Of all the mysteries surrounding Boko Haram, the marauding militant jihadi group that has terrorised Nigeria and its neighbours, the use of women and girls as suicide bombers is among the most vexing.
That was demonstrated this week when Boko Haram sent three girls to a government-run camp in northern Nigeria that was supposed to be a haven for people who had been chased from their homes under threat or attack by the group. Those three at the camp in Dikwa are among an increasing deployment of women and girls who have served as suicide bombers in recent Boko Haram attacks.
The United Nations estimates that since June 2014, Boko Haram has deployed 100 abducted women and girls for attacks once carried out by men. The group has also used boys as young as eight for suicide missions.
In Dikwa, the girls posed as refugees from the violence, spending Monday night at the camp. At dawn on Tuesday, two blew themselves up, killing 58 people and wounding 78. The third girl did not detonate her device. Authorities said she had recognised her parents and siblings among those seeking shelter at the camp and had surrendered.
Authorities said the third girl had also told them that Boko Haram was planning further attacks on the camp, a rapidly growing space that in September housed 7,500 people but had reached a peak of 80,000 by the end of January. As of Thursday, the girl’s precise motives were unclear. Many experts on Boko Haram say the women and girls who are deployed have been brainwashed or are simply unaware that the devices they are carrying can kill them.
Leila Zerrougui, the UN special representative on children and armed conflict, said in early 2015 that Nigerian authorities at the time had told her that explosives worn by bombers were often remotely detonated. In an interview on Thursday, she said that no longer appeared to be the case. Even so, she cautioned that little is known about their motivations, and to what extent the girls had been coerced to blow themselves up.
Others say at least some of the women and girls, forcibly married to Boko Haram members, support the group’s cause of insurgency against secularism and for the creation of a strict Islamic state. Female bombers have proved particularly lethal largely because they can move about without arousing suspicion. Their religious gowns double as hiding places for explosives.
The camp at Dikwa is currently sheltering about 52,000 people, most of whom are women and girls. Food is sparse there, and sanitation issues are growing. Government officials have been returning camp residents to their homes as a stepped-up military push has uprooted Boko Haram members from many villages that had been their strongholds.
A senior US military official said the Nigerian military was not pushing aggressively enough in the northern state of Borno, where Boko Haram originated, despite an intensified campaign by President Muhammadu Buhari. The group is hunkered down in the Sambisa Forest and doing mostly what it pleases there, including carrying out cross-border attacks where women have also been deployed as bombers.
In northern Nigeria, local government officials said as many as 1,000 women and girls were recently rescued from the village of Boboshe and taken to the Dikwa camp. They told officials they had been used as sex slaves. In the past, women rescued from Boko Haram have said they were raped repeatedly, with some reporting that they thought they were being impregnated to create a new generation of Boko Haram fighters.
New York Times