Afghanistan: Messengers Of Death – Analysis


By Sanchita Bhattacharya

Through July and August 2011, war-ravaged Afghanistan witnessed a succession of gruesome suicide bombings, and the trend demonstrates every sign of continuing. In the latest of such attacks, on September 4, 2011, at least two security guards of a private security company were killed and 21 civilians were wounded, after a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside the company’s compound in southern Kandahar Province.

On August 28, 2011, three civilians (a woman and her two children) were injured when Taliban suicide bombers struck at a US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) reconstruction team in Qalat, the capital of Zabul Province. The intended targets remained unharmed. On August 27, in three separate suicide attacks, two in Kandahar City and one in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, seven people were killed and another 43 were injured. On August 19, 12 people were killed in a suicide attack on the British Council building in Kabul. On August 13, six suicide bombers targeting the Parwan Province Governor Abdul Basir Salangi, in an attack at Charikan, the provincial capital, killed 22 and injured 34, including 16 Government employees. The Governor, however, escaped unhurt. On August 2, four people were killed and 10 were injured in a suicide attack in the Northern Province of Kunduz.

On July 27, 2011 the Mayor of Kandahar City, Ghulam Haider Hamidi was killed by a suicide bomber, along with one civilian, while another civilian and a security guard were injured in the attack. On July 17, Jan Mohammad Khan, top aide of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai was killed in Kabul.

Member of Parliament (MP) Mohammad Hashim Watanwal and a member of the Afghan Police anti-terrorism unit also died in the attack. On July 13, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside Sara Mosque in Kandahar City, killing Mawlawi Hektmatullah Hekmat, the head of religious council of Kandahar and four others.

Significantly, despite 30 years of warfare, Afghanistan had never experienced a suicide attack until September 9, 2001, when the Northern Alliance Commander Ahmad Shah Masood was assassinated at Khwaja Bahauddin in Takhar Province, by two Arab al Qaeda suicide bombers. With this event, Afghanistan was thrust into a new chapter of armed conflict, though suicide bombing came into prominence only after mid-2005.

Since 2005, Afghanistan has experienced a steady escalation in suicide bombing fatalities, as recruits from poor, under-educated or uneducated backgrounds, often recruited from madrassas (religious seminaries), are recruited and trained by a multiplicity of terrorist organisations, many at bases in Pakistan. The principal architect of the initial upsurge was senior Taliban ‘commander’ Mullah Dadullah alias Dadullah Akhund, who targeted Afghan and Western troops in Southern Afghanistan. Though Dadullah was killed in a raid by International Security Assistance Force troops in Kandahar City on May 12, 2007, the trend of suicide bombings continues to terrorise Afghanistan.

According to partial data collected by the Institute for Conflict Management from open sources, there have been 735 suicide attacks since September 9, 2001, killing at least 3,753 people.


No. of Suicide Attacks


Source:ICM Data, compiled from Media Reports, *Data till September 4, 2011

Out of the total of 735 suicide strikes, 34 have been ‘major’, resulting in three or more fatalities, over a period of 11 years. The most significant of these incidents include:

June 25, 2011: 35 people were killed and 13 injured due to a suicide blast in a hospital in the Azra District of Logar Province.

March 14, 2011: A suicide bomber attacked an Army base in Kunduz Province, killing at least 37 people and injuring 40.

February 21, 2011: 33 people were killed and 41 were injured in a suicide attack at the Central Census Department of Imam Sahib District of Kunduz Province.

June 9, 2010: 40 people were killed and 72 were injured in a suicide attack by an 18 year old boy in Arghandab District of Kandahar Province.

August 25, 2009: 46 people were killed and 60 injured in a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) suicide blast in the commercial and residential area of Kandahar City.

February 11, 2009: A number of Taliban fighters, including suicide bombers, storm two Government buildings, including the Justice Ministry, across the Presidential Palace at Kabul City, killing more than 20 and injuring nearly 50 people.

February 2, 2009: A suicide bomber killed 21 Afghan Police personnel and injured seven inside a training center for Police reservists in the town of Tarin Kot in Uruzgan Province.

July 7, 2008: 58 people were killed in a suicide car bomb attack outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

February 17, 2008: 67 people were killed in the Arghandab District of Kandahar, in a suicide attack. The dead included Abdul Hakim Jan, a prominent leader of the Alokozai tribe and the commander of the Arghandab District’s contingent of the [now discontinued] Afghan National Auxiliary Police (ANAP).

November 6, 2007: A bomber blew himself up when a Parliamentary delegation visited a sugar factory in Northern Baghlan Province, killing 74 people. Six Parliamentarians, including Mustafa Kazimi, who headed the Parliament’s Economics Committee and was a former Government Commerce Minister, were killed.

September 29, 2006: A suicide bomber blew himself up inside a bus packed with Afghan Army officers, killing 30 people, including six civilians.

Suicide missions in Afghanistan have targeted the ISAF and Afghan Military, the Afghan Police, as well as softer targets such as Government leaders, politicians, Government workers and community leaders. Civilian casualties have also risen dramatically. According to United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) data, in the year 2011, 49 per cent of a total of 1,462 civilian fatalities were a result of suicide attacks. Out of the country’s 34 Provinces, the worst affected were Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Khost in the South, and Kabul, Paktika, Nangarhar and Kunar in the East. The Central Province of Uruzgan, the Northern Provinces of Takhar and Kunduz, and the western Provinces of Farah and Herat, bordering Iran, have also been affected by suicide attacks.

The numerous armed opposition groups operating in Afghanistan, collectively referred to as Anti-Government Elements (AGEs) have been involved in these suicide attacks. AGEs include the Taliban under the leadership of Mullah Omar; Hezb-i-Islami or the Haqqani Network, headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; and al Qaeda affiliates such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). The cadres executing the suicide strikes have included Afghan and Pakistani nationals, Afghan refugees settled in Pakistan, as well as Uzbeks, Tajiks and some elements from a number of Arab countries. The principal modus operandi has been the use of Body-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (BBIED), Remote Controlled Improvised Explosive Devices (RCIED) and VBIEDs.

Pakistan’s menacing proximity and strategic overreach into Afghanistan underpins the trend of suicide attacks (as, indeed, the wider insurgency and terrorism) in Afghanistan. UNAMA’s Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Mid-Year Report, 2011, mentions that, on May 7, 2011, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) in Afghanistan arrested five boys between the ages of 13 and 14, who confessed that they had undergone training in Peshawar, the Provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, to carry out suicide attacks. An earlier UNAMA Report, Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan (2001-2007), observed that, without dedicated efforts to eradicate the recruitment drive in Pakistan’s Pashtun belt, it would be difficult to reduce the supply of suicide attackers, or to deter the groups who deploy them. Pakistan’s tribal areas, especially the North and South Waziristan Agencies, remain the crucial arena where recruitment and training for suicide attackers, as well as the furnishing of explosives and equipment, are concentrated. Significantly, on August 30, 2011, Afghan President Hamid Karzai released eight children groomed by Taliban insurgents to become suicide bombers, the youngest of them just seven years old.

On August 25, 2011, US Army Major General Daniel Allyn, Commanding General of the Regional Command, East (Afghanistan), thus expressed serious concern over the continued smuggling of ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient in bomb making, from Pakistan, into its strife-torn neighbour. Allyn stated, “In fact, Afghan Uniform Police (the principal civil law enforcement agency in the country) this past week conducted two independent operations responding to intelligence from their own sources, and captured two different shipments totaling over 5,750 kilograms of ammonium nitrate”. Along with ethnic bonding between Pashtuns on both sides of the AfPak border, innumerable Pakistani madrassas, thriving on Islamist propaganda and ‘hate literature’, and covert support from Pakistani state agencies, act as catalysts to violence and suicide bombings in Afghanistan.

Surprisingly, the Taliban’s 2010 ‘Code of Conduct’, in paragraph 57 on suicide attacks, imposes a requirement to avoid civilian casualties. Earlier, in July 2009, Mullah Omar had issued a previous ‘code of conduct’, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Rules for Mujahideen”, for Afghan Taliban in the form of a book with 13 chapters and 67 articles for distribution to Taliban forces. The earlier code also called on Taliban fighters to win over the civilian population and avoid civilian casualties, and included exhortations to limit the use of suicide attacks to important targets and set down guidelines for abductions.

Moreover, the Afghanistan National Ulema Shurah issued a fatwa in March 2011, condemning the killing of civilians in both air strikes by the ISAF and in suicide attacks by AGEs. Nevertheless, deaths from suicide attacks continue to rise. In 2011 (till September 2), suicide attacks have already resulted in at least 1019 civilian casualties, including 329 fatalities. In addition, IEDs caused another 1,272 civilian casualties, including 450 deaths. In addition, 421 ISAF, 101 Afghan National Army (ANA) and 189 Afghan National and Local Police personnel have already been killed in 2011 – a large proportion of them in suicide attacks.

Evidently, the implementation of the various codes, edicts and fatwas is far from stringent.

The impact of suicide bombings on the civilian population extends far beyond the sepcific victims of these attacks, creating a lasting climate of fear throughout affected and unaffected communities alike. Suicide attacks have emerged as one of the most devastating terrorist tactics in Afghanistan, distorting public perceptions about the Government’s and the international community’s capacities to protect Afghans. These incidents have also attracted widespread international media attention, even when the attacker manages to kill only himself. As the supply lines of Ishtihadis (persons with a strong desire to attain bahisht, paradise, through martyrdom) are sustained by the perverse cocktail of religious fanaticism, extremist politics and regional strategic intent, Afghanistan can only look to bloodier times in the foreseeable future.

Sanchita Bhattacharya
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management


SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).

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