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However, Boko Haram depends on female operatives disproportionately, relative to similar insurgencies; for example, the Tamil Tigers used 46 women over the course of 10 years, whereas Boko Haram has deployed more than 90 women in a little over a year and a half.
The UN expressed “grave concern” over the numerous accounts of rape, sexual slavery, and forced marriage perpetrated by jihadist groups like ISIL and Boko Haram, as well as widespread gender-based violence by armed groups in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Libya, and Yemen.The 89 attacks documented between June 2014 and January 2016, mostly of civilian soft targets, are responsible for more than 1,200 deaths and an even greater number of injuries.The adoption of female suicide bombers is not especially surprising as an operational adaptation to increased state surveillance of the group’s activities; it has been a tactic adopted by secular and religious terrorist groups from Sri Lanka to Syria.Given their seemingly feminine facade, they are categorically perceived as gentle and non-threatening.Further, they constitute a potentially large pool of recruits, a resource that terrorist organizations can draw from and cash in on.Unfortunately, while the focus on the victimized girls helped garner international support, the effort overlooked the role that women and girls play in the insurgency’s operations and ideology, depriving analysts of critical insights about the functioning of the group.
The timing of the group’s use of females as weapons conforms to the use of gender-based violence globally as a recruitment strategy by terrorist organizations in conflicts as diverse as Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Iraq.
But women have not merely been disproportionately victimized by modern conflicts, they are playing an increasingly important role in the tactical operations of terrorist groups and insurgencies.
Many, including one of the authors, have highlighted the role that revenge or retribution plays in galvanizing female participation and note the prevalence of widows among female militants.
As Angela Dalton and Victor Asal assert, when discussing female suicide bombers: The very fact of being female is proven to enjoy several tactical advantages.
First, women suicide terrorists capitalize and thrive on the “element of surprise.” They can take advantage of cultural reluctance toward physical searches to evade detection.
This is especially disturbing as many jihadi groups herald women’s “purity,” defined in an oppressive and patriarchal way, as a main goal for the movement and emphasize in their propaganda the need to protect “their sisters in Islam” from abuse by secular communities.