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Demographics of suicide terrorism

August 05, 2010


THE spate of suicide bombings in Pakistan started in earnest in 2002. That year two major suicide attacks were perpetrated, which specifically targeted foreigners.

Suicide bombings that were ostensibly aimed at higher-value targets have, however, claimed many civilian lives as collateral victims. Between 2002 and 2006, 25 human bombs exploded across the country. Subsequent attacks targeted many high-ranking government officials, including Gen Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.

In 2007, Pakistan witnessed a ten-fold increase in suicide bombings as compared to the previous year. Apart from other acts of terrorism, there were 56 suicide attacks during 2007 that killed 472 law enforcement personnel and injured 230 civilians. An average of a blast a week claimed more than 1,100 lives. There was a marked escalation in suicide attacks in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid operation. Suicide bombing as a tactic was by now firmly established as a viable strategic terrorist tool.

Before the Lal Masjid operation there were 12 such attacks in Pakistan between January 1 and July 3, 2007, killing 75 people. The remaining 44 suicide attacks took place after the Lal Masjid action, between July 4 and December 27, 2007 and the violence spread to Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and other urban centres. Between them, these attacks killed 567 people, amongst them members of the military and paramilitary forces and the police. The first retaliatory suicide bombing took place on July 4, one day after the start of Operation Silence, killing at least 11 people.

PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto's December 27, 2007 assassination in Rawalpindi was the most high-profile suicide attack of that year. The previous attempt to kill Bhutto, on October 18th of the same year, was also perpetrated by a suicide bomber who blew himself up near a procession welcoming her home after eight years in self-exile. The suicide bomber did not reach Bhutto but killed over 140 other people, mostly PPP supporters. This became the deadliest attack in the world at that time. Before the October 18 assault, the deadliest suicide attack carried out anywhere in the world was one that killed 133 people in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on February 3, 2007, when a bomber detonated an explosives-laden truck at a busy marketplace.

Pakistan hardly fared better in 2008, topping the list of countries suffering from the menace of suicide bombings. The country left Afghanistan and Iraq behind during the first eight months of the year, when it suffered 28 suicide attacks that killed over 471 and left 713 others wounded, including civilians and armed forces' personnel. Despite facing a higher digit of suicide attacks during the same period, Afghanistan and Iraq suffered lower human losses. A total of 42 incidents in Iraq between January 1 and August 31, 2008 claimed 463 lives besides wounding 527. By contrast, 436 people were killed and 394 injured in 36 suicide attacks in Afghanistan during the same period.

In Pakistan, there were 59 suicide incidents in total during 2008. The two most prominent were the August 22 attack on Pakistan's main army munitions facility, the Wah Ordnance Factory, that killed 80 workers in the deadliest attack on a military installation in the country's history, and the September 20 suicide attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. The Marriott blast, which was touted as Pakistan's 9/11, killed as many as 80 people and injured over 200. Subsequent investigations revealed that the Marriott attack was actually aimed at the National Assembly.

As regards the area-wise break-up of the suicide attacks between 2002 and the start of 2009, 60 per cent of all suicide attacks were in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The 20 per cent in Punjab includes attacks on the army's main establishment, the General Headquarters, which falls within the province. The city of Rawalpindi is the seat of the GHQ, where alone nearly 10 per cent of the total number of attacks was witnessed. This is more than the share of Sindh, Balochistan and Islamabad respectively during the same period.

Examining all the suicide attacks that have taken place in different areas at any given point in time between 2002 and 2009, an interesting picture emerges the phenomenon of suicide attacks first started in Islamabad, Sindh and Balochistan, the very areas that accounted for the least number of attacks during the time period. Until 2006, Punjab and Sindh accounted for nearly 70 per cent of suicide attacks while there were none in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata in the same temporal parameters. It is only in the first half of 2006 that attacks began in these areas. This corresponds with the escalating and widespread condemnation of these attacks in Punjab and Sindh, where large demonstrations against suicide terror perhaps indicated to the terrorist organisations that they were losing public support because of these actions.

The sharpest increase in Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa took place in July 2007, the month in which the military operation against Islamabad's Lal Masjid was carried out. Around this time, there was also a dramatic increase in attacks in Punjab. After March 2008, however, attacks abated somewhat in Fata and Punjab, though they continued ceaselessly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. At the same time suicide attacks on religious targets, which until 2007 comprised the majority of the hits, nearly ceased altogether, indicating a marked shift towards military targets as the conflict in the tribal areas intensified.

Overwhelmingly, suicide attacks have targeted military and police personnel and buildings, with army installations being targeted after the military started operations in Bajaur Agency. Interestingly, no suicide attacks were perpetrated against military or police targets until 2006, even though the military operation against militants initially began in South Waziristan in July 2002.

Within days, extremists carried out a devastating suicide attack on a military base in Dargai, killing 42 soldiers to avenge the October strike. Thereafter, suicide attacks on military and police targets have become frequent. There has also been a paradigm shift in the pattern observed in 2009 and 2010, which bears separate analysis.

The writer is a strategic affairs analyst.