WARRI, Nigeria—What we call Boko Haram is a fractured, brutal, and deeply cynical collection of killers supposedly waging a religious war against the government of Nigeria. But as the government’s military offensive continues to deprive them of territory, these would-be holy warriors have resorted to the use of women and children, even infants, as part of their suicide-bombing avant-garde. And at the same time they have targeted public health programs, trying to stop campaigns to vaccinate children, and thus putting many tens of thousands at risk.
All this is done in the name of what they call Islam. But this has become a war on innocents.
The town of Madagali, located just at the edge of Sambissa forest in Nigeria’s northeastern Adamawa state, is a place where Boko Haram often uses young girls as walking bombs. Since Nigerian forces regained control of the town in 2015, over 100 people have been killed by female bombers in four separate attacks in Madagali. But after last month’s deadly bombing in which 56 civilians were killed, security was beefed up. Now anyone entering the town is searched first by local vigilantes—and then by the military.
This new screening system—though of much greater risk to security personnel—has proved effective. A couple of intended suicide attacks have been foiled this month by members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), a group of locals helping the military fight Boko Haram, and also by Nigerian soldiers.
On Jan. 4, three female suicide bombers were shot dead in Bakin Dutse, a village in Gulak town close to Madagali. Officials said the three girls had planned to attack a market in Gulak before they were intercepted.
“On seeing them [the suicide bombers] fast approaching, they [the CJTF] asked them to stop, but the girls declined, instead running faster, so one was instantly gunned down and the bomb on her body exploded. So also the second girl,” said Yusuf Gulak, a local official, in an interview with ICIR Nigeria. “The third girl attempted to run but could not succeed as she was also shot dead.”
A week before this incident, the CJTF foiled an attempt by two female suicide bombers to attack a cattle market in the restive city of Maiduguri in neighboring Borno state. The vigilantes suspected they were carrying bombs when the girls rushed passed security and began to roam around the market. One of them accidentally blew herself up as the CJTF came after her, and the other was arrested by the vigilante group.
After these failures, Boko Haram adopted a new form of attack—bombing with babies.
Two weeks ago, three female suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing at least 11 people and injuring 14 others as they approached a CJTF checkpoint entering Madagali.
One of the suicide bombers had a baby on her back, an apparent move to fool security officials into believing that she was a nursing mother and, as such, shouldn’t be suspected of being a terrorist.
Witnesses said she was wearing a long hijab, or veil, which covered the baby, and in-between her and the child was a bomb which the infant was resting against.
“She was the first to approach the vigilantes, who didn’t suspect her because she was carrying a baby,” a member of the CJTF who had been briefed on the incident by colleagues who were present, told The Daily Beast. “After she slipped through, she stood at a corner waiting for the other girls.”
But the others appeared to be too scared of passing through security as they kept roaming round the checkpoint, reluctant to advance. When men from the CJTF approached them, they detonated their devices, killing a couple of the vigilantes in the process. The first suicide bomber then blew up herself and the baby.
“She must have thought that she would be shot by the soldiers nearby if she didn’t act fast,” the CJTF member said. “It appeared their main target was actually the market close to the checkpoint.”
The use of innocent infants as forced accomplices in suicide bombings has been tested by the jihadists in the past, but without so much success.
On Nov. 28, precisely, a woman suicide bomber carrying a baby on her back was shot by soldiers at a checkpoint in Maiduguri. Her explosives detonated as a result of the shot, killing the woman and the baby. Since then, no suicide attack involving a baby has been reported.
Earlier, when the jihadists began to deploy female suicide bombers, the girls had bombs tied firmly to their backs in the same manner used by many women to carry their children in northern Nigeria.
“Now that the CJTF is aware of this trick, it is going to be more vigilant,” said Yusuf Mohammed, an advisor to the vigilante group, based in Maiduguri. “No one is going overlook any lady because she is pregnant, or because she is carrying a baby.”
The use of innocents to kill innocents took another turn last week when a 7-year-old boy blew himself up during dawn prayers inside a Maiduguri mosque.
Among those killed was Aliyu Mani, the director of veterinary medicene at the University of Maiduguri. The highly respected 59-year-old professor died on the spot.
His young, schoolboy killer had been sent on his mission of death by the Boko Haram faction that’s headed by Abubakar Shekau, a man even the so-called Islamic State won’t accept as legitimate.
Authorities said a second suicide bomber—a teenage girl—was seen in a separate wing of the school speaking to herself. When officials asked her to identify herself, she detonated her bomb and died.
Shekau, in a released audio message, claimed the group carried out the attack because the university was mixing “Islam with democracy.”
“We carried out the attack in the morning and I am speaking to you this evening,” he said in the local Hausa language. “Here in Maiduguri… you will see more of these attacks.”
Shekau did not make a specific link, but the bombing at the university came just days after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a mass vaccination campaign to protect more than 4 million children—aged 6 to 10—in northeastern Nigeria against the potentially deadly measles virus.
Immediately, some locals in Maiduguri began spreading rumors that the vaccines are stored in the university’s medical department, thus making it a likely Boko Haram target. And professor Mani, the victim with the biggest profile, has been a leading voice in the call for regular vaccinations for students and practitioners in the field.
“He stands for everybody without segregation,” said Philemon Columbus, a veterinary medicine lecturer at the University of Abuja in Nigeria’s capital city, who studied under Mani. “He does not look at religion. He does not look at ethnicity. He’s so transparent.”
Boko Haram has never hidden its hatred for vaccinations and those who carry them out, and it can draw on deep currents of suspicion.
Vaccinations—especially polio vaccinations—are widely viewed not just by Boko Haram, but by a number of Muslim clerics in northern Nigeria, as a conspiracy to sterilize young girls and eliminate the country’s Muslim population.
In 2003, a Kano physician heading the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria said the medicine had been “corrupted and tainted by evildoers from America and their Western allies.” Not long after that, the Kano state government suspended polio immunization for 13 months as suspicion surrounding the program grew. As a result, the number of infections increased massively and the virus spread to 17 countries that had been polio-free.
Deadly attacks on health workers involved with vaccination campaigns in Nigeria started in 2012 not long after the trend began in Pakistan, where militants accused them of spying for the U.S. following reports that a Pakistani doctor ran a fake vaccination program to help the CIA track down and kill Osama bin Laden.
In October of that year, two police officers involved in guarding an immunization campaign were shot and killed in Kano by suspected Boko Haram militants.
The jihadists are also believed to have killed nine female polio vaccinators in two shootings at health centers in northwestern Nigeria nearly five years ago. In the first attack in February 2013 in Kano, the biggest city in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north, the polio vaccinators were shot dead by gunmen who drove up on a motor tricycle. Half an hour later gunmen targeted a clinic in the Unguwa Uku neighbourhood—just outside Kano—as the vaccinators prepared to start work. Four people were killed in the incident.
Why take such risks to immunize children against measles, a disease many in the West see as a minor problem?
In fact the disease claimed more than 134,000 lives globally in 2015, and in Nigeria’s Borno state, for example, more than 77 percent of children younger than 5 have never received the vaccine.
“Massive disruption to health services in conflict-affected areas for many years has deprived these children of essential childhood vaccinations,” said Wondimagegnehu Alemu, WHO Representative in Nigeria, in a statement by the organization. “In addition, many of them have severe malnutrition, making them extremely vulnerable to serious complications and death from measles.”
But Boko Haram will see this move as un-Islamic—a Western plot against it—and to fight back against this effort to save children, it may well use its new weapons of choice: the children themselves.