MAIDUGURI, Nigeria—They waited until it was the Friday before the Eid el Maulud celebrating the birth of Prophet Muhammad when the Madagali market would very busy, very crowded. And then they struck: Two schoolgirls blew themselves up.
In that one attack on December 9 in Nigeria’s northeastern Adamawa state 56 people died.
There was little doubt that a faction of Boko Haram was behind it.
Witnesses said that the girls walked innocently into the section of the market where vegetables and second-hand clothing were sold, acting as if they had something they wanted to buy, before they triggered their bombs.
“The duo moved from one section of the market to the other surveying the most populous part,” a local revenue collector who had seen the teenage girls before the attacks told Vanguard, a local newspaper. “They ensured that the market was at its peak before they detonated their deadly wares.”
It is still not clear what school the attackers attended before they were taken into the terrorist ranks and persuaded to end their brief lives. Could they have been two of hundreds of girls famously abducted from the Chibok school in 2014?
The army has yet to respond to The Daily Beast requests for clarification.
Madagali is a town located just at the edge of Boko Haram’s Sambissa forest stronghold where close to 200 of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls are still believed to be held. But they are not the only young women and children there.
Since the Nigerian military regained control of the town from Boko Haram in 2015, bomb attacks on soft targets have been frequent, and most if not all have been carried out by young girls.
At least 123 female suicide bombers have been used by Boko Haram since June 2014 when a young lady riding a motorcycle detonated her explosives at a military barracks in the northeastern town of Gombe, according to The Long War Journal, which monitors the activities of terrorist groups.
Many of these female bombers have been used in Madagali.
In three separate attacks in the town late last year, female bombers took the lives of nearly 50 people. The greatest slaughter before last Friday occurred at a bus stop where at least 30 people were killed when two attackers detonated their suicide belts in December 2015.
“Female bombers are the biggest threat to Magadali,” said Akor Jackson, Project Manager of IYDEA Nigeria, an organization that assists disabled Boko Haram victims . “Girls keep appearing from this forest and carrying out deadly attacks in the town.”
There are also fears that Friday’s killers may have used components from old Nigerian military cluster bombs. Some victims were wounded as far as 100 meters away from the explosion. Boko Haram has carried out attacks in the past using such munitions which, when detonated, scatter fragments able to pierce 4 milimeters of steel at a distance of 10 meters, and can kill within a radius of 50 meters. Last year, Nigerian military engineers found cluster bomb caches in a number of places in Adamawa state.
A military official told The Daily Beast the investigators “are still finding out” what kind of munitions were used last Friday, but it’s likely the militants still have some of the cluster bombs.
On one rare occasion in October a male suicide bomber tried to infiltrate to attack Nigerian soldiers patrolling Madagali. He was intercepted and neutralized. But the terrorists have almost always succeeded with girls.
Members of the vigilante group known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) have seen more cases than they can count. “Two in every three persons rescued by the military or the CJTF are female,” said Yusuf Mohammed, an advisor to the vigilantes. The Boko Haram militants “focus on kidnapping girls because they believe if these people become wives, it is easy to convince them to kill,” he said.
Certainly, many of the girls used in these bombings are brainwashed by their captors. A number of those whose suicide missions failed have revealed that they are persuaded by Boko Haram militants to seek martyrdom by fighting for God’s cause.
“They said, ‘You will go to heaven if you do it,’” 14-year-old Zahra'u Babangida told reporters in the northwestern city of Kano, where she was arrested by the police after her suicide bombing attempt in December 2014 failed. “I never had any intention of doing it,” she claimed.
According the confessions of failed bombers, before embarking on any mission they get final instructions from their commanders about where to place the bomb, how to detonate it, and when to make it happen, according to a young lady who escaped from Boko Haram and took shelter at an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp near the northeastern town of Maiduguri.
“They tell us to place it [the bomb] under our armpit and support it with our arm so that it doesn’t fall,” said Falmata, one of three women who fled when the militants asked them to fetch firewood. “They said we have to press it [the detonator] if we count up to 10 people very close to us.”
In the last two years, Madagali has had a number of its women and girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants, many of whom have yet to return. Like most of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls, nothing has been heard about the 45 girls kidnapped by militants from the town in October 2014. There’s been no news also about the unspecified number of women and children abducted in 2015, but authorities did succeed in rescuing 16 women and girls seized in March.
With many Madagali girls in captivity now forced to do the terrorists will, locals believe the same girls have been doing the bombings for Boko Haram.
“They [the militants] are sending back those who know the terrain to do the bombings,” said Jackson, who hails from Adamawa. “Sambissa is not far away from here, so it’s easy to return.”
The attacks on Friday were the biggest since the Nigerian government secured the release of 21 of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls three months ago in what surprisingly turned out to reignite Boko Haram’s taste for blood.
Since the release was made, the militants have stepped up their attacks, focusing a lot more on men in uniform. A number of soldiers have been killed in well planned missions and scores of others are reported to be missing.
“The militants are acting as if the release of the 21 Chibok schoolgirls was an incentive to carry out bloody attacks,” says Bala Chabiya, co-founder of the Hands of Love Organization, an initiative that works with rescued victims of Boko Haram. “Attacks rarely seen before October have been frequent since then.”
Day by day, it is turning out that the Nigerian army’s recent claim that the “terrorists have been defeated” appears to be a figment of its imagination. Friday’s attack on Madagali is just one proof that the war on terror is far from over.
Meanwhile With Boko Haram now in two factions, it is difficult to tell which group the girls worked for. But if the word of the man the so-called Islamic State said it appointed to run the sect is anything to go by, then we can easily conclude that this is an attack orchestrated by Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram. It has all the hallmarks of a typical Shekau act.
“We believe the Shekau group carried out the attacks,” said Babagana Usman, secretary general of the CJTF. “They are the ones always engaging us. The other group hasn’t stamped its feet yet.”
When ISIS announced in August that it had replaced Shekau with his protégé, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the latter took the stage to say his reformed group would never attack mosques and market places used by Muslims, but will rather deal with Christians by “booby-trapping and blowing up every church that we are able to reach, and killing all of those who we find from the citizens of the cross.”
The suicide bombers on Friday did exactly what he warned against.