Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group based in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding regions, has horrified the international community with its use of children in terrorist attacks. A new report from UNICEF reveals that the number of child suicide bombers has grown alarmingly over the past three years — and continues to rise.
Since 2014, a total of 117 children in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger have been manipulated, drugged, or otherwise coerced into attempting or carrying out suicide attacks, according to the report. 2017 has seen no reprieve; as of March, Boko Haram has used 27 children in attacks. The group disproportionately uses girls; more than 80 percent of these children are female. Boko Haram’s increasing reliance on suicide bombings stems from military setbacks as coalition forces have handed it numerous defeats.
“Before they came we heard on the radio that they use children as suicide bombers,” said Awali, a 13 year old abducted from Kukawa in northeastern Nigeria, according to the report, which didn’t provide other details. “My fear is that they would make us be suicide bombers.”
So many children have either carried out attacks or have been discovered wearing suicide belts that guards at checkpoints now view children with suspicion. Young people who have escaped the militant group face growing stigma and may have difficulty rejoining their own communities. The Nigerian military has detained hundreds of children suspected of ties to Boko Haram. These children “are held in military barracks, separated from their parents, without medical follow-up, without psychological support, without education, under conditions and for durations that are unknown,” UNICEF regional coordinator Patrick Rose said in a statement provided to news agencies.
Amina, a 16 year old from Chad, was drugged and then forced alongside three others to put on a pack of explosives, then board a canoe headed toward a bustling market. When two of the others detonated their packs, Amina lost her legs in the explosion. She survived, but her family had to be persuaded to accept her back.
The abduction of children is an important feature of Boko Haram’s strategy. The systematic practice provides the militant group with manual labor, fighters, and wives for its members. The 2014 abduction of 276 girls from the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria brought global attention to the phenomenon as the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls trended worldwide. To date, dozens of the girls have escaped or been released, but many still remain in captivity.
Boko Haram was founded in 2002, and in 2009 began military campaigns in an attempt to create an Islamic state. The United States designated it a terrorist organization in 2013. In 2014, the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the territories it controlled, and Shekau later pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. But Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger formed a coalition to fight the militants, and by March 2015, Boko Haram had lost many of the settlements it had once controlled.
In December 2015, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said the group had been “technically defeated.” But with an estimated 9,000 men still fighting, and 27 children forced into suicide belts in 2017 alone, it’s clear that Boko Haram is far from gone.
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