The phrase “suicide bombing” has become part of normal parlance. It is most often associated with Islamist groups like Daesh (ISIS) or al-Qaeda, and was first used by a group affiliated with Hezbollah in early 1980s Beirut, Lebanon. However the act is not exclusive to Islamist or even religious ideologies: groups like the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka have used such attacks as part of their strategy to achieve political goals, and the “kamikaze” pilots of WWII Japan likewise seem to fit such a description.
With the attacks on Paris and Brussels earlier this year, the act of a man or woman strapping on a vest of explosives, walking to a populated area and detonating themselves as a bomb has again drawn worldwide attention.
But a lesser known and rarely discussed setting may serve to reorient how we think of suicide bombings. While ISIS is seen to pose the biggest threat to Europe and the Middle East, their efforts have been outmatched in the last year by the group known as Boko Haram, the terrorist group operating mostly in northern Nigeria. This group that operates in the peripheries of Western consciousness gained global infamy when its members kidnapped 276 young girls from the town of Chibok in 2014. The majority of those girls, taken two years ago this month, have yet to be rescued, though this week the U.S. government swore they had not been forgotten.
Some, tragically, have made their way to the battlefield. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported an interview with Rahila Amos, a Nigerian woman who had escaped Boko Haram’s clutches to Cameroon, a space of relative stability in an unstable sea, with her two children and one grandchild. The story she tells is one of almost unimaginable suffering: harsh confinement, routine sexual violence and intentional impregnation of captives.
During such ordeals, the terrorist group has apparently begun giving lessons to these women on how to effectively carry out suicide bombings, including how to carry the bomb, how to elude notice by authorities (who are less suspicious of women), and where to detonate for maximum effect.
According to The Long War Journal, over 100 women have served as suicide bombers for Boko Haram since the first was reported in June 2014.
It would seem self-evident that the label of “suicide bomber” should apply to the cases of Africa, Europe and the Middle East alike. They all see individuals who, as a consequence of killing others, kill themselves by the same means. Their suicides are part and parcel of their homicides.
However when members of groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda blow themselves up, they are driven by a fervent devotion to a twisted interpretation of Islam, and see their act as a means to regain some lost dignity, die a hero, and achieve paradise. They are seen as martyrs, dying for God and Islam.
Dying in such an attack against the enemy is seen as the highest devotion and sacrifice. The term they use for such attacks is not “suicide bombings” – since suicide is a forbidden act for Muslims – but rather “martyrdom operations.” It is not an act of despair that looks to alleviate one’s suffering in the world, but a privilege and duty performed against the agents of political and cultural oppression. It is a good death.
The women who were taken by Boko Haram have no such ideological recourse. Amos identifies as Christian, and though many in the area are Muslim it is decidedly not the Islam of Boko Haram.
Though possible, it seems unlikely that these women would have so deeply internalized the mentality of their captors and rapists. Their lives are not being given in a measure of devotion; their lives had been snatched from them long ago by men drunk on power and violence. Their act is not done as a means of gaining glory and renown. They are acts that end an existence which sees fear, starvation and despair morning noon and night. They have no hope, and after two years of little aid, fear that no one is coming to save them.
Women like Rahila who escaped such circumstances possess a strength I cannot comprehend. Persevering through a life of fear and desperation, feeling forgotten by the world. Waking daily to find themselves captives of the worst of humanity. When I try, when I imagine what it would be to live in conditions so dreadful that no words could adequately describe them, I can only think I might find solace in the escape such a bombing would offer. An end to rape and torture. An end to hopelessness and despair. An end to a life already lost.
These acts are unequivocally terrible, but their agents deserve pity. These killings are inexcusable, but complicate any easy determinations of innocence and guilt.
These are suicide bombings.