Who Are Boko Haram's Female Suicide Bombers?
28 Aug 2015
Boko Haram is increasingly relying on young girls as human bombs. Who are these girls and why do they carry out these attacks, asks Emily Mellgard.
Since June 2014, Nigeria has suffered more than 30 suicide bombings carried out by women and, increasingly, young girls. This includes the explosions in Damaturu, Yobe state on 26 August, one of which was carried out by a teenage girl. Another teenager blew herself up in a northern Cameroonian town over the weekend of 24-25 August, killing at least 10 people, and an attack at a crowded market in Yobe state's capital in Nigeria, killing at least 14 people.
Female suicide bombers responsible for nearly half of recent Boko Haram victims.
Many people blame these attacks on Boko Haram, though the group has not claimed them. But it is likely that Boko Haram, or independent supporters, are behind the introduction of female suicide bombers (FSBs) to Nigeria. Between May and mid-August 2015 for instance, FSBs were responsible for roughly half of the deaths blamed on the group. The tactic fits with the organisation's evolution and the timing, targets, and area of operation. But given that suicide is traditionally forbidden in Islam and suicide bombing was unknown in Nigeria and West Africa until recently, why have FSBs emerged?
Boko Haram uses FSBs because they are effective. Female dress in northern Nigeria is predominantly concealing. The burqa (a full body and face covering) and niqab (a full body covering) are common. These make it relatively easy to conceal explosive and weapons.
It is also culturally and religiously unacceptable for an unrelated male to touch or sometimes even communicate with women or girls, which makes it difficult to search them at checkpoints, and uncomfortable to question them. This makes FSBs more effective than male suicide bombers. Anti-Boko Haram vigilante groups in the northeast have begun to specifically man checkpoints with women to counter this.
Over the past two decades there has been an evolution in jihadi thought on the role of women and girls in the struggle. Whereas previously women's jihadi role was limited to assisting men, many groups, including ISIS, now advocate women as having an equal obligation to wage jihad, though they are still rarely seen on the battlefield.
Girls in northern Nigeria simultaneously remain predominantly subservient to males. Many continue to be married before they are 18 and literacy rates for girls across the north are under 20 per cent, making them easier targets. The youngest girl to be used as a FSB is suspected of being as young as ten. At that age, a person cannot make an informed decision about such a drastic act.
There have been a number of attacks, some thwarted, with indications of coercion. In July 2014 an explosive-laden 10 year-old girl was picked up at a checkpoint with her 18 year-old sister and an older man. Security officials believe they were there to ensure the girl went through with the attack, which was prevented. In another incident in January 2015 explosives attached to a girl detonated at a checkpoint. Witnesses say it was likely remotely detonated and the girl may not have known what was happening. In another instance, a girl turned herself into the police rather than detonate the explosives strapped to her, saying she didn't want to die. There is evidence that another girl, aged 13, was pressured into agreeing to an attack by her father.
The youngest female suicide bomber may have been 10 years old.
Some FSBs, however, are genuinely committed to the Boko Haram cause. Some rescued Boko Haram hostages report women playing an active role in camp, even carrying out executions of other hostages. Boko Haram has also existed for long enough that children of early members are now teenagers, possibly indoctrinated with Boko Haram's ideology from birth.
The first confirmed FSBs were carried out three months after more than two hundred schoolgirls were kidnapped from Chibok. This kidnapping was the first Boko Haram attack that captured sustained international media attention. Speculation that the FSBs were these 'Chibok girls' kept the group in the media spotlight, giving it unprecedented international infamy. Such attention projects an image of strength and invulnerability and likely draws recruits domestically and regionally.
Boko Haram has therefore found a tactic that is effective because it is horrific. The use of children as human bombs is incomprehensible in a security environment that does not consider women and children to be combatants, allowing them to move undetected. Evidence from the scenes of explosions, failed missions, and testimony from former hostages indicates ignorance, coercion, financial reward, and even genuine commitment to the cause as reasons for FSBs. Media attention highlights the group's attacks, but it also provides a platform to promote its ideology and – what it considers to be – accomplishments. Yet greater awareness of the issue may remove the advantage that the tactic brings the group.
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