The article was originally published by War on the Rocks, a site which offers analysis, commentary, debate and multimedia content on foreign policy and national security issues.
In July 2014, almost four months after the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram abducted around 270 schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno state, a series of suicide attacks caused fresh panic across the country.
In as many days, four suicide bombings targeted Kano, a major city in northern Nigeria. It was not just the quick succession of the bombs that caused this panic, but that all the attacks were carried out by teenage women. Could these bombers be the Chibok schoolgirls? Had they been "brainwashed" to the Boko Haram cause, as Nigerian Army sources reportedly suspected? Or were they forced to join the fight?
The first female suicide attack by Boko Haram within Nigeria took place just a month before the Kano bombings, almost 400km to the south in Gombe. This was followed by a woman suicide attacker in the southern Christian port city of Lagos, well outside Boko Haram's traditional area of operations.
These bombings are significant as they all took place outside the three key states Boko Haram targets: Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. These three states are currently under a state of emergency. The blasts also pointed to Boko Haram's use of women suicide bombers as a dangerous new tactic. Yet since July, there have been no further attacks by women.
Subsequent analysis suggested Boko Haram's use of women suicide bombers was an act of desperation, foretelling the possible demise of the group. This article, however, considers the use of female suicide bombers in the current Nigerian context, arguing that the female suicide campaign is not an act of desperation, but a show of strength.
It also explores what Boko Haram's involvement of women says about the group's current operations. In particular, it examines how the female suicide campaign can be seen as a prelude to the August 2014 creation of what Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, has called a north-eastern "caliphate".
A new campaign
Suicide attacks are a relatively recent phenomenon in Nigeria, a country where, as John Campbell notes in Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, suicide per se is not a cultural norm. The first was carried out by a married father of five, Mohammed Manga, on 16 June 2011 at the Nigeria Police Force Headquarters in Abuja. A second high-profile attack quickly followed, this time on the United Nations Headquarters.
This tactical innovation reflected closer links between Boko Haram and other transnational Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Since then, Boko Haram has frequently coupled suicide attacks with high-profile bombings, including the killing of people gathered to watch the World Cup and an attempt on the life of former President Buhari. All were committed by men.
This changed on 8 June 2014 when a reportedly middle-aged woman carried out a suicide attack on the North-Eastern Nigerian Gombe barracks. She rode toward the barracks on a motorbike before detonating explosives hidden in her veil, killing one. The next female suicide bomber came well outside Boko Haram's traditional northern field of operations at the Apapa port in the southern city of Lagos on 25 June. Lagos is Nigeria's main business center, and crude oil is a major export through its ports.
Initially reported as a fuel explosion, this blast was later claimed by Shekau to be the work of a suicide car bomber, also believed to be a woman. Eyewitnesses told reporters they had seen a woman's severed head near the blast.
Then in late July 2014 came a week of attacks on the major Northern city of Kano. Each of the four attackers was a woman under the age of eighteen and all focused on soft targets. On 27 July, a 16-year-old-girl attacked Kano's Northwest University, injuring five police officers. The following day saw two suicide explosions carried out by teenage girls; one in a queue for kerosene, killing three people and injuring others; another outside the Kano International Trade Fair, injuring six. Then on 30 July, six people were killed in another female suicide attack at the Kano Polytechnic. The attacker was reportedly only 14 years old.
Also on 30 July, explosives were found strapped to a 10-year-old girl, although these did not detonate. Police found the girl with her 18-year-old sister and an older man in a car that was stopped at a roadblock in Funtua, Katsina state, west of Kano. The two adults were also arrested.
The following day, newspapers reported the account of an unnamed source that revealed some 177 girls under the age of 15 trained by Boko Haram as suicide bombers, with 75 already in Nigeria and ready to act. Then in a further development this past August, police arrested activist Ibrahim Ibrahim in Kano, along with 16 young women he was reportedly training as suicide bombers.
Women as symptom of decline?
Analysis of female suicide bombers in other terrorist movements suggests the use of women as weapons can show long-term organizational decline. The deployment of women bombers by groups is frequently regarded as a last act of desperation, with groups using this tactic an average of 13-and-a-half years into a campaign. By this stage, terrorist organisations often face vastly depleted male resources and women represent a last resort in terms of recruitment.
By contrast, Boko Haram is a comparatively new insurgency that only carried out its first major attacks in 2009. Yet, despite its operational successes, it is experiencing current difficulties in recruitment. In past months, it has been abducting men of fighting age en masse. In one example in August 2014, around 100 men were taken from fishing communities in Kukawa Local Government area in Borno state. A recent report by the NGO network 'Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict' noted that the forced recruitment of young men and children has become commonplace. This has led to its own problems, with forcible recruitment linked to the recent surrender of large numbers of Boko Haram fighters.
However, forced recruitment is not necessarily a sign of a movement in decline. There have been more than 2,000 deaths this year alone, with hundreds of thousands of people displaced from the north-eastern states. More importantly, in August, Boko Haram leader Shekau announced the foundation of a fledgling caliphate, fulfilling the Islamists' long-declared aim to establish their own state.
At the time of writing, some 25 towns across the three north-eastern states of Yobe, Adamawa and Borno are under the control of Boko Haram fighters. Insurgents have reportedly 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 phase.
Women fighters: An organized campaign
This suggests alternative motives for the group's use of female suicide bombers: namely, diversion and propaganda. The first is likely linked to the push to start a "caliphate"; the attacks by women all took outside Boko Haram's normal regions of operation and had the potential to distract both attention and military resources away from the north-east.
This better enabled Boko Haram's seizure and control of towns, and is consistent with other recent attacks in the south and middle belt that did not involve women. The Abuja bombing of a shopping district in June, or the Lagos Airport attempted attack in August, may have served the same purpose. This might explain the lack of female suicide attacks after July.
Propaganda is another key motivation for Boko Haram to pursue female suicide attacks. Women suicide attackers attract disproportionate media coverage in any terrorist campaign. In the immediate aftermath of the Chibok abductions, it was feared that Boko Haram had taken the girls to use as fighters. These fears increased in the wake of the Kano attacks.
The former minister of Education, Oby Ezekwesili, a high profile backer of #BringBackOurGirls, tweeted, "this new trend and serial pattern of female suicide bombers.. worries me stiff because of our Chibok girls." While DNA tests might have clarified the identities of the suicide women, none were carried out.
The July reports citing a cohort of women trained by Boko Haram and ready to attack bolstered such fears. The press had reported the Chibok girls being moved to Cameroon and even as far as the Central African Republic. Suggestions that a group of female suicide trainees were stationed outside Nigeria strengthened associations between the bombers and Chibok. Panicked reporting of this 'new trend' of female suicide bombers inevitably added to Boko Haram's media campaign by portraying the Nigerian military and Government as weak. It also created widespread fear.
A female wing?
There is no evidence the summer's female suicide attackers were Chibok girls. It is more likely that the Kano bombers were street children or the children of Boko Haram activists. Nor is it clear whether the female attackers acted of their own volition or were forced, or paid, to conduct attacks. One of those arrested was just 10-years-old. Already, many vulnerable Nigerian girls are forced into sex work, in Nigeria or abroad. Recruiting young girls into violence could involve similar tactics. Older women bombers may have chosen to act in support of Boko Haram's aims.
In fact, women have been actively recruiting for Boko Haram. 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. Additionally, three women were arrested for running a recruitment cell alleged to have targeted young girls and widows to become spies for the organisation, or wives for eligible Boko Haram men.
The leader of the female cell 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 the female suicide attacks. Although Hafsat Bako was arrested in Madagali, Borno State, which is many miles from Kano, Boko Haram's small cells have proven capable of moving across state boundaries to conduct acts of terrorism.
Bako in particular had spent time in Gombe town, the location of the first female suicide bombing. These arrests might have disrupted a group committed to involving more women as bombers in Boko Haram attacks, as well as wives to insurgent fighters. This disruption might explain why the July attacks ended almost as quickly as they began.
The deployment of women suicide bombers in Nigeria has not, so far, proved a long-term tactic. The six attacks last summer raised fears of a concerted campaign. However, despite media reports of the existence of a trained group of girls as bombers, there have been no more bombs by women. This is perhaps because the female suicide explosions from Kano to Lagos were intended as a distraction of security resources from the alleged caliphate's base in the north-east. Although the arrest of a female wing of Boko Haram may have disrupted plans for more suicide bombings in the near term, women attackers could continue to provide a opportunity for propaganda and media manipulation.
The female-perpetrated attacks indicate a well-coordinated campaign aimed at exploiting the media. They also show an organization willing, when advantageous, to subvert al-Qaeda's ideology, which does not promote women as fighters. Boko Haram has already recognised the strategic advantages women can present in terms of operating under the radar. Women have been carrying out tasks such as smuggling weapons since the state of emergency was declared in 2012.
Women are now clearly involved in other Boko Haram activities, as the arrest of the female cell shows. The bigger picture is one of women and girls involved in a variety of capacities as Boko Haram enters a pivotal stage of its organizational development. Some of these, such as the work of Hafsat Bako, are likely voluntary. Others, such as the 10-year-old girl arrested wearing a suicide vest, are further indications of a widespread intimidation or coercion campaign.
While women suicide attackers in other terrorist movements might signify the death of a group, the Nigerian female attackers do not fit this pattern. Rather, the use of women in this way demonstrates coordinated preparations for the push for resources and territory in the north-east, as well as the consolidation of the caliphate. This is not due to the demise of the group. Instead, it highlights Boko Haram's ambition. Whether this ambition will become the cause of Boko Haram's decline is another question.
Elizabeth Pearson 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, which can be followed on Twitter at @NigeriaSN. You can follower Elizabeth herself @lizzypearson.