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Boko Haram Turns to Female Bombers as Influence Expands

Members of the military stand at the scene of an explosion near a petrol station in Kano, Nigeria, Nov. 15, 2014.

In its five-year campaign to establish a caliphate in Nigeria, extremist group Boko Haram has repeatedly used suicide bombers against civilians and the military. But analysts say its recent use of female suicide bombers in strikes across the country show its growing ambition.

The bombing of a market in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri last month bore all the hallmarks of an attack by Boko Haram. The group has struck Maiduguri repeatedly. But this bombing, which killed more than 30 people, was different: the two bombers were women.

Boko Haram has recently been sending women to carry out suicide bombings across Nigeria, particularly in the northeast, but also as far away as the country’s largest city Lagos.

No one is quite sure why they have started using women.

But a member of the Nigeria Security Network, Elizabeth Pearson, who is a doctoral student at Kings College London, said the bombings were a sign of the group’s strength.

“So this has been a very ambitious year for Boko Haram, and I think that the use of the female suicide bombers if anything points to this ambition. Because the reason that Boko Haram needs more recruits is not because they are necessarily beleaguered by the strength of the government opposition to them. It is because they are ramping up the ambition in the northeast ahead of the elections, with this attempt to establish a caliphate,” she said.

Pearson said Boko Haram deploying female bombers was a shift away from the more traditional role of women in their campaign.

“Mainly are seen to have a supporting role. They should be encouraging jihad, they should be encouraging men, they can be propagandists, they can really sell the narrative. But they should not really be involved in fighting. And Boko Haram has adhered to that to some degree. But I think where it has become strategically useful, they are obviously willing to subvert that,” she said.

There has been speculation some bombers might be drawn from the ranks of more than 200 schoolgirls the group kidnapped earlier this year from the northeastern town of Chibok. But Pearson said there has been no proof of that.

Jamestown Foundation African affairs analyst Jacob Zenn said the group has likely drawn on women as a matter of convenience and as a psychological tactic. Now anyone could be a potential bomber.

“It heightens the fear of their capabilities, and you also have to understand that there are widows of Boko Haram members. And this allows Boko Haram to utilize these leftover women into the network that otherwise might not be able to serve a purpose,” said Zenn.

Zenn said Boko Haram used a range of methods to convince suicide bombers. Women may have their children threatened, be brainwashed, or be strapped with remotely detonated bombs.

“They are engaged in a war against their enemies, defined as Christians or Muslims who do not follow them, who do not subscribe to their belief. And they will use any means possible without regard to conventional morality to achieve their aims. So whether it is a six-year-old girl or an eight-year-old girl or a man that is disabled, they will use any of those means to carry out their attacks. This is, in my view, completely consistent with their operational style," said Zenn.

Regardless of who the bombers are, the continued ability to strike across Nigeria shows Boko Haram’s determination to make their goal of creating a caliphate in northeastern Nigeria a reality.