Since the first suicide bombing recorded by ACLED in 2002, there have been more than 1,600 suicide bombings, which have resulted in more than 18,000 reported fatalities. The most suicide bombings have been recorded in Iraq (where there have been more than 340 suicide bombings), Pakistan (more than 280), Nigeria (more than 250), Afghanistan (more than 130), and Syria (more than 120).

The number of suicide bombings peaked in 2017, when there were more than 470 suicide bombings. A surge in both the number of suicide bombings deployed by Boko Haram (98 in 2017) and sustained levels of suicide bombings by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria (150 in 2017) accounted for roughly half of the number of suicide bombings that year. Both of these groups were suffering territorial losses and facing robust military offensives (The Guardian, October 21, 2017; IRIN, May 4, 2017).

More than 47% of suicide bombs are deployed against civilian targets. Roughly 41% are deployed against domestic government targets, while an additional 3% are deployed against foreign militaries. More than 8% of suicide bombs are deployed by non-state armed groups against other non-state armed groups.

Not only are civilians more frequently targeted, attacks against them are more lethal on average. The average civilian-targeted suicide bombing results in 14 reported fatalities, as compared to an average of almost 9 reported fatalities following an attack on a domestic government target, almost 6 reported fatalities following a suicide bombing of a foreign military target, and close to 10 reported fatalities associated with suicide bombings of other non-state armed groups.

Connecting to other work

Suicide bombings are frequently deployed as a terror tactic and are used to stoke fear in civilian populations. Suicide bombings are often described as a ‘weapon of the weak’ because they are relatively low cost and result in high numbers of fatalities relative to other types of attack (Annual Review of Political Science, 2015; The Atlantic, June 2003 ). ACLED data demonstrating an increase in suicide bombing by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria as well as Boko Haram in Nigeria following territorial losses suggest that suicide bombings may be a reaction to battlefield losses or declining organizational strength.

While the high rates of suicide bombings in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan may support explanations that connect suicide bombings to efforts to end foreign military occupation (Pape 2005), ACLED data also demonstrate that high rates of suicide bombings still occur in countries like Nigeria and Pakistan, where there is no foreign military occupation. ACLED data also suggest that suicide bombings may not be a tactic to expel foreign forces, given the relative rarity of attacks on such targets. The relative infrequency of such attacks may also be a result of the difficulty of accessing such targets, which are generally better protected than civilian targets or even domestic government targets.

© 2019 Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). All rights reserved.

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Suicide Bombings against Civilians and Government Targets in Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia
Hilary Matfess
Hilary Matfess
Research Analyst
Hilary Matfess is a Research Analyst with ACLED and a PhD student at Yale University. She received a BA in International Studies from Johns Hopkins University and an MA in African Studies from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She is the author of Women and the War on Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses.
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