Do Nigeria’s female suicide attackers point to desperation or high ambition for Boko Haram? – By Elizabeth Pearson


Nigeria’s ‘Chibok girls’ maybe Boko Haram’s most famous captives, but it seems unlikely that they number amongst its female suicide bombers.

On Sunday November 16th a suicide attacker targeted a mobile phone market in Azare, in North East Nigeria’s Bauchi state, leaving at least thirteen people dead. It was the second suicide bombing in Azare in the space of a week, and the second carried out by a woman.

Azare was not the only target. On November 12th in Kontagora in the western Niger State, a woman attacker killed at least three people in the crowded lecture hall of a federal college. Together, these attacks appear to mark the return of a tactic first seen in the summer of 2014 in Nigeria – the use of women suicide bombers by Boko Haram.

Development of a tactic

The first female suicide attack by Boko Haram took place on 8th June 2014 in Gombe in the East of Nigeria. A reportedly middle-aged woman, her explosives hidden in her veil, attacked the North-Eastern Nigerian Gombe barracks. The second attack came a few weeks later, when a woman suicide bomber struck at Apapa in the southern Christian port city of Lagos. Initially reported as a fuel explosion, this was later claimed as a Boko Haram attack by the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau. Eyewitnesses told reporters they had seen a woman’s severed head near the blast.

Then in late July 2014, four suicide bombings targeted Kano, a major city in northern Nigeria. Each of the four attackers was a teenage girl under the age of eighteen and all chose “˜soft’targets.

Other attacks may have been planned. On July 30, police who stopped a car at a roadblock in Funtua, Katsina state, west of Kano, found explosives strapped to a 10-year-old girl. The girl was accompanied by her 18-year-old sister and an older man, both of whom were arrested.

The following day, newspapers reported the story of an unnamed source, who suggested Boko Haram had trained some 177 girls under the age of 15 as suicide bombers, with 75 already in Nigeria and ready to act. Then in August police in Kano arrested Ibrahim Ibrahim, along with 16 young women he was reportedly training as suicide bombers.

The three recent attacks by women in Azare and Kontagora mean there have now been nine suicide attacks by women in Nigeria. All took place outside the three key states of Boko Haram activity: Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (all currently under a state of emergency.)

Women as desperation?

The use of women bombers is frequently regarded as a last act of desperation foretelling a group’s demise. By this stage, terrorist organizations often face vastly depleted male resources, with many fighters killed or captured, and women suicide recruits a “˜last resort’. The same suggestion has been made of Boko Haram. Is it true?

Boko Haram’s insurgency is relatively new, the movement carrying out its first major violent attacks from 2009. 2014 has also been its bloodiest year to date, as well as its most ambitious. In August, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau announced the foundation of a caliphate, a move towards the Islamists’ long-declared aim to establish their own state. Since then more than twenty towns have been taken, including on 14th November, Chibok, the home of the more than 270 schoolgirls abducted seven months before.

This seizure and control of territory has meant a need for many more fighters and Boko Haram has been abducting men en masse. A recent “˜Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict’ report noted that the forced recruitment of young men and children has become commonplace. Insurgents have been taking men of fighting age from occupied areas, leaving those towns inhabited only by the old. The recruitment push is a sign not of Boko Haram’s weakness, but of a movement in its most ambitious and, arguably, successful phase.

Coordinated Strategy

This suggests alternative motives for the group’s use of female suicide bombers: namely diversion, and also, propaganda.

The first is likely linked to the creation, consolidation and expansion of the “caliphate.” Attacks by women have all taken place outside of Boko Haram’s normal regions of operations, with the potential to distract both public attention and military resources away from the increasingly dangerous Northeast.

This better enables Boko Haram’s on-going seizure and control of towns, and is consistent with other attacks in the south, Middle Belt and North West. The Abuja bombing of a shopping district in June, or the Lagos Airport attempted attack in August, may have served the same purpose.

It also endangers the possibility of elections being held in 2015 in Nigeria’s north east. The recent escalation in violence means there is already a question mark over the ability of the three states under a state of emergency to participate in February’s vote. With the possibility this emergency law will be extended, yet more violence means chances for the exercise of democracy in Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and parts of neighbouring states are further reduced.

Another aim is propaganda and the creation of fear. Women suicide attackers attract disproportionate media coverage, and July’s Kano bomb attacks were particularly effective in causing immediate panic. This was partly because they were carried out by teenage girls. Four months after Boko Haram took more than 270 students from their school in Chibok, the media and commentators inevitably asked; could these bombers be the Chibok schoolgirls?

However, since the summer, Shekau has spoken of the fate of the Chibok girls in a video message. In a direct address to their parents, he said “.. if you know the condition your daughters are in today it could lead some to convert to Islam and some to die from grief…  We married them off. They are in their marital homes. (Laughter).” He did not suggest they had been used as suicide bombers, an opportunity that he would have surely seized, had this been their fate.

Female bombings do not need to be linked to Chibok however to create panic.  These incidents, spread across a wide territory, and even as far as Lagos, Nigeria’s main business centre, expose the vulnerability of the whole country to Boko Haram. The message delivered is that the Nigerian Government cannot guarantee safety even outside Nigeria’s north east, where insecurity is now a given.

Women fighters: A subversive strategy

Boko Haram carried out its first suicide attack in Nigeria, in 2011, with a blast at the Nigeria Police Force Headquarters in Abuja, and it has remained a tactic. The adoption of suicide bombing reflects closer links between Boko Haram and other transnational Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

In contrast, attacks by women distance Boko Haram from Al Qaeda ideology. Few Al Qaeda clerics advocate the use of women in violent jihad, either on front-lines or as suicide bombers. A campaign of female suicide bombers suggests Boko Haram is ready, when necessary, to subvert Al Qaeda ideology for tactical advantage.

Security officials have been less likely to regard women as potential activists, and women are less likely to be searched. Boko Haram has already exploited this to use women to smuggle weapons, and suicide attacks represent a natural progression of this strategy. This challenges Boko Haram’s own ideology, in which women are not regarded as combatants.

So far the identities of these suicide combatants, and their motives, are not clear. There have been no suicide tapes. They may be street children or the children of Boko Haram activists. The girl suicide bomber arrested in Katsina was just 10-years-old. Witnesses say one of the Bauchi suicide attackers was accompanied by two men. Coercion is possible, as is payment to the girls’ families.

A female wing?

Other women may actively and voluntarily become involved in Boko Haram’s operations. The military first reported the movement had a “˜female wing’ in early July, just a few weeks before the series of female-led Kano blasts. Shortly afterwards, three women were arrested for running a recruitment cell alleged to have targeted young girls and widows to  become spies for the organization or wives for eligible Boko Haram men.

This cell’s leader was Hafsat Bako, the widow of a Boko Haram insurgent killed by security agents. She is likely to have acted willingly for Boko Haram and may be linked to July’s female suicide attacks. Although Hafsat Bako was arrested in Madagali, Borno State, many miles from Kano, Boko Haram’s small cells have proven highly mobile. Bako in particular had spent time in Gombe town, the location of the first female suicide bombing.

Her arrest might have disrupted a group committed to involving more women as bombers in Boko Haram attacks. This disruption might explain why the July attacks ended almost as quickly as they began. It takes time to establish new cells, but the re-emergence of women suicide bombers in November 2014 suggests that at least one new cell has now been successfully instituted.


Recent attacks in Azare and Kontagora suggest women suicide bombers are a Boko Haram tactic that is here to stay. Boko Haram is using female suicide bombers to spread fear, to divert resources from the north east, and to raise its media profile. While the arrest of a “˜female wing’ of Boko Haram may have disrupted the summer’s spate of attacks by women and girls, it appears the intervening months have given Boko Haram time to institute new cells, using women in parts of Nigeria so far less affected by terrorism. Nigeria’s security officials must work to counter this, without losing sight of the need to protect women from the gender-based violence which has become a hallmark of Boko Haram’s activities.

The latest wave of women attackers continues to provide opportunity for a well-coordinated propaganda campaign of media manipulation. It also shows an organization willing, when advantageous, to subvert its own ideology. At this key stage of the movement’s development, women are now clearly involved in several Boko Haram activities. Some of these women, such as Hafsat Bako, are likely to have an ideological commitment to Boko Haram. Others, such as the 10-year-old girl arrested wearing a suicide vest, point to the use of intimidation and coercion.

In the past months Boko Haram has taken town after town near to the border with Cameroon. While women suicide attackers in other terrorist movements might signify the death of a group, the Nigerian female attackers do not appear to fit this pattern. Rather, the involvement of women in this way demonstrates coordinated preparations for the push for territory in the north-east, and the disruption of democracy ahead of the elections in 2015. This is not due to the demise of the movement. Instead, it highlights Boko Haram’s ambition. Whether this ambition will become the cause of Boko Haram’s decline is another question.

Elizabeth Pearson (@lizzypearson) is a doctoral student at the King’s College London Defence Studies Department where she is doing an ESRC-funded PhD on the role of gender norms in radicalisation in Jihadi and Counter-Jihadi movements in the UK. She is also a member of the Nigeria Security Network (@NigeriaSN).

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3 thoughts on “Do Nigeria’s female suicide attackers point to desperation or high ambition for Boko Haram? – By Elizabeth Pearson

  1. You write: “The adoption of suicide bombing reflects closer links between Boko Haram and other transnational Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).”

    After Hezbollah’s successful use of suicide bombing as tactic, it was adopted by terrorist groups the world over, including, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers in 1987, the Palestinian resistance group Hamas in Israel in 1994, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey in 1996, and al-Qaeda in its use of the tactic in carrying out attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The last major group to adopt suicide bombing [until done so by Nigeria’s Boko Haram] was the Chechen separatist movement, in the southern Russia Federation, in 2000, whose Black Widow female suicide bombers have become infamous. Al-Qaeda’s attacks upon the United States on September 11, 2001, elevated the tactic of suicide bombing to the status of a truly “global threat” (Skaine, 2006, p. 9). So, doesn’t Boko Haram’s adoption of suicide bombing as a tactic really suggest only that Boko Haram is the latest among very many groups to adopt the tactic?

    Also you write: “In contrast, attacks by women distance Boko Haram from Al Qaeda ideology. Few Al Qaeda clerics advocate the use of women in violent jihad, either on front-lines or as suicide bombers. A campaign of female suicide bombers suggests Boko Haram is ready, when necessary, to subvert Al Qaeda ideology for tactical advantage.”

    In fact, female suicide bombing has been part and parcel of al-Qaeda’s M.O. for more than a decade. Al-Qaeda has employed female suicide bombers for many years, and even created the al-Khansaa, al-Zarqawi’s all-female suicide bomber wing of al-Qaeda in Iraq:

    In 2004, just two weeks after U.S. troops cleared the Iraqi border town of Tal Afar of insurgents, a woman, dressed in a long white thobe and checkered ghutra, walked into a gathering of Iraqi military recruits. Before anyone could take notice of her she blew herself apart, killing five and wounding some 30 more. The attack “opened a new chapter in the war for Iraq” and in the Global War on Terror (Dickey, 2005). “Never before had any branch of al-Qaeda sent a woman on a suicide mission” reported Christopher Dickey of Newsweek, but Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the mastermind of hundreds of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq, was not bashful about breaking taboos. Al-Zarqawi’s goal was to create shocking images which, according to Major General Rick Lynch, a Coalition forces spokesman in Baghdad, gave the impression he had greater capability than he actually had. Zarqawi recruited actively, exploiting whomever he could, attacking the “softest of targets to get the peculiar kind of publicity he crave[d]” (Dickey, 2005). Women became his weapon of choice.

    The reason that al-Qaeda’s avant-garde in Iraq moved to the recruitment of women into the al-Khansaa, the all-female suicide bomber wing of al-Qaeda in Iraq (Ramirez, 2009), reflected, simply, the movement’s need for more recruits and al-Zarqawi’s desire to expand the movement, however; it also demonstrated that Zarqawi was, in point of fact, fulfilling the demands of the women themselves (Dickey, 2005). Since the beginning of 2005, the Coalition had managed to eliminate some 117 tier 1, 2, and 3 members of Zarqawi’s network, leaving him pressured and on the run. A Jordanian researcher who knew al-Zarqawi personally, Hassan Abu Hanieh, suggests that the al-Qaeda leader was goading Muslim men to fight. Before the first female suicide attacks began, a militant Web site posted a message signed by Zarqawi which read, “Are there no men, so that we have to recruit women? Isn’t it a shame for the sons of my own nation that our sisters ask to conduct martyrdom operations while men are preoccupied with life?” (Dickey, 2005).

    Zarqawi was also acting to fulfill the wishes of women, many of whom wanted to give their life to his cause. “The recourse to women [didn’t] happen at the start,” says Haizam Amirah Fernandez, a terrorism analyst based in Madrid (in Dickey, 2005). “It comes when the battle escalates to all sectors of society. It happens after men become activists in guerrilla groups, fight and die, perhaps [even] in suicide attacks. Then the widows or family members seek vengeance. . . .”

    Whether Boko Haram’s female suicide bombers are so motivated remains largely unknown, however; what is for sure is that al-Qaeda has no practical problem employing women as suicide bombers.

    Yet, Boko Haram’s use of female suicide bombers does not necessarily imply any links to al-Qaeda. If simply copying a tactic implies a link, then we’d have to say that Boko Haram is linked to Hezbollah, the Tamil Tigers, Hamas, the PKK, and the Chechens as well, and that would be nonsense.


    Dickey, Christopher, et. al (2005, December 12). Women of Al Qaeda. Newsweek, 146(24), p26-36. Retrieved April 16, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

    Ramirez, Jessica. (2009, March 16). Curse of Al Khansaa. Newsweek, 153(11), 34. Retrieved April 16, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

    Skaine, Rosemarie. (2006). Female Suicide Bombers. Jefferson (NC): McFarland & Company.

  2. Kirk:

    OTOH, it seems to me it might be helpful to distinguish between the Zawahiri and Zarqawi strands in these matters, with examples from Iraq falling theologically / ideologically closer to IS / Daesh than to AQ Central.

    Abdel Bari Atwan has a section titled Istish-hadiyah – the Phenomenon of the Female Martyr on pp 113-16 of The Secret History of Al Qaeda, in which he says:

    Al Qaeda’s leadership had remained resolutely opposed to using female suicide bombers on theological grounds; however, 28 September 2005 saw an apparent change in policy when a woman disguised in a man’s robes detonated explosives strapped to her body whilst standing in line with army recruits in Baghdad, killing at least six and wounding thirty-five. Al Qaeda had reported a steady stream of women volunteers for such missions, and the organization was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, which it described as having been carried out by ‘a blessed sister’. There has been no comment on the matter from either bin Laden or al-Zawahiri.

    I can’t be certain, but it sounds as though AQC (here “bin Laden or al-Zawahiri”) disapproved of the use of female suicide bombers, while AQI (shortly to be IS / Daesh) had no such scruples. But that quote is from a 2008 edition…

    Does anyone have doctrinal documentation on this issue, apart from the hadith which Atwan mentions, though he omits the final five words in English:

    Aisha reported: I said, “O Messenger of Allah, must women perform jihad?” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Yes, you must perform a jihad in which there is no fighting, the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage.”

  3. This is obviously an important subject and a disturbing aspect of the insurgency in Nigeria. In that respect it’s good that the author is thinking about the gender dimensions of the conflict. However, this is clearly a very speculative piece, not one that seems to be based on data obtained in the field or on any serious insight into what is happening in Nigeria. The author is trying to make sense of Boko Haram’s actions and strategy based on her own assumptions, not through the perspectives or accounts of people affected who have knowledge of these issues.

    Some revealing factual errors too — Madagali is in northern Adamawa State, not Borno, and Lagos is religiously mixed. It is wrong to refer to ‘the southern Christian port city of Lagos’ when a large part of the Yoruba population there is Muslim.

    The article is speculative and over-interprets press reports to reach its conclusions. The arguments it makes are very tenuous – assertions, not inferences based on empirical data. Surely that’s not useful, but it’s typical of much writing on Boko Haram, where for analysts there is a real problem of access and a lack of knowledge of the internal workings of the group. It would be better to admit to the limits of our knowledge on some of these issues and be clearer about what is speculation and what we may be more confident about.

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