The Flawed Narrative of Terrorist Attack Claims

The Flawed Narrative of Terrorist Attack Claims

 Every extremist or terrorist group has branded itself as martyrs or freedom fighters, fighting against unjust governments, economic systems, or religious institutions.  And yet simultaneously, the same groups often either explicitly target civilians or use tactics that show little regard for humanitarian consequences, including roadside IEDs and suicide car bombs.  

Luckily for citizens seeking to understand the war on extremism, the evolution of military and police intelligence as well as press corps able to dissect terrorist attacks, most attacks usually have a main suspect.  From June 7th to August 12th of 2017, 53% of attacks had a suspected group responsible, while groups claimed responsibility only 16% of the time. 

With the amount of claimed attacks relatively small, it’s hard to believe that they would accurately reflect the true damage that terrorists impose on society.  In order to examine whether these claims can be trusted in profiling terrorist groups, we can look to a quick cross section of terrorist activity.

The following table displays the breakdown of target type for terrorist attacks which had suspected culprits versus claims of responsibility.  All attacks took place between June 11th and August 7th, and all attacks were verified by two independent sources. The three groups were chosen based on how many attacks in both the Suspected and Claimed categories so that there would be a balance between the two when broken down.  The numbers for the Taliban include attacks claimed or suspected to be performed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, a Pakistani offshoot of the Taliban.  The results are shown below.  

 

Distribution of Target Types between Claimed and Suspected attacks for Three Terrorist Groups
GroupAttribution LevelTarget typeTotal
CivilianSecurityPoliticalUnknown
Al-ShabaabClaimed1 (10%)7 (70%)2 (20%)010
Suspected11 (61%)4 (22%)3 (17%)018
Total12 (43%)11 (39%)5 (18%)028
ISISClaimed3 (50%)1 (17%)2 (33%)06
Suspected3 (43%)3 (43%)01 (14%)7
Total6 (46%)4 (31%)2 (15%)1 (8%)13
Taliban (including TTP)Claimed1 (10%)8 (80%)1 (10%)010
Suspected3 (50%)3 (50%)006
Total4 (25%)11 (69%)1 (6%)016
*All data provided by the Rise To Peace Active Intelligence Database

Al-Shabaab and the Taliban appear to follow a similar pattern to each other: The groups tend to overstate how much they attack security targets, like police stations or military patrols, and overstate how many civilians they attack and kill.  For example, while attacks on security targets made up only 39% of Al-Shabaab attacks, they comprised 70% of the attacks the groups claimed responsibility for. Similarly, only 10% of claimed attacks by the Taliban targeted civilians, but this occurred in 25% of their total suspected attacks.  

While the small sample size and simple statistical display shown here may not constitute a completely thorough analysis, it confirms what anyone would suspect of such groups. Whether to attempt to boost their own legitimacy or avoid civilian and humanitarian backlash, terrorist groups have little incentive to claim responsibility on attacks in ways that accurately reflect what their attacks do. Always investigate and consider different perspectives when judging the actions of such violent groups.  At Rise To Peace, we hope to mitigate these types of misinformation and flawed narratives in order to better inform people on the true evil of global extremism and terrorism.

Female Suicide Bombers: Mosul, Boko Haram, and Beyond

The Tragedy of Mosul

As Iraqi soldiers closed in on remaining Islamic State forces in Mosul in early July 2017, they faced a threat previously unemployed by their enemy thus far.  In a mere three days of fighting, from July 2nd to the 4th, the Islamic State deployed up to 20 female suicide bombers against pro-government troops.  The strategy did little to prevent the collapse of IS presence in the city: by July 3rd, the Islamic State controlled less than  a square mile of territory in the city.

However, the presence of female suicide bombers was unprecedented in the conflict. The use of female suicide bombers have evolved for various groups, including the infamous Chechnyan ‘Black Widows’, as well as Palestinian women during the Second Intifada.  But until the fall of Mosul, the Islamic State had refrained from the tactic.  Indeed, since June 15th, the only other uses of female suicide bombers were carried out by Boko Haram, the IS-affiliated extremist operating in West Africa.  The group used female suicide bombers in attacks ten times since June 15th.

Why Women?

In January 2004, after years of resistance to the concept, Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin admitted that women were able to reach targets better than men and therefore may act as a useful fallback weapon.  Not only may women not necessarily be seen as much of a threat, but they also may produce a greater psychological effect, utilize the element of surprise, and produce greater publicity.  For instance, an image of a female suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS carrying her child before her attack during the fall of Mosul circulated heavily on news sites and social media.  In regions where more conservative forms of Islamic clothing are more common, the coverings also provide a possible disguise for male suicide bombers.  On July 2nd, 2017, a male suicide bomber targeting an Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camp in Anbar province in Iraq used a conservative female covering to conceal his explosives before detonating the device.  The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed 14 people.

For the women themselves, a role as a suicide bomber can be voluntary or forced.  Some rationale include perceived honor and social status of martyrdom, as well as financial gain.  For example, a young woman recruited to be a suicide bomber for Boko Haram noted that they offered her money and her martyrdom for her role as a bomber.  However, it is often threats rather than incentives, as Boko Haram has been similarly documented abducting women and forcing them into marriages as a way to recruit them into acting as suicide bombers.

The Statistics of Female Suicide Bombers

Regardless of the different motivations for female suicide bombers, the question of whether the theoretical advantages of female suicide bombers materialize in real terrorist attacks is statistically unclear.  To evaluate the comparative lethality of female suicide bombers, we use the data from the Rise To Peace Active Intelligence Database since June 15th.  Looking only at suspected Boko Haram suicide bomb attacks which were verified by two different media sources yields a field of 13 attacks: 10 that involved women and 3 that did not.  The 10 attacks involving women killed a total of 77 people and injured a total of 152, for an average of 7.7 killed and 15.2 injured per attack.  Meanwhile, the 3 attacks without women killed a total of 12 and injured a total of 10, for an average of 4 killed and 3.3 injured per attack.

However, there are two reasons this higher lethality rate is misleading.  First, attacks that involved women had a higher average number of attackers to begin with.  Attacks involving women had an average of 3 attackers while attacks without women had an average of 1.7 attackers.  The second reason why this data is misleading is that while these 10 attacks involved women, they often included both genders.  However, merely breaking down the damage by an individual’s respective contribution is also problematic because attackers often impact each other’s effectiveness.  For example, in a July 23rd attack on an IDP camp in Nigeria, a female bomber was chased by security forces while a male attacker detonated his vest.

Calculating the amount of casualties per attacker for each instance and averaging the per-attacker casualty numbers may provide a more accurate picture.  This simultaneous indexes the attacks for the amount of attackers, but doesn’t so in a way that ignores the ability of bombers to impact each other’s effectiveness in an attack.  The results are shown below:

 

Boko Haram Suicide Bombings involving women
Attack LabelNumber KilledNumber InjuredNumber of attackersPer-Attacker KilledPer-Attacker Injured
06.15.06.201727127
04.18.06.201716753.21.4
03.25.06.201791371.31.9
03.28.06.2017211215.5
01.01.07.20171240.30.5
04.11.07.2017152343.85.8
03.12.07.201712422621
01.17.07.20178181818
08.23.07.2017415227.5
04.28.07.2017814247
Average7.715.233.25.7
Boko Haram Suicide Bombings not involving women
Attack LabelNumber KilledNumber InjuredNumber of attackersPer-Attacker KilledPer-Attacker Injured
01.21.06.2017824N/A
04.03.07.2017410225
06.24.07.201700100
Average43.31.731.7
*All data provided by the Rise To Peace Active Intelligence Database

 

Thus, there seems to be at least a slightly higher amount of average killed and injured per attacker in attacks involving women.  However, the small sample size and other confounding factors preclude a conclusion based on these calculations.

What does this mean?

There are a few important implications of even a possible increase in terrorist lethality from using women in suicide attacks.  First and foremost, the security of women in conflict zones is imperative if attackers believe that kidnapping and forcing women into suicide attacks will grant them a combat advantage.  Especially in situations like Mosul where the desperation of extremists combine with the fog of war, aiding civilians might simultaneously prevent even more horrible tactics by terrorists.  And secondly, the study of these perverse forms of the weaponization of civilians requires more study.  Beyond making sure that they can successfully destroy terrorist groups, policy makers should ensure that they form policy and strategies in ways that prevent or reduce the risk of horrible tactics like forced suicide bombing. A civilian-minded approach to conflict resolution can thus produce dividends on efforts to achieve peace in different areas of the world.

Finding the Root Cause of Youth Extremism

Children and youth populations are the most vulnerable to radicalization and violence all around the world1. Currently, the youth population is the largest the world has ever seen, and the largest sect of this population are in war torn countries. The UN resolution 2250 defined youth as the ages 18 through 29[1]. In summer of 2016, the UN General Assembly hosted a panel discussion with various stakeholders on the drivers of youth extremism1. These various stakeholders identified high rates of unemployment as a principle driver to youth radicalization. Even before the UN resolution was passed, President Barack Obama addresses the UN and pointed to jobless youth as most susceptible to radicalization3.  This hypothesis is the dominant narrative of what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa, where youth unemployment is expected to reach 29% by 2019, which is double the global average[2]. However, the root of the problem is more complicated than just poverty and unemployment. The principle driver of extremism in young populations is rooted in experienced injustice, which is caused by poor or corrupt governance[3].

The Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS and so many other terrorist groups are recruiting and training younger and younger children to fight wars to the death.

In 2015, the organization Mercy Corps used focus group interviews and quantitative studies to conduct a report on youth extremism/political violence in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Columbia. The organization found that employment status has an insignificant impact on whether a young person decides to support or engage in political violence3. For example, while interviewing young men who were previously engaged in jihadist groups, Sharon Curcio, found that many of them left their comfortable lives in Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, and Western Europe to join the movement[1]. Also, according to OCED, countries like Greece and Spain have youth unemployment rates close to 50%[2], yet these countries are not leading in youth radicalization. If there was a linear relationship between unemployment and political violence, these European countries would have the highest rates of extremism from young individuals.  Radicalized groups, however, are established in states that have weak government intuitions, which is why youth radicalization is not prevalent in countries like Greece and Spain. Poverty and unemployment are often a symptom of an unstable government. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to claim poverty as the only cause of young radicalization.

Unemployment is a major issue facing youth today. The youth are frustrated by observed and experienced political corruption and unresponsive government. Why does this injustice impact the youth population more than other demographics? The answer is in the psychological development of young people and just the general search of the purpose that the adolescent population seeks. In comparison to older populations, young citizens have more energy, passion, and the capabilities to make a better life for themselves and their communities[1]. However, when all facets of society fail to provide resources to channel this energy into constructive actions, young people will search elsewhere for sources of purpose. Often times extremist groups offer education, money, shelter, and a sense of purpose their own government has failed to give them. This is why extremist groups are successful in gaining political holds in politically unstable areas.

Frequently extremist’s groups will shape their narrative around youth frustration, and their idealism that pushes them to make a difference. For example, extremist recruiters will repeatedly show videos of suffering women and children refugees and push the narrative that joining the movement would give recruits a chance to alleviate this suffering4.Unfortunately, countries with political instability have the largest youth populations, and this is often referred to the ‘youth bulge’3. Young people usually have the least political power, and inherently are persistently marginalized. Research has shown the lack of representation in government increases young person’s chance of taking up arms by three times3. Recruiters offer guns and violence to solve their problems, instead of peaceful political discourse. This peaceful discourse is not possible with a lack of government or existence of authoritarian government regimes.

Young children of the ISIS fighters in Syria

Recruitment is successful when the youth feels like their skills aren’t being utilized. These groups seemingly offer a ‘constructive’ role in society. A role where the recruits can make their voice heard, and given a noble path to salvation. This is the general message used by groups, like the Taliban, ISIS, and Boko Haram to recruit young people. Generally, the messages are narratives, which claim victory is near for the resistance, and injustice, pain, and suffering will end if one joins the cause6. Recruiters offer jobs such as teaching the Koran, distributing donation money to widows and refugees, helping Muslim comrades fight oppressors against Islam, and a chance to stop the threat to Islam4. These terrorist organizations offer an escape from constant frustration and give a young people who join a sense of identity and belonging they have been searching for3. This tactic is consistent with most extremist groups and is difficult to prevent with modern technology. Groups often use social media platforms and websites to reach younger people. Recently the Islamic State has used social media to lure young girls to join the organization as jihadist brides by portraying the organization as a big family[1]. These accounts and pages get taken down and blocked as quickly as new ones are created.

The first step to solving this problem is finding the true reasoning behind why young people join these organizations. Poverty and unemployment often are rooted in societies that are experiencing political instability or war. Commonly in this fast-paced society, people want to just look at the surface for solutions to problems. It is easy to look at an impoverished country with violence and point to poverty as the cause. The steady increase of youth radicalization is a complex issue that has no simple solution. Poverty alone does not lead someone to join a terrorist organization that uses suicide bombers to push an extreme political agenda. In order to fight extremism, nations need to focus on educating and empowering youth in these unstable areas. They should give them an outlet to express their frustration in a peaceful way. This is easier said than done, but at Rise to Peace we hope to eradicate youth radicalization because everyone should have a say in his or her future choices and to not be lured by basic needs.

Sources:

[1] United Nations. (2015). Security Council, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2250 (2015), Urges Member States to Increase Representation of Youth in Decision-Making at All Levels. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12149.doc.htm

[2] Cronin, S. (2014). Middle East youth jobs crisis “lures recruits to extremism”. The National. Retrieved from http://www.thenational.ae/business/economy/middle-east-youth-jobs-crisis-lures-recruits-to-extremism

[3] Mercy Corps. (2015). Youth & Consequences: Unemployment, Injustice and Violence. Retrieved from https://www.mercycorps.org/research-resources/youth-consequences-unemployment-injustice-and-violence

[4] Curcio, S. (2005). The Dark Side of Jihad: How Young Men Detained at Guantanamo Assess Their Experience. RAND National Security Research Division. Retrieved from http://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR354.html

[5] Unemployment – Youth unemployment rate – OECD Data. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://data.oecd.org/unemp/youth-unemployment-rate.htm

[6] Ahmad, B. (2015). Afghan Youth and Extremists. United States Institute for Peace.  Retrieved from https://www.usip.org/publications/2015/08/afghan-youth-and-extremists

[7] Harvey, D. (2015). How Islamic State extremist use social media to recruit. BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/31574846/how-islamic-state-extremists-use-social-media-to-recruit