It’s just after midday when men gather in a crowded mosque in northeastern Nigeria for Friday prayer. Just down the emptied road, a young girl of about fifteen walks forward. Trembling, she approaches her instructed destination – the mosque. She pulls a small lever on her belt and suddenly triggers an explosion. Since 2011, Boko Haram, the ISIS-affiliated militant group located in northern Nigeria, has killed more than 30,000 people in Nigeria and neighboring countries and displaced 2.1 million. Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa dialect, seeks to institute Sharia law throughout the region and uses whatever means necessary—even young female bombers—to achieve its goal.
Since its founding in 2002, Boko Haram has wreaked havoc through a wave of bombings, assassinations, abductions, and most recently, the use of female suicide bombers. Located in the northeastern region of Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, Boko Haram controls an area mostly populated by the Kanuri ethnic group, who maintain a firm anti-Western mentality and supply the majority of Boko Haram fighters. In April 2014, Boko Haram drew international attention by abducting more than 250 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok; a rural Nigerian village located deep in the Boko Haram-controlled territory of Borno State. The jihadist group offered the girls a choice: join the militants or become their slaves. About half of them chose to join and were taken away, never to be heard from again. The widespread condemnation of this kidnapping was a turning point for the group’s leaders, who discovered that the victims’ gender and youth directly correlated with the increased global attention.
In August 2016, Boko Haram split and announced that Abu Musab al-Barnawi would take over as the new leader. Since the shift in leadership, the group’s fighters launched an increased number of suicide bombings against tactical locations such as military barracks, universities, and hospitals. According to UNICEF, “more than 110 children have been used as suicide bombers since the start of 2017 – at least 76 of them girls. Most were under fifteen years old.” A report released in August 2017 by West Point shows that Boko Haram has now set a record for deploying more female bombers than any other terrorist group in history. The relentless string of bombings has cast a shadow of distrust and terror over northeastern Nigeria and many people mention their fear of women at checkpoints, in crowded areas, and in mosques. Soldiers and civilians are on high alert for anyone suspicious, “and usually that means any women or girl, most of whom wear long head scarves and garments that could cover an explosive belt.” Mistaken killings continue to increase. In the last three months of 2016 alone, the UN reported that thirteen children from ages eleven to seventeen were killed after being wrongly identified as suicide bombers.
In response to the widespread attacks, the Nigerian government has worked with the international community to guard against future bombings and to take down Boko Haram for good. Under Article Three common to the four Geneva Conventions, an impartial humanitarian body may, in certain circumstances, intervene to prevent “an armed conflict not of international character.” Article Three and customary international law regulate instances where the international community may provide protection to civilian victims of non-international hostilities such as the one between Nigerian forces and Boko Haram. Accordingly, international efforts are in effect to prevent the launch of future attacks. In 2017, the UN Security Council adopted resolutions condemning Boko Haram’s numerous terrorist attacks and strongly encouraged local governments to “enhance military cooperation, and to move vigorously and decisively to cut funding flows to individuals, groups….and entities on the ISIL Sanctions List, including Boko Haram.” Additionally, the Security Council urged regional governments to implement policies that promote defections from Boko Haram and ISIL and to de-radicalize and reintegrate those who had defected. The enhanced military cooperation is also supported by humanitarian efforts from non-governmental actors. UNICEF continues to work with the Nigerian military and employs humanitarian workers in the region to help rescue the thousands of children and women still under Boko Haram’s dominance. Efforts from both Nigerian governmental forces and the international community have helped retake Boko Haram-controlled territory and have brought increased attention to the ongoing horrors of the fight against the vicious militant group.
Through the use of females as the group’s main suicide bombers, Boko Haram stigmatizes women as killers, increasing public suspicion and hardship for women and girls throughout the region. Despite its tumultuous history, Boko Haram has outlived other militant groups in Nigeria building a presence in neighboring states where it has carried out attacks and recruited additional fighters. Since Boko Haram’s rise to power, ISIS’ influence in the region has greatly shifted, and with this change, has come a new image of the “suicide-bomber;” an image increasingly young and predominantly female.