Female suicide bombers: Boko Haram’s weapon of choice
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On Sunday, February 22, a 7-year-old girl in the northeastern Nigerian town of Potiskum was stopped by suspicious security guards and vigilantes as she tried to enter a busy market.
The girl was young, all alone, and had no business entering the market, a local vigilante leader told the UK daily, the Guardian. But that did not stop her. Minutes later, she tried to slip under the ropes a few metres away from the market entrance. That’s when the explosives strapped on the 7-year-old detonated. At least six people, including the suicide bomber, were killed.
Sunday’s suicide bombing was the latest in a string of attacks by women and girls in Nigeria. A week earlier, a female suicide bomber attacked a crowded bus station in Damaturu, around 100 kilometres east of Potiskum, killing seven people and wounding 32 others. On January 10, a bomb exploded at a market in Maiduguri, capital of the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, leaving 20 dead and 18 wounded.
Women have become the new weapon of war for Nigerian-based jihadist group, Boko Haram.
Almost every week, Nigerian females -- many of them teenagers, some as young as seven -- sow death in market places, bus stations and checkpoints at the cost of their own lives.
Boko Haram’s first female suicide attack occurred on June 8, 2014, when a middle-aged woman riding a motorcycle toward a military barracks in the northeastern city of Gombe was stopped at a checkpoint, where she detonated her explosives, killing a soldier. The attack caught experts by surprise and shocked most Nigerians.
Nearly nine months later, the practice seems almost entrenched.
“We thought women would be used occasionally, but it has become a strategy put in place by the militant group to thwart security," said Emmanuel Igah, a Nigeria expert and director of Paris-based consulting firm, Phobos International. Women arouse less suspicion among security officials and typically do not attract the same level of scrutiny as young men.
‘A first’ for Africa
The hijab worn by most women in the Muslim-dominated northeastern states, where sharia law is applied, can also easily hide bombs and explosives. In November 2014, two women dressed in full hijab entered a busy Maiduguri market and detonated explosives, killing 45 people. One of the suicide bombers, a 20-year-old woman, had a bomb secured to her back just as women traditionally carry their children in the region.
But following a spate of attacks by women, vigilance has increased in recent months, forcing some women to abandon the full hijab for fear of being mistaken for terrorists.
The use of female suicide bombers by militant groups is not a new phenomenon, but it’s a relatively rare one. The Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers used female suicide bombers in some of their most high-profile attacks, including the 1989 killing of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Kurdish Marxist-Leninist PKK also used them during the height of the 1990s insurgency in Turkey, and Chechen rebels have employed “Black Widows” -- women seeking to avenge the killings of their relatives by Russian forces.
“In Africa, it’s a first,” explained Fatima Lahnait, a researcher at the London-based Institute for Statecraft, noting that women participated in the 1950s anti-colonial war in Algeria, and that they have also fought in Uganda, South Africa and Sierra Leone. "But they were fighters who viewed their role in the conflict as a matter of empowerment, which is not the case in Nigeria," said Lahnait.
Examining the motives
While the motivations of suicide bombers have long attracted the interest of experts, it is particularly so in the case of females. In Nigeria, though, it’s particularly hard to figure out if the women acted under duress or if they were ideologically motivated enough to volunteer themselves, since Nigerian female suicide bombers have not left any pre-mission statements or messages.
However, the existing evidence suggests that most have acted under duress.
In the case of Sunday’s suicide bombing in Potiskum, for instance, there’s no question of ideological motivation: getting a 7-year-old girl to kill herself is without doubt an act of coercion.
Many experts believe a number of Boko Haram’s suicide bombers are enticed, primarily from the ranks of street children in Africa’s most populous nation. "In northern Nigeria, with poverty and polygamy, there are a number of children whose families cannot take care of them. Many of them are recruited by the group in exchange for shelter and are sent into action," said Igah.
‘Then I was handed a knife’
Then there are those who are simply abducted by Boko Haram. According to an October 2014 Human Rights Watch report, more than 500 women and girls had been abducted since the insurgency broke out in 2009.
A wave of deadly suicide bombings by mostly teenage girls in July 2014 in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria, sparked widespread alarm amid rumors that Boko Haram was using the schoolgirls kidnapped in April 2014 from the village of Chibok as human bombs. But there has been no evidence that the Chibok schoolgirls were used in suicide operations.
There are accounts of Boko Haram’s hostages being forced to participate in military operations. A 19-year-old girl captured by the militant group told Human Rights Watch that she was initially made to cook for a 14-man group before she was taken along for an operation. “I was told to hold the bullets and lie in the grass while they fought. They came to me for extra bullets as the fight continued during the day,” she explained.
The escaped hostage then recounted how she was ordered to lure a group of civilian vigilantes fighting Boko Haram, known as the JTF (Joint Task Force). She obeyed and the JTF fighters were duly captured. “Once we got back to the camp, they tied the legs and hands of the captives and slit the throats of four of them as they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Then I was handed a knife to kill the last man. I was shaking with horror and couldn’t do it. The camp leader’s wife took the knife and killed him,” the teenager told Human Rights Watch.
High propaganda value
In July 2014, a Nigerian military spokesman announced that Boko Haram had formed a women's branch -- believed to number in the hundreds -- with two objectives: spying and recruiting wives for the fighters.
The motivations of these women are multiple. Indoctrinated women or widows of Boko Haram fighters killed by the Nigerian forces are persuaded to “seek martyrdom” for "the cause of God”.
For others, there are more pragmatic considerations, said Igah, noting that Boko Haram has the resources to support the families of suicide bombers. For instance, in the case of Boko Haram’s first-ever suicide bombing in Nigeria -- a 2011 attack on the police headquarters in the national capital of Abuja -- Boko Haram is believed to have offered the male suicide bomber the equivalent of more than $24,000 dollars for the operation, according to media reports.
Observers fear that the use of female suicide bombers is likely to continue. "As long as the economic and territorial conflict in northern Nigeria is not resolved, it is feared that this phenomenon will continue,” said Lahnait. “The group needs to perform high profile acts to instill terror.” There’s little doubt that when it comes to female militants, the propaganda value of women, the bearers of life, turning into emissaries of death, is particularly high.
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