Boko Haram’s Cluster-Bomb Girls

Captured French munitions have given the Nigeria terror group affiliated with ISIS a potent new weapon.

Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty

WARRI, Nigeria — Scores of bodies with bullet wounds and charred corpses littered the streets after a recent Boko Haram attack on Dalori village and two nearby camps housing 25,000 refugees, just 5 kilometers from the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri.

The shooting by heavily armed jihadists, and the firebombing of huts and children, had taken a toll before the military intervened effectively. By then, people had fled to the neighboring village of Gamori. And there, three female suicide bombers blew up among them. Altogether, between shooting, burning, and the blasts, at least 86 people were killed.

“The sound of the bombs was so loud and their impact was so heavy that it affected people about 400 meters away,” Yusuf Mohammed, a member of the government-backed Civilian JTF vigilante group, told The Daily Beast. “These weren’t just simple bombs.”

No, very probably they were not. Boko Haram’s recent deadly attacks have employed the explosives from French-made cluster bombs the group appears to have seized from government arsenals.

More precisely, they use the “bomblets” that air-dropped cluster bombs disperse on tiny parachutes, a type of munition used to kill people in a wide area and, in this era of much-talked-about “smart bombs,” one of the dumbest and most indiscriminate anti-personnel weapons available.

A Nigerian security official told The Daily Beast privately that the jihadists have adapted these French-made munitions for the suicide bombs used in recent attacks, especially in far north Cameroon.

They have enormous explosive power, but weigh less than a newborn baby, so they are easy for young girls to carry.

The Nigerian army had previously confirmed that the explosives used by two female suicide bombers in northern Cameroon on Oct. 11 were made in France.

In the attack in the northern Kangeleri Mora District, at least nine people were killed and about 29 other injured when two women detonated their explosives.

Based on photos published by the Nigerian military, the explosives’ serial number can be linked back to France, and the major defense contractor Matra.

In the early 1980s, Matra helped equip the Nigerian military with Belouga cluster bombs suitable for deployment on French Alpha Jets, used for close air support and ground attacks.

Each Belouga bomb weighs 285 kilos and contains 151 bomblets, or, as the French call them, grenades. Each of those GR-66-EG submunitions weighs only 1.3 kilos, or 2.87 pounds.

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When detonated, the grenades scatter fragments able to pierce 4 millimeters of steel at a distance of 10 meters, and can kill within a radius of 50 meters. Others are able to penetrate tank armor.

Last October, the Nigerian military said engineers had recently found cluster bomb caches in northeastern Adamawa state.

“These bombs are used against large areas containing many targets, such as columns of vehicles, market places, places of worship or large troop concentrations, as the case may be,” Col. Rabe Abubakar, acting director for Defence Information, said in statement. “Some cluster bombs carry several hundred very small explosives wrapped in a metal container like a pot, while others carry larger sub-munitions that can find specific targets such as tanks.”

According to RFI, the Paris-based French news radio, Boko Haram probably recovered the Belouga bombs in ammunition depots at Nigerian air bases in the north.

Nigerian pilots are said to have used the Belouga on bombing raids against forces loyal to rebel leader Jonny Koroma and his Armed Forces Revolutionary Council group in Sierra Leone in October 1997. The Koroma administration in Freetown at the time said civilians were also targeted, a claim that has been denied by the Nigerian government.

At that time, Nigeria was leading troops from the West African regional force ECOMOG seeking to take back power from Koroma and restore the ousted Sierra Leone president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

The recent Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), an international treaty that addresses the humanitarian consequences and unacceptable harm to civilians caused by cluster munitions through a categorical prohibition and a framework for action, prohibits all use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions.

A total of 118 states have joined the CCM, which entered into force in August 2010.

Nigeria, which has signed but not ratified the CCM, has yet to declare its stockpiles and detail how it would get rid of them, which raises the question of how many more bomblets might find their way into Boko Haram’s arsenal. And even if the Nigerian stockpiles are secured, those in nearby countries may not be.

“The simpleness of migration routes from Nigeria through eastern Niger to Libya makes weapon smuggling not exactly difficult, especially for Boko Haram, who are believed to have consistently moved fighters into Libya,” says Ushie Michael, a prominent Nigerian security analyst. “Libya has stockpiles of cluster bombs, and terrorists may have had access to them.”

In April 2011, it was reported that forces of then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi had used cluster bombs in the conflict between government forces and rebel forces during the battle for Misrata.

Bob Seddon, a former head of bomb disposal for the British Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an ordnance expert, told AFP that Boko Haram militants could also have acquired cluster bombs from the former Libyan stockpile and altered them for use in their attacks.

“It looks like BH are using the sub-munitions as a ready-made anti-personnel warhead in their IEDs,” Seddon suggested after looking at the published photographs. “They have removed the fuse on one of the sub-munitions and have replaced it with detonating cord (and I would also assume a small donor explosive charge).”

Seddon added that the “approach would allow a number of sub-munitions to be connected together” and that “they could be initiated either by command, as an ambush weapon, or they could be used in victim-operated IEDs.”

“I wouldn’t say that these munitions are game changers, but the Belouga has a very effective anti-personnel warhead,” he wrote to the Paris-based news agency. “I would expect an individual Belouga sub-munition to have a lethal effect on unprotected personnel over a radius of 5 to 10 meters (16 to 32 feet).”

In a crowd of terrified villagers huddling together after an attack like the one on Dalori, that’s a kill radius that’s devastating, and even a young girl can make it happen.