Female bombers as Boko Haram’s new weapon

After different attacks these past two years the international community has to face the facts : Boko Haram is now using girls as suicide bombers.


Boko Haram is well-known for being one of the world’s deadliest extremist groups. The name "Boko Haram" is usually translated as "Western education is forbidden". This Nigeria-based group seeks to overthrow the current Nigerian Government; it wants to replace it with a regime based on the laws of Sharia. Their military campaign began in northern Nigeria in 2009, even if the group was created in 2002. The conflict has since spread to neighboring states.Their ultimate goal is to create a caliphate, an Islamic State ruled by a Caliph, and they have pledged allegiance to self-proclaimed ISIS in March 2015.

Boko Haram as a terrorist organization

The group was classified as a terrorist organization by the Security Council of The United Nations in 2014. Boko Haram’s hallmark is extreme violence: suicide bombings, mass murder, destruction of villages, towns, churches, markets, and schools. They massively kill civilians and forcefully conscript young men and boys. According to the UN, “The conflict in northeast Nigeria, including Boko Haram attacks, has in recent years forced more than 2.5 million people to flee their homes, including more than 2.1 million displaced within the country. About 10 per cent live in camps and the rest with host families”.
This group is nevertheless best known for the large abduction of women and girls. The ONG Human Rights Watch estimates that 2000 of them were abducted since 2009. Christians and students are the main targets of Boko Haram’s abductions. The international community was especially moved on April 14th 2014, by the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok.

The captives are forced to marry Boko Haram fighters, raped and converted to Islam. They are deprived of receiving any education other than the one given by Boko Haram’s fighters which is reduced to Sharia laws.

A new concern

A recent New York Times article exposes another concern about the fate of these girls: they are turned into terrorists. The United Nations estimates that at least 105 women and girls were used by the group to carry out suicide attacks since June 2014. According to some testimonies, the girls are taught the art of suicide bombing in a few steps. First, they are taught Boko Haram’s version of Islam which blends the study of the Quran with violence. They have classes about suicide bombing and beheading. Their abductors told them that being a suicide bomber is the only path for them to go to heaven. Most of the captive girls and women who are executing these orders and killing people are afraid, indoctrinated and have nothing to lose. Sometimes, they are brave enough to give up and run away. In northeastern Nigeria in February, for example, Boko Haram sent three girls to bomb a camp of displaced Nigerians fleeing the group. Two of the girls detonated the explosives, resulting in nearly 60 casualties. The third girl however threw her explosives in the bush after having spotted her parents inside the camp. Some other girls were able to drop the bomb and run to the authorities which was helpful as they gave information about Boko Haram and their captives.
Using girls as terrorists is not “something you can defeat or eradicate outright”, according to Issa Tchiroma Bakary - the minister of communications in Cameroon, where 22 female suicide bombers have been identified since the start of this year. “They know where we have the Achilles’ heel”. Obviously, soldiers cannot open fire on girls walking in public spaces under the pretext that they are carrying a bomb under their clothes.
Indeed, female bombers are ideal weapons in many ways. The security guards check on them with less assiduity than when they check on men, as they look more vulnerable and are generally not directly involved in terrorist attacks. Also, it is “easy” for them to hide bombs under dresses or religious gowns.

Authorities still don’t really know why women are carrying out these suicide operations. Have these women been radicalized, terrorized or traumatized?  Many experts on Boko Haram said women have been brainwashed or are “simply unaware that the devices they are carrying can kill them”. Leila Zerrougui, the United Nations special representative on children and armed conflict, cautioned that “little was known about their motivations, and to what extent the girls had been coerced to blow themselves up”.

The lack of action of the international community

The international community is helpless in front of this phenomenon. “As long as the economic and territorial conflict in northern Nigeria is not resolved, it is feared that this phenomenon will continue” according Fatima Lahnait, a French analyst. Nigeria government has to make sure its military force has the capacity to dismantle the group to prevent the terrorist attacks from going on. As the United Nations keep repeating that the group needs to be fought and the girls liberated, it seems that the international community does not have a concrete strategy to help the Nigerian government to get through this.
Some girls who escaped or had their freedom negotiated told Human Rights Watch the horror of what they lived. If the international community does not know how to stop the abductions, it could at least help the girls who got liberated to recover and rebuild their lives. Specialists acknowledge these victims’ needs such as justice, information about how to access medical care and psychological assistance. As the Nigerian government is expected to provide these girls with the necessary resilient measures, we could also hope that the international community would get more involved. The UN Security Council or international jurisdictions should attempt to hold Boko Haram fighters and leaders accountable for their actions, and to offer more help in the reinsertion programs that these girls undoubtedly need.

Sophie Grobet, research assistant at CIPADH


France 24 : Boko Haram : "J'ai enlevé les filles et je vais les vendre", 06.05.2014
Le figaro.fr : Les jeunes filles enlevées par Boko Haram racontent leur calvaire, 27.10.2014
Le Monde : Nigeria : l'armée annonce la libération de 234 femmes et enfants otages de Boko Haram, 02.05.2015
The New York Times : Boko Haram Turns Female Captives Into Terrorists, 07.04.2016
The New York Times : Nigeria Vexed by Boko Haram’s Use of Women as Suicide Bombers, 11.02.2016