Child Bombers Become Militant Weapon as Nigeria Presses Assault

  • United Nations cites ‘worrying increase’ in use of children
  • Most child bombers this year have been girls, Unicef Says

Children as young as nine are being used as bombers by Boko Haram as Nigeria’s army presses its campaign to destroy one of Africa’s deadliest Islamist militant groups.

Boko Haram, which has declared allegiance to Islamic State, has sent waves of so-called suicide bombers, including women and children, to northeastern towns to detonate explosives at checkpoints, markets and mosques. Last month two teenage girls touched off explosives near a mosque at the University of Maiduguri in the Borno state capital, killing four people including themselves and injuring 17 others.

“2017 has seen a worrying increase in the use of children -- we have reports of up to nine children, mostly girls, who have already been used in this way,” said Rachel Harvey, the United Nations Children’s Fund’s chief of child protection, in Abuja, the capital.

Boko Haram is increasingly relying on child suicide bombers in attacks as President Muhammadu Buhari’s army drives out the militants from areas they held in the northeastern state of Borno close to the borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The group has kidnapped thousands of children, including more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014, in a war that’s forced 1.8 million people from their homes and left about 5 million needing food aid this year, according to the UN.

Teenage Girls

In recent weeks there have been bombers as young as nine years old, said Victor Isuku, the police spokesman in Maiduguri. Security forces now look for tell-tale signs of a potential child bomber such as rigid movement caused by the explosives strapped to the abdomen and a distant expression on the face of the youngster, who’s often alone, he said.

“Last year most of the suicide bombers were teenage girls,” he said in an interview. “The insurgents have taken advantage of the way the society perceives women and children. Everyone is now a suspect regardless of your age or sex.”

Boko Haram’s call to install strict Islamic law in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria may attract some students in madrassas, schools where children as young as five, known as the “almajiri,” are left in the care of Koranic scholars and resort to begging in the streets until they become teenagers.

While in the region’s feudal past the schools provided a steady pipeline of cheap labor for the elite, they don’t have the skills to find work in a modern economy, said William Hansen, a politics professor at the American University of Nigeria in the northeastern city of Yola. A significant number of Boko Haram members, including its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and current leader Abubakar Shekau, attended madrassas, he said.

“The almajiri is a pool of young men vulnerable to the blandishments of Boko Haram,” Hansen said Wednesday by phone from Yola. “All don’t become Boko Haram, but they’re vulnerable to their argument.”