Islamic State claims more than 700 suicide attacks since beginning of the year

The Islamic State claims to have executed 729 “martyrdom operations” in Iraq, Syria and Libya during the first eight months of 2016. The figure comes from monthly data published by Amaq News Agency, a propaganda arm of the so-called “caliphate” that releases infographics summarizing the group’s suicide attacks.

16-09-05 Amaq 81 martyrdom operations in August

Amaq’s most recent infographic (seen on the right) was released on Sept. 5. It indicates that the jihadists carried out 81 “martyrdom operations” in the month of August alone.

Most of the Islamic State’s suicide bombings, 431 of the 729 claimed (59 percent) since the beginning of the year, have been launched inside Iraq. Approximately 40 percent of these (174 of 431) have occurred in Anbar province, where the jihadists were engaged in fierce battles with Iraqi government forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias during much of the year. Salahuddin (101 suicide attacks), Nineveh (71), Baghdad (47), and Kirkuk (18) are the next most frequently targeted areas.

The Islamic State launched 268 suicide attacks in Syria (37 percent of the total) during the first eight months of the year. Aleppo province (106) was hit most frequently, followed by Hasakah (40), Deir Ezzor (34), Homs (27) and Raqqa (25) provinces.

The remaining 29 “martyrdom operations” took place in Libya, with 26 of these occurring in Sirte, the Islamic State’s base of operations in North Africa. The data demonstrate how the battle for Libya has evolved since the beginning of the year. Amaq claimed only one suicide attack in Libya from January through April. But the infographics show that the pace picked up beginning in May, with nine such bombings in Sirte that month. The uptick reflects the fact that Libyan militias loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) began their offensive on the city that same month. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists have lost significant ground since then.

The Islamic State’s fighters executed 12 suicide attacks in Sirte in August, according to the most recent infographic. US airstrikes have repeatedly targeted vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) in the city since Aug. 1, meaning the figure would likely be higher if the Americans weren’t providing air support to Libyan fighters.

Iraqi forces are the most frequent target of the Islamic State’s “martyrdom operations,” as they were hit 406 times (56 percent of the total) from January through August. Bashar al Assad’s regime is the second most frequent target, with the Islamic State’s suicide bombers striking the Syrian government’s forces on 116 occasions. The remaining bombings struck the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Peshmerga (136 times combined), the “Syrian opposition” (42), Fajr Libya and militiamen loyal to UN-backed GNA (27) and General Khalifa Haftar’s fighters in Benghazi (2 times).

VBIEDs are used more often than individual bombers strapped with explosives, according to Amaq. The infographics count 492 VBIEDs used in suicide attacks (67 percent of the total) as compared to 224 bombings with explosive belts, jackets and vests. The remaining 13 are listed as “dual operations.”

If Amaq’s figures are accurate, then the Islamic State is launching suicide bombings at a historically high rate.

In June, the State Department reported that there were 726 “suicide attacks” executed by all perpetrators around the globe in 2015. Foggy Bottom relied on figures reported by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), which maintains an “unclassified event database compiled from information in open-source reports of terrorist attacks.”

All terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, carried out an average of 61 suicide bombings per month in 2015.

According to Amaq’s statistics, the Islamic State has surpassed this estimate all by itself in just three countries (Iraq, Syria and Libya) during the first eight months of 2016, tallying 729 suicide attacks for an average of 91 per month. As The Long War Journal reported, 2015 was the previous high-water mark for suicide attacks.

Both July and August were below the monthly average for all of 2016. In July, Amaq reported 59 suicide attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Thus far, the high for the year occurred in May, with a purported 119 suicide bombings.

The fog of war makes it difficult to independently verify Amaq’s statistics. However, the figures are reasonable given the scale of the Islamic State’s fighting. Baghdadi’s men routinely claim credit for simultaneous suicide attacks. While suicide bombings are just one of the types of operations conducted by the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, casualty figures suggest they are an especially effective tactic. For instance, the State Department noted in June that “[o]n average, suicide attacks in 2015 were 4.6 times as lethal as non-suicide attacks.” This makes “martyrdom operations” crucially important for the so-called “caliphate” as it wages war against multiple adversaries in each country where it operates.

[For more on the Islamic State’s claimed suicide operations, see LWJ reports: The Islamic State’s prolific ‘martyrdom’ machine and Islamic State claims nearly 600 suicide attacks in first six months of 2016.]

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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