The female suicide bomber has become the signature weapon of the Nigerian jihadist group, Boko Haram.
Women have strapped explosives to their bodies in other recent conflicts – from Chechnya to Iraq, from Pakistan to Palestine, from Syria to Sri Lanka – but never at such a rate as in the Boko Haram insurgency.
According to researchers Elizabeth Pearson and Jacob Zenn, more than 200 women suicide bombers have blown themselves up since June 2014, killing more than 1,000 people in Nigeria, and increasingly in neigbouring Cameroon.
Whereas women seemed to have been initially used because they could more easily slip into markets and public places without arousing suspicion, that is no longer the case. Nigerian Defence Headquarters warned last month that female bombers were now disguising themselves as men to evade security.
“People are worried. Most suicide bombers are women aged 10 to 20-something,” Suleiman Aliyu, a headmaster in the northeastern city of Maiduguri told IRIN. “People say one way to identify them is if they have a bulge on their tummy. When you see that, they are stopped and asked to raise up their hands, or squat. Then they explode.”
The use of suicide bombers is often seen as a tactic of last resort, a switch to “asymmetrical warfare” after defeat on the conventional battlefield.
But the first woman to blow herself up, at a checkpoint outside an army barracks in the northern city of Gombe, was at a stage in the conflict where Boko Haram held large swathes of territory and the Nigerian military was on the back foot.
What makes this conflict so remarkable is that women are a plentiful resource and viewed as “extremely dispensable”, says Ryan Cummings, chief security analyst for Africa at the crisis management firm red24.
Abducting women is a longstanding Boko Haram strategy. It emerged in the wake of the Nigerian government’s arrest of the wives of Boko Haram commanders, including the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau. His revenge – beginning in 2013 – initially focused on the kidnapping of Christian women, their sexual exploitation and forced conversion. Muslim women were usually freed; all men were killed.
There seems to be little distinction now. Women and girls are abducted regardless of religion. Raped under the pretext of sham marriages, their abuse is used to build cohesion among the fighters and spread fear in the community, say researchers Mia Bloom and Hilary Matfess.
The 270 plus Chibok girls abducted in 2014 and the 400 women and children taken from Damasak last year are just the well-known cases.
Coerced or committed?
We seem to automatically regard female bombers as coerced – that they cannot act out of their own volition. There is certainly enough evidence to support that view. Young girls, too young for it to be an informed decision, have been dragooned into martyrdom. There have also been reports that some have been remotely detonated by their male accomplices.
But there are cases where women have been active members of the movement – not just cannon fodder, manipulated and fooled.
Pearson points out that in 2014 an alleged “female wing” of recruiters and spies was arrested; women are known to have smuggled weapons; there have been reports of Nigerian soldiers coming under fire from women as they attempted their rescue; and of captive women volunteering for suicide missions.
“It seems to me from the early days of Boko Haram and on, there must be many active and passive women supporters,” Alex Thurston of the African Studies Programme at Georgetown University told IRIN. “Boko Haram couldn’t have functioned without that.”
It’s easy to imagine that the same mix of factors that has motivated male recruits – revenge for security forces excesses, money for the family, and the promise of a spiritual reward in exchange for a grim, disadvantaged present – can also influence women to play a more direct role.
But while some women might be ideologically committed to violent jihad, “there is less evidence of this commitment amongst female suicide bombers,” Pearson wrote.
Bloom and Matfess raise the question of whether women who are victimised can ever be genuinely radicalised. “Whether women related to the insurgents might share the same ideology, goals, and purpose as the men, or whether the women are suffering from severe trauma, causing a form of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’.”
The same question can also be asked of young men who are captured and coerced into fighting: the reasons for such decisions are always complex.
“I don’t think it’s clear cut, and I don’t think we’re any closer to finding out,” Pearson told IRIN.
The data on female suicide bombers comes almost exclusively from press reports. Most of the time we know next to nothing about these women, not even their names or ages. The only exceptions are the few who abandoned their missions or were caught before they reached their intended targets.
And that speaks volumes about how Boko Haram regards its female bombers.
“They have left no videos; their attacks are not claimed; they have no glory,” wrote Pearson. “Women and girls have predominantly struck markets, bus depots and civilian gatherings, rather than higher value targets.”
Boko Haram’s ideology casts men as hyper-masculine fighters, and women as domestic helpers. Shekau’s references to women have often been in terms of symbols and commodities: Boko Haram’s honour lost over the mistreatment of “their” Muslim women; the chilling promise that the Chibok girls would be “sold” in the market.
The ideological underpinnings of Boko Haram – particularly under Shekau – are weak, notes Cummings. In the self-declared caliphate that the insurgency controlled, it seemed rural life carried on as normal. No new radical administration was imposed, nor apparently was there any attempt to justify the most extreme actions of the group, including the use of women and child bombers.
“Such an approach underlines Boko Haram’s lack of interest in rallying local support,” Pearson points out. She suggests that rather than domestic approval, Shekau has looked to win the appreciation of so-called Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to whom he pledged allegiance in 2015.
But whereas IS has a database of its fighters, it can contact loves ones when they are martyred, Boko Haram is organisationally far looser.
“Boko Haram has criminal opportunistic elements; it has ideological fighters; it has forced recruits; it has people whose whole families are utterly committed and have been for years,” says Pearson.
“It’s difficult to accept that this complexity – including the role of men and women – is the story, because we want it to be more simple, and it’s not.”