The Islamic State carried out 120 “martyrdom operations” in Iraq and Syria in October, according to an infographic posted online by the group’s Amaq News Agency. Seventy-nine (79) of these suicide bombings took place in Iraq’s Nineveh province, which is home to Mosul. Amaq’s infographic can be seen below. Although the figure cannot be independently verified, it is generally consistent with the scale of the so-called caliphate’s war against multiple actors. There has been heavy fighting in the villages and towns surrounding Mosul for weeks.
The US, Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi government, along with its paramilitary allies, launched an offensive to reclaim the Iraqi city in mid-October. The Islamic State has advertised dozens of suicide attacks in the weeks that followed, many of them using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs).
According to Amaq, the Islamic State carried out 58 “martyrdom operations” during the first week of the battle for Mosul alone. Eighteen “martyrs” purportedly blew themselves up during the second week of the fight (ending on Oct. 31) and an additional 29 martyrdom operations were orchestrated during the third week of the battle (which covers the first week of November). In total, Amaq claims that 108 of its “martyrs” have defended Mosul in the first three weeks of fighting.
Other sources confirm that dozens of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists have hurled themselves at their enemies near Mosul while driving explosive-laden vehicles or while wearing suicide belts. During a briefing on Nov. 3, Colonel John Dorrian, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), said that “scores” of VBIEDs had been deployed against the US-backed forces thus far.
It is not clear how many of the claimed 108 suicide attackers reached their target. The US and its allies have repeatedly disabled VBIEDs before they can hit their mark.
According to data on airstrikes released by OIR, and analyzed by The Long War Journal, the US-led coalition destroyed or damaged 47 VBIEDs and 11 VBIED factories or facilities in Iraq during the month of October. The majority of these, 29 VBIEDs and 9 VBIED facilities, were bombed “near Mosul.” At least some of the VBIEDs, perhaps many, were likely en route to their intended target.
Some VBIED attacks also fail on their own, or because ground forces prevent them from reaching their destination. For example, Bryan Denton of The New York Times reported on Oct. 26 that the convoy he was riding in outside of Mosul was attacked by three jihadi-driven car bombs, each of which was destroyed or failed, before a fourth was successful.
Regardless of their success rate, there is no question that suicide bombers play a key role in the jihadists’ defense of Mosul. The Islamic State is dispatching as many “martyrs” as possible in an attempt to slow its opposition’s path. The same tactic has been employed in other areas where the so-called caliphate has lost ground. For example, Amaq claimed only one suicide bombing in all of Libya between January and April of this year. But then, beginning in May, Amaq reported 26 “martyrdom operations” in or around Sirte, Libya in the months that followed. These bombings were part of the Islamic State’s strategy to delay the progress of local Libyan forces, backed by the US, as they’ve attempted to clear and hold the coastal city. Sirte had served as the Islamic State’s de facto capital in North Africa since last year.
The Islamic State is claiming suicide attacks at a historically high rate
As The Long War Journal has previously reported, the Islamic State claims to be carrying out suicide bombings at an unprecedentedly high rate in 2016. From January through October, according to Amaq’s infographics, the group launched 902 total “martyrdom operations” in Iraq, Libya and Syria. That is an average of 90 per month.
According to open source data compiled by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), all terrorist organizations around the globe carried out 906 (76 per month) suicide attacks in 2015 and 739 (62 per month) in 2014. The year 2015 was the previous high water mark for suicide bombings. Many of those attacks in 2014 and 2015 were orchestrated by the Islamic State, but other organizations’ “martyrs” are included in the totals as well.
Therefore, the Islamic State’s figures indicate that the organization is setting a new record for suicide bombings in 2016 all by itself.
However, there are important caveats to keep in mind while assessing Amaq’s claims. It is not possible to validate the total figures provided by Amaq. As mentioned above, some suicide bombings likely fail, but are included in the group’s tally anyway. Many of the bombings are defensive in nature, meaning that a large number of “martyrs” are being deployed as the caliphate’s grip on territory slips. The identities of some of these attackers is not known. And, on some occasions in the past, the Islamic State has also used children or adolescents in its “martyrdom operations.” Such young people cannot be truly considered willing “martyrs.”
In addition, suicide attacks are just one of the many tactics employed by the Islamic State.
Still, there is no question that the Islamic State is relying on suicide bombers at a remarkable pace. And if Amaq’s data are accurate, then October saw more suicide bombings by Baghdadi’s operation (120) than in any previous month this year. The previous high for 2016 came in May, when 119 “martyrdom operations” were carried out in Iraq, Libya and Syria. September witnessed the fewest suicide attacks with 53, according to Amaq.
Amaq News Agency infographics for the battle of Mosul
According to Amaq News Agency, the Islamic State carried out 58 “martyrdom operations” during the first week of the battle for Mosul:
Amaq claimed 18 “martyrdom operations” during the second week of the battle for Mosul:
Amaq claimed 29 “martyrdom operations” during the third week of the battle for Mosul: