Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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Female suicide bombers as victims of Boko Haram Insurgency 08 Nov 2017

After the declaration of “technical” victory over Boko Haram by President Muhammadu Buhari in December 2016, the jihadist group remains lethal and destructive. Last month, at least 15 Nigerian soldiers were killed in two separate attacks. Four military personnel were killed during an attack on an army convoy along the Damboa-Maiduguri road on October 18. On the night of October 24, the terrorist group attacked a military base near Damaturu, Yobe State, killing at least one officer and 10 soldiers.
Boko Haram reverted to guerrilla warfare as its formidable operational tactic following a bolstered counterinsurgency that took back territories formerly captured by the group. But the reason Boko Haram's strikes against security forces and civilian populations have been quite effective is the group's use of children, especially young girls to carry out suicide bombings.

As Boko Haram modified its tactical portfolio to include car bombings and suicide attacks, the group conducted its first suicide bombing on April 8, 2011, at the office of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Suleja, Niger State. The attack killed the male suicide bomber and eight National Youth Service Corps members. Three years later, the militants started deploying women for suicide missions. Since then, no terrorist group in history has used as many female suicide bombers as Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in March 2015.

The fact that Boko Haram has favoured women for suicide missions more than any other militant group in history was first reported by Stratfor, a global geopolitical intelligence outfit, in October 2015. This finding was corroborated by the United States military academy's Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, in its own report published in August 2017. According to the CTC report, Boko Haram has deployed 434 suicide bombers, of whom 244 or 56.2% were identified as female. The proportion of Boko Haram female bombers has risen to 64.5% in 2017. This data outstrips the global average of 15% women suicide bombers used by most terrorist groups over the last 30 years.

In normalising the use of women and children as suicide bombers, UNICEF said more than 110 children have been used as suicide bombers so far, this year – at least 76 of them are girls, most of whom were under 15 years old. The youngest of these bombers was a 7-year-old girl involved in a suicide attack last year in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital that is also the stronghold of the insurgency.

The economic and social costs of Boko Haram's eight-year insurgency are staggering. While the economic cost is not easily quantifiable, the social toll has been tracked somewhat. Since 2011, 35,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. Moreover, close to two million people across the four countries have been displaced by the war.

Another dimension of the relentless bombings is that residents of the northeast region, particularly Borno State, have become afraid of their own girls, according to a report that was published by the New York Times on October 25. The Times story features interviews with 18 girls who had been sent on suicide missions but were brave enough to defy the jihadist group by refusing to blow themselves up.

Fatima, a 16-year-old girl said, “I didn't want a situation where I'm the reason anyone dies.” Her age-mate, Hadiza, who also spoke with Dionne Searcey, the Time's West Africa bureau chief, recalled a tale of a 12-year-old girl who was sent on a suicide mission with her. The younger girl said she would go away from the crowd and detonate the bomb because she didn't want to kill anybody along with herself.

“Every one of the 18 had a narrative worthy of a dissertation on the horrors of war,” wrote Searcey, who has reported for the paper on the war for two years. The girls were lucky to have survived to tell their stories. They approached and got assistance from soldiers, relatives and other civilians who safely removed the explosive belts strapped around their waists. Sadly, some other women and girls who attempted to hand themselves over were misunderstood and wrongly killed by soldiers who thought they were hostiles.

Through their defiance, these girls and many others who have escaped Boko Haram captivity have saved countless lives. Their stories also disprove the wildly-held notion that female suicide bombers are willing participants. The stereotype of the women and children demographic being easily brainwashed by the terrorist group and their susceptibility to Boko Haram's recruitment efforts is hereby debunked.

What is true, however, is that in most cases, women and girls are not only victims of terrorism, having watched their own family members being killed. They are also at risk of being used against their will to carry out suicide attacks against other civilian soft targets.  

According to UNICEF, at least 2,000 women and girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since 2012. The militants clearly have a culture of violence against women. Therefore, the media counter-terror campaign in the northeast region should have the right mix of seeking protection for women and girls, instead of the current practice of portraying them as people to be approached with suspicion.

The girls who have returned from captivity must not be greeted by mistrust and persecution. Rather, they should be given adequate social protection to support their education and help them achieve their dreams.

The traditional boubou garments worn by women in the region is one of the functional reasons for Boko Haram's gender preference for women suicide bombers. They can hide explosives in the dresses and easily slip through security cracks. Nevertheless, the ongoing counter-terrorism should include rules of engagement that reduce the risk of wrongly killing innocent women and girls at checkpoints. What various studies have proved is that the female suicide bombers are victims of the Boko Haram's mindless campaign of death.