In the early morning hours of February 9, 2016, in a sprawling camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno State, three young girls thought to be looking for shelter, were welcomed inside. What the guards who admitted them didn’t know, however, was that each was wearing an improvised explosive device strapped to her body. Minutes later, two of those girls were dead and, with them, an estimated 58 other victims, including many families seeking shelter from a raging insurgency that had driven them from their homes. An additional 80 people were badly wounded. Attacks like this have come to characterize the insurgency that has raged in northern Nigeria since 2009. Recently, however, data and research by The Fund for Peace (FFP), a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, indicates that Boko Haram has fundamentally shifted its tactics and its targets. No longer a movement that concentrates its brutality on the Nigerian government, it now attacks mainly civilians, using women and child suicide bombers as its primary weapons of war. The reasons why the group has changed tactics, however, and the complex motives for why women and children have become the weapons of choice, needs to move beyond the fallback narrative of victimhood if attempts to end the unthinkable are to succeed.

The crisis in northern Nigeria has captured international attention in no small part because of the brutal change in tactics employed by Boko Haram, which renamed itself Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād (JAS) in early 2015 to signal its allegiance with the Islamic State operating in Syria and Iraq. Mass abductions of women and girls, including the kidnaping of nearly 300 school girls from the town of Chibok in April 2014, have also become the group’s calling card. The mass targeting and use of civilians, however, has not always been the case as initially the insurgency focused its attacks on government installations and the Nigerian military. Increasingly, however, the victims of Boko Haram are noncombatants, with the group focusing on soft targets where local populations gather, including markets, mosques, bus stops and, as the latest attack demonstrated, IDP camps. This shift in tactics may in part be credited to the success of the Nigerian military in taking back territory seized by the group and improved intelligence in anticipating and repelling attacks, but it also may be reflective of something else entirely.

In data analyzed by FFP over the past two years, there was a marked drop off in the number of fatalities associated with the insurgency from April 2015 onwards. This time period also correlates with the increased use of women and children as suicide bombers. It is possible that, following the election of All Progressives Congress Party (APC) candidate, and fellow northerner, President Muhammadu Buhari, Boko Haram experienced a decline in recruitment and support among its core constituency. This, coupled with a renewed military offensive following President Buhari’s election, has caused the group to retreat from its former strategic and tactical posture and assume a different type of terror campaign altogether – one that relies mainly on women and children to carry out offensive missions. This also may partially rest on the fact that the group’s predominant narrative, which centers heavily on themes of persecution and division between Nigerian Christians in the South and Muslims in the North, is no longer as clear cut with a northerner, Muslim, and candidate of the APC (often seen as the party of the North), as President.

The growing reliance on women and children as suicide bombers, while well documented, often fails to capture the complex and uncomfortable dimensions of the conflict by overlooking the reasons that women and children are being used in the first place and, importantly, what their role is in the process. Many reports routinely presume that the suicide bombers are either abductees or children born of forced unions between insurgents and captured women and girls. While it is suspected that this is true in some cases with the use of women and girls – as no child born from an abductee would be old enough at this point to be used in such a manner – it is certainly not true in all cases. In the deployment of children, the very environment that leads to parents either being coerced or willingly volunteering children for such a horrific fate is rarely explored. In the case of women who have not been abducted but who volunteer or are otherwise recruited to become suicide bombers, the role of agency, or how such a choice came to be made, is also not given due consideration in most analyses. Instead, the narrative fallback, much like that of Boko Haram itself, seems to focus only on victimhood. There is little doubt that the dozens of women and children who have been part or party to the gruesome violence that has characterized the insurgency is tragic beyond compare. However, without an effort to understand the wider conflict ecosystem in which they lived and died, attempts at mitigation and prevention will continue to fail them.

In interviews conducted by FFP in trips to northern Nigeria in 2015, the tendency to view the recruitment and use of women and children in the insurgency through the lens of victimhood alone was strongly discouraged. In the case of children used as suicide bombers, it was pointed out that while some may have been abducted themselves, or forcibly taken from their families, in other cases it was a choice on the part of the family to allow their children to be used in this manner. For some families, the Boko Haram ideology resonates deeply and the path of violent jihad, including the sacrifice of lives to further the goal of establishing a separate caliphate, or in retaliation for past attacks by the Nigerian military, is seen as a legitimate cause. In other instances, FFP was told that it becomes an “impossible choice.” Families living in the areas where Boko Haram exerts influence, either physically or ideologically, are often confronted with the choice of sacrificing one child in order to allow their other children to live.

When considering the use of women and girls, it is important to note that the Boko Haram insurgency is a crisis of violence against women and girls on a scale not seen before in most modern conflicts. From mass abductions and rape campaigns to women and girls becoming highly vulnerable in IDP camps, at military checkpoints, and even within their own families and communities, the impacts of this conflict in terms of violence against women and girls are deep and widespread. Moreover, according to both the data analyzed and information obtained during interviews, this trend is getting worse, not better, despite the current military successes and a renewed focus on ensuring women and girls have access to psychological and social aid and assistance.

For all involved in ending the insurgency, and especially those countries and actors assisting the Nigerian government and military in the fight against Boko Haram, a failure to understand the very complex dynamics that are fueling this phenomenon and its manifestations could have two dangerous corollary effects. One, it may feed a perception that has been documented in other conflicts whereby, when the population, including women and children, are seen as sympathetic to the insurgency, their lives may become less valuable and their deaths easier to write off as “collateral damage.” Two, a failure to understand the social, political, and historical dynamics feeding into the decision making processes of civilians to either support (tacitly or directly) Boko Haram and its objectives will only ever render an incomplete picture. This, by extension, will only lead to an incomplete and unsustainable peace.

Understanding and confronting this appalling trend in northern Nigeria will take more research and a greater focus on talking to the very populations that are most directly affected by the insurgency and have the most to lose from its continuation. Until more effort is devoted to hearing their voices, it is likely that attempts to explain or find ways to stop the use of women and children as suicide bombers will, ultimately, fall far short.

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