Suicide Bombings In Nigeria: Who Answers The Call To Be A Bomber?



There was once upon a time where one would have argued that Nigeria would never face terrorism and suicide bombings, that Nigerians love their lives too much and will never sacrifice themselves for a “foreign” cause; but things have changed a great deal. With the regrouping and growth of Boko Haram (BH), there has been an increase in suicide bombing attacks against targets in Nigeria predominantly in the North East.

More concerning is the increase in the use of females as suicide bombers. This increase appeared to be directly proportionate to the kidnap of over 200 girls from Chibok. The suicide bombing tactic is now so popular that a country such as Nigeria that previously had no history of suicide attacks now seems to have a never ending supply of individuals to operate as human bombs or “smart bombs” as it is called among some counterterrorism professionals.

There are so many questions, but so few answers. The foremost being why haven’t the Chibok girls been found? Are the Chibok girls being used as suicide bombers? Why would these girls agree to kill themselves and other innocent Nigerians with them? Why don’t the girls try and run away, instead of detonating at the intended target and causing mass casualties?

Chibok girls represent 20% of the total number of females Boko Haram has kidnapped. According to Amnesty International, at least 2,000 women and girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since the beginning of 2014. The female suicide bombers may not be only the Chibok girls. Who then are these other female suicide bombers and why will they agree to do this?

Why is BH using suicide bombing as a major part of their armed campaign?

Suicide bombings are typically part of an overall insurgent strategy usually employed by a terrorist group who is acting out of desperation and weakness but is attempting to appear strong. Anne Speckhard, Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and author of Diffusing Human Bombs: Understanding Suicide Terrorism explained it as “When a much weaker group is pitted against a larger, more powerful, better financed and militarily equipped group, and suicide terrorism becomes the tactic of choice, it can undeniably be seen by the weaker group as strategically both efficient and more likely to lead to desired results than any other method of violence”. Suicide bombing has become a major tactic in the armed campaign of BH because it offers several advantages to them.

For starters, they are inexpensive. A lethal bomb can be made using cheap and easy to access ingredients. For example, on August 7th, 2015, Nigerian Army troops discovered piles of street lamp poles used in making Improvised Explosives Devices.

They are highly efficient; A top Israeli military officer once explained that “when you have a combatant with 30 pounds of TNT. Add a human brain and you get a smart bomb. It’s a new kind of battlefield”. Suicide bombers have been dubbed smart bombs because they are able to find their way to their intended target and adjust their detonation instructions as the situation permits. Using a suicide bomber guarantees that the attack will occur at the most apt time and place.

For example, on August 26th, 2015, there was a suicide bombing attack in Damaturu, Yobe state. The 12 yr old female suicide bomber was attempting to enter the motor park when the individuals manning the motor park entrance tried to search her. She pulled away from them and headed in the direction of a loaded vehicle and her IED detonated, killing 6 individuals.

Another reason suicide bombing is an insurgent’s tactic of choice is because it is difficult to prevent and trace. Once a bomber is mentally and physically ready, the attacker will detonate and cause some form of fatality. Obviously, the dead bomber cannot be interrogated thus security authorities are unable to gather more information about the mindset and plan of the attackers.

Suicide attacks are also highly lethal and extremely horrifying. Suicide bombings are much more lethal than most other kinds of attack, because they generate high casualty rates. This means they will get a lot of media attention and, to the terrorists, publicity is key and crowded places are the ideal targets to achieve that. Suicide bombing attacks typically strike soft targets and crowded areas, which leads to mass casualties. The trauma of the attack coupled with the amplified media coverage, perpetuates fear among the public and citizens of the country, which is ultimately the goal of the terrorists.

Why would anyone answer the call to be a suicide bomber?

The motivation of the suicide bombers in Nigeria could fall under what Anne Speckhard described as trauma based motivation. In this instance, suicide bomb candidates could be individuals who have witnessed firsthand the gory death or killing of their loved ones, family members or neighbors. Many have grown up witnessing countless acts of violence. Many have been humiliated and have had unspeakable acts done to them. To these would be candidates, the constant flashbacks and anger at their inability to change their circumstances make them emotionally numb to the point that they often refer to themselves as “already dead”. For them, death is a welcome release.

According to a Human Rights Watch investigation, female captives of Boko Haram are subjected to rape, torture and forced marriage. Imagine a girl 12 years of age, who saw her father get slaughtered like an animal, and her mother got killed while trying to protect her. She is then taken into a forest and used as a sex slave, where she is raped several times daily. Such a person may feel she has nothing else to live for and may want to choose death in the hope of easing the pain.

It is very frequent that orphaned children are recruited as suicide bombers. They are made to believe that as a reward for their action, they will gain entrance to paradise where they will meet their lost family members.
Would be suicide bombers also tend to be impressionable youth who are easily influenced. They are introduced to the terrorist group’s school of thought. They are taught what it means to be a martyr and about sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the group. It is known that the majority of BH fighters and kidnapped victims are young teenagers which, regrettably, give the terrorist group a pool of recruits to choose from.

In other instances, the suicide bombers could be females who are being held against their will in an environment where they are considered inferior and have no voice. They are forced to obey all commands given to them. Unwilling suicide bombers are often threatened and intimidated by the terrorist group. The unwilling bombers are told that if they do not comply, their surviving family members will bear the brunt of their refusal. The terrorists may threaten to rape, beat or sell their mothers and sisters, or kill their brothers and fathers. Drugs and various narcotics are given to them in order for the would-be bombers to lose all common sense.

If the bomber is initially willing to carry out the mission but somehow develops cold feet on their way to the intended target, it is possible that the vests are detonated for them, from a distance via remote control by an insurgent whose job is to hang around the area and ensure that the mission accomplished.

Terrorists prefer the use of female suicide bombers as they are usually more successful in carrying out their attacks. Due to their perceived vulnerability, they are easily able to deceive members of the security forces. The bombs can be concealed much easily underneath their clothing or in their hand bags. Also, their self sacrifice tends to hit harder at the psyche of the public as it comes as an inexplicable shock every time and garners widespread media attention.

How can it be curbed?

Author of Suicide Bomb Interdiction Dov Zwerling, gave this illustration: When a suicide bomber was about to carry out his mission against Israeli targets, the suicide bomber was dressed like an orthodox Jew with his black slacks, white shirt, skull cap and a jacket. He walked up to a woman to ask her for directions. The woman noticed something suspicious that only a person with local knowledge of the correct dress sense will know. She noticed something in his clothing was mismatched (this could be the equivalent of wearing a Chelsea scarf and an Arsenal shirt), he seemed out of place. She alerted some Israeli law enforcement agents in the area. When they approached the young man to ask for his ID, he turned around, mumbled something and detonated his suicide vest. The law enforcement agents along with the help of a discerning citizen helped prevent a potentially catastrophic situation.

Mitigating active suicide bombers is difficult at best. Successful interdictions sometimes occur in situations where the bomber was not ready to blow up, when there were technical problems with the vest and even when the bomber had second thoughts. Either way, one of the major steps that can be taken by members of the public to mitigate the danger of suicide bombings is counter-surveillance,

Counter-surveillance is an important step in the prevention and detection of suicide bombers, and it involves members of the public being observant and reporting suspicious persons and activity to security authorities. Careful watch should be paid to individuals who are nervous, jittery, sweating profusely and seem out of place, both in the way they walk and dress. Such persons may wear outfits that don’t compliment the weather or the style of dressing in the area. They may also be well-dressed, clean shaven and perfumed which could be a sign of “ritualistic hygiene” typically carried out by would-be suicide bombers in preparation to “meet their maker”.

Secondly, a few extra measures can be taken to harden targets in order to protect and secure the population and installations, especially in high risk or repeat attack areas. Hardening of targets involves practices such as the use of security guards, physical barriers and other technical security solutions. Should a suicide bomber successfully detonate their IED, members of the public need to make way for first response individuals who must cordon the area, and carry out proper post-blast forensics and analysis.

Carrying out post blast forensics could reveal vital information including secondary insurgents who were either the ones responsible for detonating the bomb remotely, or the ones who were recording the attack for the terrorists’ media propaganda. It may also reveal other insurgents who are getting ready to carry out a secondary attack. The value of post-blast forensics for prevention is linked to analysis of the bombing which can tell police about future bombs, targets, and tactics

The Taliban in Afghanistan were on the losing side of the war against coalition forces. They soon got wind of the success in the use of IEDs and Suicide bombers against foreign troops in Iraq. A few years later, counter-IED analysts started observing Iraqi-style IEDs showing up in Afghanistan.

The unfortunate truth about the use of suicide bombers is that once the insurgents realize that the tactic is successful in creating instability, chaos and fear among members of the society, they will soon adopt that tactic in other parts of the country. On August 31st, 2015, the Nigerian DSS reported apprehending members of Boko Haram in Lagos, Kano, Enugu, Plateau and Gombe states; well outside their areas of operation. One of the members was an IED making expert who had been involved in making IED vests used in carrying out attacks in other parts of the country. It is possible they are looking to replicate their success in suicide bombings in other parts of the country.

Our understanding of suicide bombings is important in ensuring that the members of the public, the government and security professionals adapt new techniques, plans, and strategies to effectively combat this menace, for it is in doing this, that the country might continue to experience some semblance of confidence, peace and stability.

Tanwa Ashiru

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