The Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), which is formerly known as Boko Haram, has exploited more than 100 women and girls as suicide bombers since June 2014, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. The majority of these suicide bombings have occurred in Nigeria, however, the violence has spread to other countries.
In its most recent assault, ISWA attempted to target a internally displaced persons (IDP) camp with three females near the northeast Nigeria town of Maiduguri, killing at least 69 people on Jan. 31. On Dec. 28, a mosque in the city was also targeted by a female bomber, which left at least 20 people dead. That bombing came a day after ISWA began a massive assault on the city, including two females used as part of the coordinated assault in various neighborhoods. As this was occurring two other female suicide bombers blew themselves up in a crowded market in the town of Madagali. According to the BBC, at least 30 people have been killed in those explosions. [See LWJ report, Islamic State West Africa launches coordinated assaults in northeast Nigeria.]
Just a few days before the Jan. 31 attack, the jihadist group killed 9 when five women detonated themselves in the town of Chibok. Chibok came into international attention in 2014 when ISWA kidnapped over 300 schoolgirls from the town, of which, many are still missing.
Two days before the attack in Chibok, four ISWA female suicide bombers killed at least 35 people in a market in Cameroon’s Far North Region. The assault led the Cameroonian government to close down the region’s markets in an effort to cut down on allowing ISWA to target civilians. However, it is unclear how effective this measure will be as ISWA is known to also target mosques, churches, bus stops, and various other places that civilians gather.
Despite a coordinated military offensive by Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon – which has targeted ISWA strongholds in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region – the jihadist group has maintained the ability to launch coordinated attacks and assaults throughout the region. Many of these include the use of women and/or girls as suicide bombers.
According to data compiled by The Long War Journal, ISWA has utilized at least 101 women and girls as suicide bombers in Nigeria, Cameroon, and in Chad since June 2014.
The majority of the suicide attacks involving women have occurred in Nigeria. At least 11 have occurred in neighboring Cameroon, though, and three or more took place in southern Chad in the Lake Chad region.
The ISWA’s deployment of women and girls as suicide bombers is a common tactic in Nigeria over the past two years. The group’s first known instance of using a female suicide bomber was on June 8, 2014, when a middle-aged woman on a motorcycle detonated near a Nigerian military barracks in Gombe, killing one policeman. In one of the deadliest attacks, on Nov. 27, 2014, two women killed 78 people and wounded scores more at a market in Maiduguri.
The use of women make it easier for jihadist groups to carry out suicide attacks, as explosives are often easier to hide, and men are less likely to search women due to cultural sensitivities. The ages of the bombers have ranged from just nine-years-old to middle-aged. Many of the women and girls used in these bombings are likely forced into committing the attacks, however, some could be the widows or daughters of killed fighters. In Russia’s southern Caucasus region, several widows of killed fighters, dubbed “Black Widows,” have conducted various suicide bombings in the region. Despite efforts by regional countries to make it harder for ISWA to use females, like the banning of the niqab (face veil), the jihadist group will likely continue to exploit females in its attacks in West Africa.