Azeez Olaniyan Feminization of Terror Jerrya

June 6, 2017

In an article based on research first presented at The IAFOR International Conference on the Social Sciences – Dubai 2017, Dr Azeez Olaniyan, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Ekiti State University, Nigeria, and Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at LMU Munich, Germany, examines how girls are sourced to undertake suicide missions for the Boko Haram sect in Nigeria, as well as the sect’s motivations for pursuing this “feminization of terror”.


The Boko Haram insurgency has emerged as a serious security issue for Nigeria over the past decade. From its origins in a remote corner of Borno state, the sect transformed into a terror machine, its appearance on the Nigerian political landscape setting in motion events of gruesome proportions that continue to affect the daily lives of Nigerian citizens. One significant aspect of these events has been the introduction of suicide bombings into Nigerian society. Prior to the appearance of Boko Haram, suicide bombing was something unthinkable for Nigerians, who are generally regarded as fun-loving people, famous for heavy partying and always scared of death. Suicide is a taboo among the various cultures in the country. But Boko Haram elements changed that perspective. Suicide bombing was introduced into Nigeria in 2009 when the sect launched attacks on the convoy of the Inspector General of Police as well as the UNDP office in Abuja, killing people and destroying the property. Since then, Boko Haram as a militant group has caused devastation through waves of bombings, massacres, suicides and major destructions of infrastructure (Chothia, 2014). To worsen the situation, they added female suicide bombings to the mix, to the extent that most recent suicide bombing acts are perpetrated by young females.

Unexpected happenings

One of the intrigues of the Boko Haram phenomenon in Nigeria is that it came completely out of the blue; as mentioned above, the idea of suicide bombing was considered something that could never happen in Nigeria. However, in June 2009, the unexpected occurred: a suicide bomber attacked the convoy of the Police Chief and the headquarters of the United Nations in Nigeria. Although the Police Chief escaped the attack on his convoy, a number of people lost their lives in both attacks. This event was to open a floodgate of merciless killings of unsuspecting members of the public through suicide bombings. Five years later, on June 8, 2014, came the second unexpected happening: a female suicide bomber was added to the equation. People never contemplated that Boko Haram would strap bombs around the body of a woman and send her to die. Girls never featured in the image of violence in Nigeria; militancy or any forms of violence were considered the domain of men. Boko Haram changed that notion.

“Ever since a motorcycle-riding middle-aged female struck a military checkpoint in north-eastern Nigeria, killing herself and a soldier in the process, the specter of female suicide bombings has become regular news.”

Thus, ever since a motorcycle-riding middle-aged female struck a military checkpoint in north-eastern Nigeria, killing herself and a soldier in the process (Chotia, 2014; Onuoha & George, 2015), the specter of female suicide bombings has become regular news in Nigeria. A few examples: Early December, 2016, two young female suicide bombers struck at a marketplace in Madagali, killing 45 people and injuring 33 people (Matthews, 2016). In February 2015, an eight-year-old girl was used by Boko Haram to carry out a deadly suicide attack in Potiskum, in Yobe state, while a failed July 2014 attack in Funtua, in north-western Katsina state was attributed to a 10- and 18-year-old pair of young girls (Matthews, 2016). In October 2016, another set of female suicide bombers killed 17 people at a station near a camp for internally displaced persons (Punch News Online, Dec 11, 2016). On November 11, 2016, three young girls with bombs strapped to their bodies were killed on their way to unleash mayhem in Umarari village along the Maiduguri-Damboa road (Falayi, 2016). On December 25, 2016, two female suicide bombers invaded a cattle market in Maiduguri, killing two people in the process (Haruna, 2016). On November 17, 2016, the police were able to avert attacks on Federal High Court in Jidari Polo area of Maiduguri by two females and one male suicide bombers (Sahara Reporters, 2016). On November 7, 2016, two female suicide bombers also killed 30 people in an attack on a local market in Madagali local government area of Adamawa state (Fulani, 2016) In March, 2017, a young girl carrying a baby on her back detonated explosives strapped to her body, killing herself, her baby and several people in Adamawa state (Daily Nation, 2017). On March 15, 2017, four young female suicide bombers killed two people in Usmanti area in the outskirts of Maiduguri, Borno state (Daily Nation, 2017). These cases show the rate at which Boko Haram is deploying young girls as suicide bombers, with devastating effects on society.

Sourcing the girls

Abduction has been the major source of the girls Boko Haram is using for suicide bombings in its deadly war against the people and the Nigerian state. It is quite difficult to know the number of girls abducted so far by Boko Haram. This has to do with the fact that several cases of abduction were either nor reported or underreported. In addition, several genuine cases were denied by the government to save itself from embarrassment. In 2014, Boko Haram terrorists abducted over 200 girls from their school dormitories in Chibok town, Borno state. This is often regarded as the highpoint of the abduction saga, and is the case that caught international attention, soon becoming the face of Boko Haram atrocities against women. But, according to Nnamdi Obasi, the numbers involved in the Chibok case are tiny compared to the number of girls that have been abducted since the appearance of the group in north-eastern Nigeria (cited in Alfred, 2016). As reported in the Huffington Post, these include: The abduction of 19 girls from the villages of Wala and Warabe, four months after the Chibok events. In December 2014, about 200 women and children were taken from Gumsuri village, just 15 minutes south of Chibok. In March, 2015, about 300 schoolgirls and children were abducted from Damasak, the highest haul by the group. In Madagali village, 14 women and two girls were also abducted (Alfred, 2016). Abductions continue on a regular basis.

“The majority of the girls are married off after abduction, and those of them who refuse to accept the marriage option are forced to go on suicide missions.”

Once in the militants’ nets, abducted girls are cajoled, indoctrinated or threatened to make them embark on suicide missions. A documentary by the news channel Al Jazeera revealed cajolement and indoctrination tactics often employed by Boko Haram:

They tell women and girls that they will go to paradise if they commit suicide for Allah. So, they ask girls, “Who wants to go to paradise?” They tell the girls that they will also wear bombs. So, the man straps a bomb to his body and to the girl. They tell the girls, let’s do this and we will meet again in paradise. So, the girl goes forward and detonates herself, expecting the man to do the same. But the man does not. He watches her blow herself up into pieces and then goes to the next girl to lure her to do the same thing. (Oduah, 2016)

A narrative of another girl revealed the use of intimidation and threat of force in dragging the girls to their violent deaths. According to the girl:

I was in the bush when the people some who look like Arabs and some huge black men told me that did I know what is suicide mission; that is one killing himself? I said no I don’t know, they explained it to me and said that if I did plus reciting Sura Albakara I will straight go to Paradise, I declined and told them I will not do it, they now told me that they would dig a hole and bury me alive because that is what they do to all women who refuse to adhere to their demands, and they said they meant what they said, I now complied. (Ahmad, 2014)

The majority of the girls are married off after abduction, and those of them who refuse to accept the marriage option are forced to go on suicide missions (Worley, 2016). In essence, the kidnapping and abduction of girls has ensured steady availability of instruments for suicide missions.

A bizarre case involved the donation of a girl to Boko Haram for a suicide mission. On December 24, 2014, security forces arrested a girl suicide bomber who later confessed that she was donated to Boko Haram elements by her father in Kano (Ahmad, 2014). The donated girl was then forced to become a suicide bomber, but escaped. However, this has remained a one-off incident.

In addition, Boko Haram has a female wing made up of women who carry out domestic chores and act as recruiters, spies, informants and sympathizers, and may embark on suicide missions (Daily Trust, 2016, International Crisis Group, 2016). It has been established that Boko Haram has since its inception been able to attract quite a number of women into its fold. This it has done through inducement, force and indoctrination (International Crisis Group, 2016). Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, has been able to exploit the grinding poverty in north-eastern Nigeria through philanthropic gestures while advocating for the practice of Islam in its puritanical form. This attracted a large following of youths who were disenchanted with a Nigerian state unable to meet their material needs. Their complaint was that society has been corrupted by people who had access to western education, hence the name Boko Haram (“western education is forbidden”). Within the ranks of the followers were quite a number of women who were either married to members of the sect, or out to seek more knowledge about Islam (International Crisis Group, 2016). The point here is that there are committed women members of the group who would be willing to embark on suicide missions to attain martyrdom. Few female arrested members and escapees have attributed their involvement to force and intimidation by Boko Haram terrorists (Pfhanz, 2014).

“What is abundantly clear is that the majority of the girls being used for the suicide bombings are forced into doing so.”

Freedom Onuoha and Temilola George (2015) identified other likely sources as children of widows of Boko Haram members killed by security forces, motivated by a sense of revenge against the security forces; women or girls recruited through their female scouts; children of orphans whose parents have been killed by Boko Haram in the course of their violent activities; and sourcing through cartels that are involved in human trafficking. These are largely speculative, since no concrete evidence is presented. What is abundantly clear is that the majority of the girls being used for the suicide bombings are forced into doing so.

Feminization of terror

The increasing usage of females as suicide bombers by Boko Haram amounts to what Freedom Onuoha and Temilola George (2015) captured as “feminization of terror” in Nigeria. However, for a better understanding, the trend should be situated within the context of intentions and motives. The narratives of arrested female bombers indicate clearly that most of them were minors who couldn’t make rational decisions, and that their participation in such extreme acts of violence was the product of force and intimidation (Pfhanz, 2014), indicating that the girls are mere pawns in the hands of the terrorists (Anaedozie, 2016, p. 223).

This forceful feminization reveals certain developments. First is the exploitation of the female gender by the male on the basis of superiority, aptly captured as “exploitative men asserting their hegemonic masculinity” (Anaedozie, 2016, p. 217). The exploitation of a supposed “weaker” vessel by a “stronger” one is a manifestation of the patriarchal culture prevalent in society. Here, the girls’ consent was not needed. They only had to carry out instructions given by the men, who they had been conditioned to see as the stronger force. Second is the exploitation of younger members by older ones. Images of arrested or escaped girls show how young they were – much younger than their abductors. The older Boko Haram elements were able to use the advantage of their more advanced age to force younger ones to commit horrendous crimes against fellow human beings. This practice tallies with the culture of the old exploiting the innocence of the young – exactly what Boko Haram is doing by using the young girls for suicide missions. The third issue is what has been captured as the commoditization of the female body and downplay of their “heroic” role after successful completion of each mission. Normally, Boko Haram would take responsibility for deadly actions, but do not do so in cases in which girls are the bombers (Anyadike, 2016). This suggests that the girls are not regarded as serious martyrs. The worthlessness of the female bombers is aptly captured in the words of Pearson: “They (the girl bombers) have left no videos; their attacks are not claimed; they have no glory. Women and girls have predominantly struck markets, bus depots and civilian gatherings, rather than higher value targets” (quoted in Anyadike, 2016).


The specter of female suicide bombing is a major security challenge for the Nigerian state. Boko Haram’s violence has resulted in the death of thousands of Nigerians and displacement of several millions of people, as well as escalating hunger and poverty in the region. Since the coming of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration in 2015, the Nigerian government has stepped up their efforts and launched a major offensive, and the army has succeeded in degrading the insurgents (Premium Times, 2015). The vast swathe of land Boko Haram once occupied has been retaken and the group has been restricted to a corner of Sambisa forest. On Christmas Eve of 2016, Camp Zairo, Boko Haram’s major command inside their Sambisa fortress, was conquered by the army. This represents a major step forward against the insurgents, yet it has not stopped the gale of female suicide bombings. Rather, they are increasing, with the sect even employing the strategy of using nursing mothers for this purpose (Odunsi, 2017). This is a dangerous development in the atrocities perpetrated by the militants.

Image | Jerrya, Pixabay

Dr Azeez Olaniyan first presented this research, in greater detail, at The IAFOR International Conference on the Social Sciences – Dubai 2017.


Ahmad, M. (2014, December 25). Shocker: Kano suicide bomber says father donated her to Boko Haram. Premium Times. Retrieved from

Anaedozie, F. (2016). Has the emergence of female suicide bombers in Nigeria depicted the exploitation of feminine vulnerability? A critical appraisal of Boko Haram female suicide bombers in Nigeria, International Journal of Innovative Research and Development, 5(3), 217–227

Anyadike, O. (2016, April 19). Coerced or committed? Boko Haram’s female suicide bombers. IRIN. Retrieved from

Alfred, C., (2016, April 14). The other girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in the 2 years since #BringBackourGirls”. The World Post. Retrieved from

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Oduah, C. (2016, September 22). Women who loved Boko Haram. Al Jazeerah. Retrieved from

Onuoha, F. C., & George, T. A. (2015). Boko Haram’s use of female suicide bombing in Nigeria. Al Jazeerah Centre for Studies. Retrieved from

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Punch. (2016, December 11). Girls aged “7 or 8” staged Maiduguri suicide attack – witnesses. Retrieved from

Sahara Reporters. (2016, November 18). Suicide bombers detonate explosives at Federal high court in Maiduguri. Retrieved from

Worley, W. (2016, April 13). Boko Haram forces girls into suicide bombings for refusing to marry fighters. Independent. Retrieved from

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About Azeez Olaniyan

Dr Azeez Olaniyan is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science of the Ekiti State University, Ado Ekiti in Nigeria. He is also on the support staff of the Institute of Peace, Security and Governance of the same University and currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Institute. He was educated up to a doctoral level in Political Science at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He also holds a National Diploma in Mass Communication from The Polytechnic, Ibadan, Nigeria. He was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, in 2013. He also received the Postdoctoral Grant/Fellowship of the African Humanities Program of the American Council for Learned Societies in 2014. He is a laureate of the African Workshop Program of the American Political Science Association. He is also currently a Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich, Germany. His research interests revolve around Conflict and Security, Ethnic Politics, Social Movements, Political Ecology, Culture and Development.

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