Think Tank: ‘Disturbingly Large Number of People’ Still Willing to Die for Islamic State

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AP/Jordanian TV

WASHINGTON, DC — The number of individuals willing to commit suicide on behalf of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) has reached alarming levels, dwarfing the “cult of martyrdom” affiliated with its al-Qaeda rival and other jihadist groups, a think tank expert tells a House panel.

Thomas Joscelyn from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) made those comments as the U.S.-led coalition continues to degrade ISIS’s so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Joscelyn testified Thursday alongside other ISIS analysts during a House panel hearing titled “The Terrorist Diaspora: After the Fall of the Caliphate.”

He noted that ISIS averaged an estimated 93 suicide bombings per month in Iraq and Syria in 2016, and so far in 2017, it may be averaging 88 suicide bombings per month.

Joscelyn told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism via written testimony:

The cult of martyrdom has grown. A disturbingly large number of people are willing to kill themselves for the Islamic State’s cause. The number of suicide bombings claimed by the so- called caliphate dwarfs all other jihadist groups, including al Qaeda. In 2016, for instance, the Islamic State claimed 1,112 “martyrdom operations” in Iraq and Syria alone. Through the first six months of 2017, the organization claimed another 527 such bombings (nearly three-fourths of them using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs) in those two countries. These figures do not include suicide attacks in other nations where Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists are known to operate.

Joscelyn, also a senior editor at FDD’s Long War Journal, cited ISIS’s Amaq News Agency as the source for the suicide attack figures, acknowledging that there are some caveats to take into account when evaluating the data.

“It is impossible to verify the Islamic State’s figures with any precision. The fog of war makes all reporting spotty and not every suicide bombing attempt is recorded in published accounts,” conceded the FDD senior fellow, adding:

Some of the claimed “martyrdom operations” likely failed to hit their targets, but were counted by the Islamic State as attacks anyway. Not all “martyrs” are truly willing recruits. For instance, the Islamic State’s figures include numerous children who were pressed into service by Baghdadi’s goons.

“Still, even taking into account these caveats, it is reasonable to conclude that the number of people willing to die for the sake of the so-called caliphate is disturbingly high – much higher than the number of willing martyrs in 2001 or even much more recently,” he declared.

A Breitbart News analysis of Islamic terrorism-linked casualties during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan found that ISIS and its affiliates killed at least 875 people, more than half of the total 1,639 fatalities, and injured 577 others.

That means ISIS averaged about 29 killings and 19 injuries per day during Islam’s holiest month.

Suicide attacks, including a wave in Mosul, fueled many of the ISIS-linked deaths, the data shows.

During Ramadan, Islamic extremists encourage martyrdom and jihad.

“These suicide bombers have been mainly used to defend Islamic State positions, including the city of Mosul, which was one of the self-declared caliphate’s two capitals,” testified Joscelyn. He added:

For instance, half of the “martyrdom operations” carried out in Iraq and Syria this year (265 of the 527 claimed) took place in Nineveh province, which is home to Mosul. The “martyrs” were dispatched with increasing frequency after the campaign to retake the city began in October 2016, with 501 claimed suicide bombings in and around Mosul between then and the end of June 2017.

“To put the Islamic State’s current ‘martyrdom operations’ in perspective, consider data published by the Washington Post in 2008. According to the Post, there were just 54 suicide attacks in all of 2001, when al Qaeda’s ‘martyrs’ launched the most devastating terrorist airline hijackings in history,” he added. “The Islamic State currently eclipses that figure every month in Iraq and Syria, averaging 93 suicide bombings per month in 2016 and 88 per month so far in 2017. Many of these operations are carried out by foreign fighters.”

ISIS has suffered significant losses in the caliphate capitals of Mosul and Raqqa, considered the group’s last major strongholds in Iraq and Syria, respectively. U.S.-backed local forces have declared Mosul to be liberated from the jihadist group, though the group remains a threat in Iraq.

Meanwhile, U.S.-backed forces in Syria are closing in on ISIS in Raqqa.

In his written testimony, Robin Simcox from the Heritage Foundation think tank pointed out that returning foreign fighters pose a grave and long-term risk to the West as the ISIS caliphate unravels.

Some experts, including Katherine Zimmerman from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), told a different House panel Thursday that the U.S.-led coalition’s primary focus on ISIS has allowed al-Qaeda to flourish, primarily in Syria.

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