An Al Nusrah Front suicide bomber attacks Syrian forces. Photo courtesy of SITE Intelligence Group.
For years, Bashar al Assad’s regime sponsored the flow of suicide bombers and foreign fighters into Iraq to fight Coalition forces. But suddenly, on Dec. 23, 2011, the regime’s own intelligence apparatus was struck by two suicide bombers in Damascus, leaving 44 dead and more than 160 wounded. The rebellion against Assad had begun nine months earlier, but no major suicide attacks, if any at all, were reported until that day in December.
The Syrian government blamed “terrorists.” The Syrian opposition blamed Assad, saying that the attacks were a false flag operation intended to undermine support for the rebels. But the opposition has clear incentives to write off the December 2011 suicide attacks as the work of the Assad regime. The rebellion had not been started by al Qaeda, and the group’s entry into the fight would only complicate international support for overthrowing the Syrian dictator.
There is a simple explanation for the suicide attacks in December and the others that would follow: blowback. Al Qaeda is staging a remarkable surge of its own in Syria.
Top US officials worried about just such a possibility well before the rebellion began. For example, a leaked State Department cable from July 2009 summarizes General David Petraeus’s view of the relationship between AQI and the Syrian regime. “In time,” the cable reads, “these fighters will turn on their Syrian hosts and begin conducting attacks against Bashar al Assad’s regime itself, Petraeus predicted.”
Relying on translations prepared by the SITE Intelligence Group and other publicly-available reports, The Long War Journal has found that approximately 25 suicide bombings have been executed in Syria since the end of last year. This includes the Dec. 23, 2011 attacks and 24 suicide bombings since the first of this year. That is, there have been about 25 suicide bombings in Syria in less than eight months.
Banner for the Al Nusrah Front, a jihadist group in Syria. Image from the SITE Intelligence Group.
A listing of these attacks, including links to sources when appropriate, is included below.
While this may not seem like an especially high number, it is a striking figure when compared to the global martyrdom campaign. For instance, according to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), there were 279 suicide attacks in the world in 2011. 259 of these attacks were carried out by “Sunni extremists,” or jihadists. Only one of the 259 occurred in Syria. This suggests that the prolific use of suicide bombers in Syria that began late last year now represents a significant percentage of all such attacks carried out around the globe.
The al Qaeda-linked Al Nusrah Front has claimed responsibility for 18 of the 25 suicide bombings that the The Long War Journal has tallied. And the group’s attacks have primarily targeted the Syrian regime’s forces. In order to believe that this wave of suicide attacks was somehow the work of Assad’s goons, we would also have to believe that Assad was willing to kill hundreds of his loyalists even as his base of power shrinks. We would also have to believe that Assad was clever enough to set up a covert, phony al Qaeda-like propaganda operation to claim credit for these attacks while embroiled in heavy fighting.
The simpler, and more natural, explanation is that an al Qaeda-affiliated group — the Al Nusrah Front — is responsible for most of these attacks. This is also consistent with warnings from top American and Iraqi officials who have said that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has allocated some of its resources to the fight for Syria.
Indeed, according to the National Counterterrorism Center’s annual report for 2011, the Dec. 23, 2011 suicide attacks were likely the work of “[t]wo suspected AQI female suicide bombers” who detonated car bombs ” at Syrian intelligence facilities, killing or wounding scores of soldiers, civilians, and government employees.”
In addition to the Al Nusrah Front and AQI, another al Qaeda-affiliated group operating in Syria is the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Other al Qaeda-style groups such as the Al Baraa Ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade, which has claimed that it will use suicide attacks, and the Omar al Farouq Brigade have appeared in Syria, too.
Still, it is difficult to track suicide bombings amid the Syrian chaos. The Syrian government interferes with efforts to independently monitor and verify events on the ground. Some members of the rebellion have their own incentives for downplaying the involvement of al Qaeda-affiliated groups. Conversely, the Al Nusrah Front and other jihadist organizations turn such events into propaganda that is intended to trumpet their efficacy to the greatest extent possible. With some noteworthy exceptions, however, The Long War Journal has found reporting from the Al Nusrah Front to be generally consistent with other published accounts.
The Long War Journal’s accounting of the suicide bombing campaign in Syria is subject to revision and updates. The fog of war often makes it difficult to determine the precise details of such events. Accordingly, this list will be updated in future posts. This list includes only reported or suspected suicide bombings. It is also important to note that suicide attacks are only one tactic used by the Al Nusrah Front and allied jihadist groups. The majority of the Al Nusrah Front’s attacks do not rely on suicide bombers.
And, importantly, the Syrian rebels consist of diverse factions, not just jihadist groups.
Reported or suspected suicide bombings in Syria:
The dates given below are, in most cases, the dates of the attacks. In a few cases, when the date of a claimed attack is unknown, the date of Al Nusrah’s claim of responsibility is used.
Dec. 23, 2011 – Two car bombings in Damascus on this day are the first known suicide attacks in Syria since the rebellion began nine months earlier. The attacks targeted the regime’s intelligence offices, killing at least 44 people and wounding more than 160 others. According to the NCTC, it is likely that two female suicide bombers deployed by AQI were responsible.
Jan. 6, 2012 – A suicide car bomb attack killed 26 people in Damascus. The Al Nusrah Front later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Feb. 10, 2012 – Twin suicide car bombings killed 28 people in Aleppo. The Al Nusrah Front later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Mar. 17, 2012 – Two suicide car bombings killed at least 27 people and wounded 100 or more in Damascus. The bombings targeted the Assad regime’s security forces. The Al Nusrah Front later claimed responsibility for the bombings and released a video, translated by SITE, showing the two bombers giving speeches before their attacks.
Apr. 20, 2012 – A suicide bomber attacked Syrian military forces dining at a restaurant in Hama. The Al Nusrah Front later claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the Syrian forces targeted had massacred civilians in a nearby town.
Apr. 24, 2012 – A suicide bomber attacked the Iranian Cultural Consulate in Damascus. The Al Nusrah Front later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Apr. 27, 2012 – A suicide bomber attacked at a mosque in the Midan neighborhood of Damascus. The attack reportedly killed 11 people and wounded 28 more. The Al Nusrah Front later claimed responsibility, saying the attack targeted regime personnel who were attending prayers.
Apr. 30, 2012 – In an apparent attack on Syrian military intelligence services, two bombs are detonated in the town of Idlib. According to Reuters, state-controlled media said that nine people were killed, with 100 more wounded, and two suicide bombers were responsible. An “activist” said that 20 people were killed. The Associated Press also attributed the attack to suicide bombers.
May 10, 2012 – Two suicide car bomb attacks killed at least 55 people and wounded more than 370 others in Damascus. According to the BBC, the “blasts happened near a military intelligence building during morning rush hour.” Days later, it appeared that Al Nusrah claimed credit for the attacks in a video online. Subsequently, however, Al Nusrah denied the validity of the video, saying it had not been published by the group’s official media arm.
May 19, 2012 – A suicide bomber attacked the Syrian intelligence services in Deir al-Zor. According to Reuters, the state news agency said that nine people were killed and approximately 100 others were wounded. The Al Nusrah Front later claimed responsibility for the bombing.
June 1, 2012 – A suicide bomber attacked a Syrian military camp in Idlib. The suicide bomber’s attack was just one component of the complex assault, which also involved an ambush and IED attacks. The Al Nusrah Front later claimed responsibility for the raid.
June 7, 2012 – A suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying state security personnel in Aleppo. The Al Nusrah Front claimed responsibility for the operation.
June 14, 2012 – A suicide bomber attacked state security services outside of Damascus. The Al Nusrah Front claimed responsibility for the attack and said that “many” security personnel were killed.
June 26, 2012 – The Al Nusrah Front claims that it conducted two suicide bombings against Syrian military forces on this day. The terrorist organization also claimed that 250 Syrian soldiers were killed in the attacks, according to translations prepared by SITE. The Long War Journal did not find independent verification for the high number of casualties claimed by the Al Nusrah Front.
June 30, 2012 – In a statement dated this day, the Al Nusrah Front claimed that a suicide bomber attacked a security barrier in Daraa, a town in southern Syria. The group did not say when the attack took place. On Mar. 3, a car bomb was detonated near a military checkpoint in Daraa. The Syrian government claimed it was a suicide attack that killed two people; opposition forces denied that it was a suicide attack. According to a local resident interviewed by Reuters, at least seven people were killed and eight more were wounded. It is unclear if the Mar. 3 attack is the same one claimed by Al Nusrah.
July 18, 2012 – A bomb killed senior Syrian military and intelligence officials. There are conflicting reports as to whether it was a suicide bombing or a remote-controlled explosive device was used in the attack. Among those killed was Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and former head of Syrian military intelligence. Shawkat, who was the brother-in-law of Bashar al Assad, had supported AQI for years.
July 19, 2012 – In a statement released online days later, the Al Nusrah Front claimed it launched a suicide operation targeting a security barrier in Ma’arat al-Nu’man that killed 60 Syrian soldiers on this day.
Aug. 7, 2012 – In a statement released on this day, the Al Nusrah Front said that a suicide bomber targeted “a military security detachment … in the area of Mhardeh in the Hama countryside.” It is not clear what day the actual attack took place.
Aug. 17, 2012 – The Al Nusrah Front claims that a suicide bomber attacked a gathering of 600 regime “thugs” in Hama on this day. The total number of casualties was not reported.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.