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18 killed in suicide attacks in northeastern Nigeria

At least 18 people were killed in coordinated suicide bombings on a wedding, hospital, and a funeral in Nigeria’s northeastern town of Gwoza at the weekend.

The attacks, carried out by female bombers, are believed to have been ordered by the jihadist group Boko Haram.

In the first explosion, the attacker detonated her device in the middle of wedding celebrations with a baby strapped to her back. It was followed minutes later by a blast at the town’s general hospital, and a final detonation targeting mourners of the wedding attack.

Some Nigerian media reports put the cumulative death toll at more than 30, mostly women, with scores injured.

Gwoza, on the Cameroon border, is close to the Mandara mountains – one of two remaining strongholds of Boko Haram, officially known as Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awatiwal-Jihad (JAS).

JAS suffered a major setback in 2021 when its leader, Abubaker Shekau, was killed in an attack launched by rival so-called Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP). Thousands of JAS militants subsequently surrendered to the Nigerian military.

However, two key JAS figures, Bakura Doro – now the overall JAS leader based in the northern Lake Chad region – and Aliyu Ngulde, the commander in the Mandara mountains, chose to fight on. They have refused to either join ISWAP, or hand themselves over to the authorities.

The Gwoza suicide bombings – the first since 2020 – are a public signal that marks the resurgence of JAS, some analysts believe. Using women, a tactic pioneered by JAS from 2014, not only raises the group’s terror profile, but also suggests that Ngulde is training – or coercing – more women as bombers in the Mandara mountains.

Women suicide bombers had been a signature weapon of the group in attacks on urban targets in Borno State, including markets and displacement camps. Explosive belts could be hidden under robes and hijabs, and the large number of women abducted by JAS provided a ready pool to recruit from. A study found that JAS utilised more female suicide bombers than any other group in history.

Bombing a wedding celebration is also a return to form for an austere and intolerant JAS. It claims its attacks on fellow Muslims as justified, labelling those who have not joined the group “infidels”, and therefore legitimate targets.

Despite repeated offensives, the Nigerian military has failed to secure the countryside and contain the almost 15-year-old jihadist insurgency. The violence has forced more than 1.5 million people to abandon their rural homes in Borno State.

The state government has responded with the controversial closure of all displacement camps in the capital, Maiduguri, forcing people back to the countryside – despite the lack of security an overstretched army can provide.

For more, read our recent report on the impact of forced returns on the lives of displaced people:

Internally displaced people gather to fill their buckets at the water point in Muna Garage IDP camp in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria October 23, 2022.

In northeast Nigeria, those who fled conflict are being returned to conflict

The Borno resettlement programme has been criticised for using vulnerable displaced people as a means to achieve counter-insurgency goals.

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