How Boko Haram Trains Abducted Women And Girls To Be Suicide Bombers

HOLD the bomb under your arm­pit to keep it steady, the women and girls were taught.

Sever your enemy’s head from behind, to minimize struggling.

“If you cut from the back of the neck, they die faster,” said Rahila Amos, a Nigerian grand­mother describing the meticulous instruction she received from Boko Haram to become a suicide bomber.

Of all the many horrors of Boko Haram’s rampage across West Africa viz attacks on mosques, churches and schools; the mass killings of civilians; the entire villages left in ashes after militants tear through — one of the most baffling has been the in­surgents’ ability to turn captured women and girls into killers.

Boko Haram, one of the world’s deadliest extremist groups, has used at least 105 women and girls in suicide attacks since June 2014 when a female bomber blew herself up at an army barracks in Nigeria, according to The Long War Journal which tracks terrorist activity.

Since then, women and girls, often with bombs hidden in bas­kets or under their clothes, have killed hundreds of people in at­tacks on fish and vegetable mar­kets, schools, a river dock and even camps for people who have fled their homes to get away from the violence.

“This isn’t something you can defeat or eradicate outright,” said Issa Tchiroma Bakary, the minister of communications in the Cam­eroon, where 22 female suicide bombers were identified since the begining of the year. “You don’t know who is who. When you see a young girl moving towards you, you don’t know if she’s hiding a bomb.”

Soldiers cannot open fire on every woman or girl who looks suspicious, he added. “They know where we have the Achilles’ heel,” Mr. Bakary said of Boko Haram.

The group’s abuse of women first shocked the world two years ago, when Boko Haram stormed a school in Nigeria and fled with about 300 girls, many of whom have not been found. Hundreds of other women and girls have been abducted, imprisoned, raped and sometimes intentionally, impreg­nated, perhaps with the goal of cre­ating a new generation of fighters.

Ms. Amos, 47, said the fight­ers had come to her village in the morning, firing weapons as they spilled out of cars and rounded up women and children.

Not long after, Amos, a Chris­tian, said she was forced to en­roll in Boko Haram classes on the Quran, a first step on her way toward being taught the art of sui­cide bombing.

After months of training, Amos said she was finally able to escape from her captors when they as­sembled for evening preaching. She stayed behind, gathering two of her young children and a grand­child so that they could make a run for the Cameroonian border.

“I don’t want to take a bomb,” she said inside this refugee camp in Cameroon that stretches across a vast landscape dotted by tents and mud huts.

The authorities in Cameroon and Nigeria said that many of the experiences detailed by Ms. Amos matched the accounts of other women and girls who had escaped Boko Haram, or who had been ar­rested before they could detonate bombs. Amos’s assertions are also strikingly similar to details recounted by other freed women and girls, including descriptions of the funeral rites performed before female bombers were sent on mis­sions.

The accounts offer insight into how Boko Haram, despite be­ing under military pressure from a multinational campaign to wipe it out, has been able to strike fear across an expansive battlefield that now includes Nigeria, Chad, Cam­eroon and Niger.

No longer able to control the territory it once did, Boko Haram is sending out women and young girls as newly minted terrorists who can inflict a devastating toll.

Col. Didier Badjeck, a Camer­oon defense spokesman, said that after soldiers had chased Boko Ha­ram out of villages in recent weeks, they found homes that had been used as prisons for the women and girls. He said female hostages had reportedly been trained during their captivity — both in the Quran and violence.

“They are training them to maxi­mize the number of victims,” Bad­jeck said. “We are sure about it.”

Boko Haram often sends male fighters to set upon mosques. But last month, a female suicide bomb­er dressed as a man set off her ex­plosives during morning prayers in Nigeria. Another woman was waiting outside the mosque, and as people fled the first blast, she detonated her own explosives as well. In all, at least 24 people were killed.

Bombings by women have be­come so widespread that even hu­manitarian groups are rethinking how they distribute food, water and others help to them. What if one of the women is hiding a bomb?

In Cameroon, many of the re­cent bombings have been carried out by girls in their early teens, leaving officials and analysts to wonder whether the girls were aware they were carrying bombs. Yet, some of the bombers in re­cent attacks in Nigeria have been found to wear their hair pulled back from the face —a hairstyle reserved for burial rites, a sign they were ready to die.

But cracks are begining to show in the Boko Haram suicide-training system. In February, a girl sent to blow up a village in the Far North Region of Camer­oon dropped her explosives and ran to the authorities instead. Her information led to a major raid on Boko Haram fighters.

In North-eastern Nigeria in February, three girls with bombs were sent into a camp for Nigeri­ans fleeing Boko Haram. Two of the girls detonated their bombs, killing nearly 60 people there. But the third girl spotted her par­ents among the desperate people inside the camp. Overwhelmed, officials said, she threw her ex­plosives in the bush.

Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State last year, has abducted as many as 2,000 women and children, both girls and boys, since 2012, according a recent report from humanitarian groups. Young boys have been used as bombers, too.

In many ways, female bomb­ers are ideal weapons. At security points run by men, they are often searched less thoroughly, if at all. Tucked under the bunched fabric of dresses or religious gowns, ex­plosives are easy to conceal.

Women suicide bombers have been a trademark of extremists for decades. In the Chechnya conflict, they were nicknamed black widows. In Sri Lanka, they fought with the Tamil Tigers. In her book, “Bombshell: Women and Terrorism,” Mia Bloom es­timates that between 1985 and 2008, women committed a quar­ter of all suicide bombings.

One soldier who has engaged with Boko Haram said he be­lieved that fighters must drug the girls’ food. Others who track the group question whether the bombs are remotely detonated.

According to Ms. Amos, Boko Haram’s use of women as weap­ons is a carefully thought-out strategy, one the women some­times accept. Ms. Amos said that of the 30 or so female captives enrolled in training with her, sev­en girls were enthusiastic about carrying out suicide missions.

“It was a direct path to heav­en,” she said the group was told.

Ms. Amos, now among the 58,000 residents of the Minawao Refugee Camp, described a sys­tem of grooming potential bomb­ers that involved food depriva­tion and promises of eternal life, tactics that cults have used for decades.

She said that when Boko Ha­ram stormed her hometown in 2014, her two brothers were shot dead. Her husband managed to flee with five of her children, but Ms. Amos did not make it out, and neither did two of her other young children and a grandchild. Boko Haram rounded them up with other women and children, putting them in a long ditch to contain them.

They stayed there for days, eat­ing one meal a day, of corn paste made from powder. Finally, a fighter arrived and asked a fate­ful question: Do you want to fol­low Christ, or do you want to be a Muslim?

The women all agreed to fol­low Islam, fearing they would be killed otherwise. Their training began.

Ms. Amos described a six-tiered daily education track for the women that she described as Primary One, Primary Two and so on. The first two levels were Quranic training. Primary Three was training in suicide bomb­ing and beheading. “How to kill a person and how to bomb a house,” she said.

“They told us if we came upon a group of 10 to 20 people to press this,” she speaking of a detonator.

The instruction given in the up­per levels of the training — Pri­mary Four, Five and Six — was a closely guarded secret among the fighters. Ms. Amos said she never learned what took place there.

Ms. Amos was lucky. Boko Haram fighters decided not to “marry” her, a euphemism for the rapes the group commits, because she already had a hus­band and children. She counted 14 women and four girls in her training classes who were not as fortunate.

Throughout her months in captivity, Ms. Amos was fed one meal a day and lost weight, a fact confirmed by her nephew living in the Minawao camp, who stared at her scrawny frame and said, “She used to be a big woman.”

Boko Haram incorporated the lack of food into the training, Ms. Amos said. Several months ago, she said, fighters rounded up the women and took them to an old factory to view a set of plump, well-fed girls who had plenty of food and water. Follow our ways, the fighters said, and you can have enough to eat, like these girls.

The girls, some of them crying, told Ms. Amos they were from Chibok, the Nigerian village where Boko Haram had captured the schoolgirls. American State Department and military officials said they would investigate the statements from Ms. Amos about the girls.

“They were very fat,” Ms. Amos said, compared with her­self and the other women who were held, “and they had lots of water.”

Credit: The New York Times.

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