher than those of the Islamic State.

3) Objectives: There are two main types of suicide bombing attacks. One is the preparatory attack, carried out as the first stage before the main attack on a preferred target, such as a post, roadblock, camp or facility associated with the Syrian regime. The other is the mass-casualty attack, an attack intended to kill as many people as possible without a subsequent assault on a physical target.

4) Locations: About a third of the attacks were carried out in Damascus and the villages surrounding it (the ghouta). In our assessment, the intention was to deal the regime a painful blow, to expose its vulnerability and to achieve the greatest possible media coverage. About two thirds were carried out in Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State combat zones in northern and eastern Syria: Aleppo, Hasakah, Idlib, Hama, Homs and Deir ez-Zor. One suicide bombing attack was carried out on the Golan Heights and another in the region of Daraa’, in southern Syria. In our assessment, the small number of suicide bombing attacks on the Golan Heights and around Daraa’ indicate the relative weakness of the organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in those regions, at least so far (although the attacks were complex and painful for the regime).

5) Frequency: The Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State kept up a steady series of suicide bombing attacks throughout 2013, usually about two a month. In January, June, August and September there were four or five attacks each month. In February 2013 there were ten suicide bombing attacks. In our assessment, maintaining a continuing succession of suicide bombing attacks, including complex integrated attacks, indicates well-developed operational capabilities and a large reservoir of highly-motivated operatives ready to sacrifice themselves for jihad in Syria.

6) Collaboration with other organizations: Most of the Al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State attacks were not coordinated with other rebel organizations. Some were carried out in collaboration with other rebel organizations, almost all of them jihadist in nature. Only in one instance was there coordination between the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in carrying out a suicide bombing attack.

7) The suicide bombers’ wills: In some cases videos were posted of suicide bombers reading their wills. An analysis of the wills indicates the emphasis the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State put on the sectarian nature of the struggle between Sunnis and Alawites. Much was made of continuing the path of jihad against “infidels” as the personal duty (fard ayn) of every Muslim (according to the school of Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s ideological mentor). The wills are disseminated to the Arab-Muslim world and the West by jihad websites, and their themes and messagesare transmitted to the countries of origin of the foreign fighters when they return from Syria.

Foreign Fighters in Suicide Bombing Attacks

9. Fifty-three suicide bombers participated in Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State suicide bombing attacks. Most of them were carried out by a single bomber, although in certain instances there were three, four or even five suicide bombers.

10. Of the 53 suicide bombers, we verified the names of 30: 23 foreign fighters and seven Syrians. The identities of the rest are unknown. We based our identification of their countries of origin primarily on their nicknames, which usually, although not always, indicate where they came from. We cross-referenced the nicknames with other information which in most instances helped verify their countries of origin.

11. Of the 23 foreign fighters, 13 were from Saudi Arabia (more than half). Eleven were identified as definitely Saudi Arabian and two others had nicknames linking them to Saudi Arabia. Four were verified as coming from Jordan, three were from Iraq (two Kurds identified by their nicknames), one from Tunisia (identified by nickname), one from Australia (identified by nickname) and one foreign fighter whose country of origin could not be identified. A Canadian foreign fighter apparently carried out a suicide bombing attack but his identify and the circumstances of his death could not be verified.[2]

12. The relatively large number of foreign fighters who carried out suicide bombing attacks was mainly a function of the large number of foreign fighters in the ranks of the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. In our assessment, it may also indicate their high level of jihad motivation, exploited by the two organizations. They are motivated by the jihad ideology that led them to Syria, where their motivation is fostered by religious indoctrination which increases their ideological fervor and prepares a large cadre of potential suicide bombers. However, it can be assumed that some of the foreign fighters who were offered the opportunity to carry out a suicide bombing attack refused, although the organizations do not release that information (for example, we know of an Israeli Arab who joined the ranks of the rebels and was offered the opportunity to carry out an attack but refused. In our assessment he was not unique.).

The Large Number of Saudi Arabian Suicide Bombers

13. More than half of the suicide bombers we identified were Saudi Arabian (13 of 23). Moreover, there are large numbers of foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia in the ranks of the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (the reason that relatively so many Saudi Arabians among the foreign fighters have died in Syria). Thus it is not surprising that there are many Saudis among the suicide bombers. Saudi Arabia, the principal foreign supporter of the revolt against the Assad regime, was the hothouse in which the seeds of Al-Qaeda and the global jihad were sown, despite the efforts of the Saudi regime to shirk responsibility for it (most of the terrorists who participated in the September 11, 2001 attack were of Saudi Arabian origin).

14. On the other hand, there is genuine criticism in Saudi Arabia of the young Saudis who join the ranks of organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad, although that criticism has yet to be translated into steps effective enough to keep them from joining. An article published in the Saudi daily newspaper Al-Watan on January 27, 2014, countered the accusations in the Arab media against Saudi preachers that they were encouraging young Saudis to go to Syria to fight:

“There is no doubt that there are scholars and preachers, well known to the state and to members of the various schools of Islam, who instruct our young men, according to religious law, to go to Syria and even urge them to equip themselves with explosives and sacrifice their lives in vain…Unfortunately, our youngsters fuel the civil war being waged in Syria. They went there to perform a religious duty, but they lack knowledge, experience and political awareness. Their emotions have been exploited by innocent scholars, who did not know the young men would only serve interested parties and even be used by regional and global intelligence services…”

Hezbollah in the Crosshairs: Suicide Bombing Attacks Seep from Syria into Lebanon

Overview

15. Since the beginning of 2014 the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State have claimed responsibility for suicide bombing attacks in Lebanon carried out using methods familiar from the Syrian arena (suicide bombers and car bombs). Between January 2 and February 4, 2014, there were five suicide bombing attacks in Lebanon: the Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for four and the Islamic State for one. They were carried out in the southern Shi’ite suburb of Beirut and in the Shi’ite town of Hermel, in the northern Beqa’a Valley. Most of the attacks were carried out by a lone suicide bomber who detonated a car bomb.

Short Descriptions of the Suicide Bombing Attacks

16. On January 2, 2014, a car bomb was detonated in the southern suburb of Beirut by a suicide bomber. The attack targeted Hezbollah and was carried out in close proximity to some of its most important institutions. The Islamic State claimed responsibility (by means of its Twitter account, which has since been closed). The attack killed four people and wounded more than 66. The Arab media reported that the suicide bomber was Qutayba Muhammad al-Satem, 20, a student from the village of Wadi Khaled on the Syrian-Lebanese border. It was also reported that in the past he had participated in the fighting in Syria in the ranks of the Al-Nusra Front (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, January 4, 2014).

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(Yemeneconomist.com)                     (Alhayat.com, January 4, 2014)

                009_14_04s_1785416700

The Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the suicide bombing attack on January 2, 2014. It notes that the organization attacked “the party of Satan [i.e., Hezbollah]” on its own doorstep in the southern suburb of Beirut. It calls the attack “the first small installment of a long bill waiting for [payment by] the criminal infidels” (Daawla.tumbir.com).

17. On January 17, 2014, a suicide bombing attack was carried out in the Shi’ite village of Hermel in the northern Beqa’a Valley. The Lebanese media reported that a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt blew himself up in a car bomb. The attack killed four people and wounded 38. According to the Lebanese media, the explosion occurred near government offices in Hermel in a crowded commercial area. (According to Agence France-Presse, on January 16, 2014, there was an explosion near a Hezbollah stronghold in Hermel). The Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it had targeted a stronghold of “the party of Iran” [i.e., Hezbollah]. The attack, it said, had been carried out by one of the “Al-Nusra Front lions in Lebanon” in response to Hezbollah’s crimes in Lebanon against Sunni women and children (Jihadology, January 16, 2014).

18. On January 21, 2014, there was a suicide bombing attack in the Shi’ite neighborhood of Haret Hreik in the southern suburb of Beirut. The Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility on its Twitter account. It said the attack was in response to the slaughter inflicted by “the party of Iran” [i.e., Hezbollah] on the children of Syria and Arsal[3] (a Sunni village in the northern Beqa’a Valley, a stronghold of Hezbollah opponents). The Lebanese media reported that a lone suicide bomber blew himself up inside a car bomb. According to Al-Hayat (January 22, 2014) the car contained three 120mm mortar shells connected to 20 kilos, or 44 pounds, of explosives. The Lebanese media reported that the blast killed five people and wounded 74.

19. On February 1, 2014, there was a suicide bombing attack near a gas station on the main street of the Shi’ite village of Hermel in the northern Beqa’a Valley. A suicide bomber driving a car bomb carried out the attack. According to the Lebanese media, five people were killed and 20 wounded. The Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility on its Twitter account. It said that the attack had been carried out in “the den of the party of Iran” [i.e., a Hezbollah stronghold] because of [Hezbollah’s] continuing crimes against the Syrian people.

20. On February 3, 2014, a suicide bomber blew himself up on the road passing through the Druze neighborhood of Choueifat near the southern Shi’ite suburb of Beirut. The attack killed two people and wounded several. According to the Lebanese media, the suicide bomber was wearing an explosive belt with five kilos, or 11 pounds, of explosives and was a passenger on a minibus going to the southern suburb of Beirut. According to Lebanese “security sources” he blew himself up by accident, while other sources claimed he blew himself up after the bus driver or passengers became suspicious of him (Al-Joumhouria, February 4, 2014).

21. The Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State claimed responsibility for five suicide bombing attacks in Lebanon. In addition, there was also a combined, mass-casualty suicide bombing attack carried out at the entrance to the Iranian embassy in Beirut on November 19, 2013. Responsibility was claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a terrorist organization affiliated with the global jihad operating in Lebanon.[4] Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in succession, similar to the modus operandi of the suicide bombing attacks carried out in Syria by the Al-Nusra Front in 2013, indicating that operational capabilities may have been passed from Syria to Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s Response

22. Hezbollah accused the organizations operating in Syria affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad (what they refer to as the takfir organizations) of the suicide bombing attacks in Lebanon. Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah claimed they drove car bombs into Lebanon from the Al-Qalamoun mountains in Syria through the town of Arsal in the northern Beqa’a Valley. He gave a speech in which the security threat was represented as the main justification for increasing Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.[5] On the ground, Hezbollah instituted a series of security measures, among them piling sandbags in front of stores as protection, especially in the southern suburb of Beirut. However, so far such measures do not seem to be an effective response to the threats of Al-Qaeda and the global jihad terrorism, which have reached Hezbollah’s front door.

Conclusion

23. In our assessment, the main objective of the wave of suicide bombing attacks in Lebanon is to disrupt Hezbollah’s military involvement in the fighting in Syria by forcing it to deal with homeland security. The seeping of suicide bombing attacks into Lebanon from Syria may indicate that the Al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State and other global jihad-affiliated organizations have improved their operational capabilities in Lebanon. Thus they pose a serious challenge to Hezbollah, which has not yet found a way to counter them. Moreover, the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State’s capabilities for terrorism, which are currently being used in Syria and Lebanon, may make their way in the future to other Arab states, the Palestinian arena, and even to Israel and the Western countries.[6]

* Continuation of the September 23, 2013 bulletin “The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) is an Al-Qaeda Salafist-jihadi network, prominent in the rebel organizations in Syria. It seeks to overthrow the Assad regime and establish an Islamic Caliphate in Greater Syria, a center for regional and international terrorism and subversion.”

ENDNOTES

[1] See the INSS Insight No. 507 by Yotam Rosner, Einav Yogev at Yoram Schweitzer, “A Report on Suicide Bombings in 2013,” January 14, 2014, at http://www.inss.org.il/index.aspx?id=4538&articleid=6408. According to the report, in 2013 291 suicide bombing attacks were carried out in 18 countries and led to approximately 3,100 deaths. About 50% of the attacks (148) were carried out in the Middle East, 98 of them in Iraq. The statistics may indicate that Syria has become the second largest arena for suicide bombing attacks, after Iraq, for Al-Qaeda and the global jihad.
[2] At the beginning of February 2014, a suicide bomber from Britain was identified. The Al-Nusra Front released a video of a British foreign fighter who carried out a suicide bombing attack during an attack on a prison in Aleppo (February 6, 2014). He was Abd al-Wahid Majed, who drove a truck bomb into the prison and blew himself up in it.
[3] On January 18, 2013, five siblings were killed by a rocket hit in Arsal. Hezbollah was accused but that was not verified.
[4] For further information see the November 27, 2013 bulletin “Mass-casualty double suicide bombing attack carried out at the Iranian embassy in Beirut.”
[5] For further information see the December 25, 2013 bulletin “In late 2013, Hezbollah again intensified its military involvement in the Syrian civil war, suffering heavy losses.”
[6] Updated evidence of the intention of creating an operational connection between the global jihad network in Israel and the operatives in Syria was revealed by the exposure of three operatives of a network affiliated the global jihad at the end of December 2013. Two of them were residents of east Jerusalem and were handled by an operative from the Gaza Strip, mainly through the Internet. The network planned, among other attacks, to carry out a double suicide bombing attack, simultaneously bombing the International Conference Center in Jerusalem and the American embassy in Tel Aviv. One of the operatives was supposed to go to Syria via Turkey for military training and coordination for the planned attack (Israel Security Agency website and Haaretz, January 23, 2014).

Issued on: 11/02/2014


Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, Al Qaeda, Latest News, Middle East Conflicts, Syria, U.S. Foreign Policy

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