West Africa hit with spate of suicide bombings

Since the beginning of this month, the West African countries of Nigeria and Cameroon have been hit with a spate of suicide bombings. The majority of these bombings have involved women, an incredibly common tactic in the region.

On May 3, three teenage girls reportedly attempted to infiltrate a military outpost in the city of Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state. The three were subsequently spotted which resulted in each detonating themselves as Nigerian soldiers tried to stop them. No casualties were reported. Two days later, seven people were killed when two girls detonated near a grouping of people in the town of Konduga in Borno.

One week later on May 13, two male suicide bombers detonated themselves after being stopped trying to enter Maiduguri’s university complex. One security official was killed and another wounded in the blast. Around the same time, a female attacker blew herself up at a nearby church, damaging the building. On May 16, the town of Konduga was again targeted by jihadists.

Three females killed two people and wounded six others in Konduga. Yesterday, two more females targeted Nigerian soldiers close to a camp for internally displaced persons in Konduga. Two soldiers were injured in the blasts. In addition, the University of Maiduguri was again targeted today.

Three male bombers again tried to enter the complex, but were stopped in the process by security personnel. When the three detonated their explosives, several people were injured, including security officials and members of a vigilante group. In Cameroon’s Far North Region, one person was killed today after two females detonated near simultaneously. Local officials have blamed Boko Haram for the attack.

Boko Haram, which has effectively split into two main factions, has a long history of using females in suicide attacks in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. While unified under the leadership of Abubakr Shekau and the name Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), the group continues to use women and girls in its attacks.

After Shekau was removed from ISWA’s leadership and created a splinter faction, it is thought that this faction is behind most assaults using females. However, ISWA under the leadership of Abu Musab al Barnawi may also use the tactic.

Jihadist deployment of women and girls as suicide bombers has been a common maneuver in Nigeria for almost three 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.

Many of the women and girls used in these bombings are likely forced into committing the assaults after being kidnapped by the jihadists. Other women may be widows of killed fighters, like Russia’s “Black Widows.”

The ages of the bombers have ranged from just seven-years-old to middle-aged. The use of women can make it easier for jihadist groups to conduct suicide attacks, as explosives may be easier to hide, and men are less likely to search women due to cultural sensitivities.

In all of 2016, at least 30 females detonated suicide bombs according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal. At least 44 females have already been utilized by the jihadist groups in Nigeria and Cameroon in the first four and a half months of 2017 alone. Based on this, the numbers of females used in suicide bombings in West Africa is on pace to quadruple this year. (See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Female suicide bomber attacks in West Africa on pace to quadruple in 2017.)

In total, at least 169 females have been used in suicide bombings since June 2014 according to data compiled by FDD’s Long War Journal.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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