(Un)Willing to Die: Boko Haram and Suicide Terrorism in Nigeria

Although the BH had incubated in northern Nigeria for over a decade, it was not until July 2009 when it provoked a short-lived anti-government uprising in northern Nigeria that it became a subject of serious security concern in national and international security desks.


Suicide terrorism anywhere in the world encapsulates a common paradox: a mixture of those who are willing to die and those who are unwilling to die. While those who are willing to die are the suicide terrorists, the victims of such act of terror constitute those who are unprepared to die. This infamous reality has become the latest of many nightmares that Nigerians face, given the ramping up of suicide attacks by the extremist Islamic sect, Boko Haram (henceforth BH). Although the BH had incubated in northern Nigeria for over a decade, it was not until July 2009 when it provoked a short-lived anti-government uprising in northern Nigeria that it became a subject of serious security concern in national and international security desks. The 2009 revolt ended when its charismatic leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was finally captured and later brutally murdered by the Nigerian police. 

Following the death of Yusuf and the mass killings and arrest of many of their members, the sect retreated and re-strategised in two ways. First was the adoption of Yusuf’s hard-line deputy, Abu-Mohammad Abubakar ibn Mohammad al-Shakwi (Abubakar Shekau), alias “Darul Tawheed”, as its new spiritual leader. Second was the redefinition of its tactics, which involved perfecting its traditional hit-and-run tactics and adding new flexible violent tactics, such as placement of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), targeted assassination, drive-by shooting and suicide bombings. 

Particularly worrisome is the adoption of suicide bombing, which has further created a deep sense of insecurity and psychological trauma among the members of the public. This article discusses the evolving threat of suicide bombing by the sect, highlighting the various modes of its suicide attacks. It also proffered recommendations that could help stem the threat.  

Understanding the Boko Haram

Most local and foreign media trace the origin of the BH to 2002. However, its true historical root dates back to 1995, when Abubakar Lawan established the Ahlulsunna wal’jama’ah hijra or Shabaab group (Muslim Youth Organisation) in Maduigiri, Borno State. It flourished as a non-violent movement until when Mohammed Yusuf assumed leadership of the sect in 2002. Over time, the group has metamorphosed under various names like the Nigerian Taliban, Muhajirun, Yusufiyyah sect, and BH. The sect, however, prefers to be addressed as the Jama’atu Ahlissunnah Lidda’awati wal Jihad, meaning a "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad".

The sect treats anything western as completely un-Islamic. It considers western influence on Islamic society as the basis of the religion’s weakness. Hence the sect’s declaration that conventional banking, taxation, jurisprudence, western institutions and particularly western education are infidel and as such must be avoided by Muslims.[1] Its ideological mission is to overthrow the secular Nigerian state and impose strict Islamic Sharia law in the country. Its members are motivated by the conviction that the Nigerian state is a cesspit of social vices, thus ‘the best thing for a devout Muslim to do was to “migrate” from the morally bankrupt society to a secluded place and establish an ideal Islamic society devoid of political corruption and moral deprivation’.[2] Non-members were therefore considered as kuffar (disbelievers; those who deny the truth) or fasiqun (wrong-doers).  

The BH was led by Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf until his death just after the July 2009 uprising. Before his death, Muhammad Yusuf was the Commander in Chief (Amir ul-Aam) or leader of the sect, and had two deputies (Na’ib Amir ul-Aam I & II). Each state where they existed had its own Amir (commander/leader), and each local government area where they operated also had an Amir. They also organised themselves according to various roles, such as soldiers and police, among others.[3] In the aftermath of Yusuf’s death, one of his deputies, Abubakar Shekau, became the new spiritual leader of the sect. Abubakar Shekau inherited, if not modified, the organisational structure of the sect. Under Shekau, the sect maintains a loose command-and-control structure, which allows it to operate autonomously. It now operates in some sort of cells and units that are interlinked, but generally, they take directives from one commander.[4] As shown in figure 1, Shekau now heads an 18-member Shura Consultative Council that authorises the growing sophisticated attacks by various cells of the sect since the July 2009 revolt. 

Figure 1: Hypothetical Organisational Structure of the BH under Abubakar Shekau

Figure 1: Hypothetical Organisational Structure of the BH under Abubaker Shekau

Source: Author’s elaboration

At its early stage, the sect was entrenched in Borno, Yobe, Katsina, and Bauchi states. Over time it has recruited more followers and established operating cells in almost all northern states, probably nursing the intention to spread further South. It draws its members mainly from disaffected youths, unemployed graduates and former Almajiris.

The sect finances its activities through several means, but four major streams stand out: payment of membership dues by members; donations from politicians and government officials; financial support from other terrorist group – Al Qaida; and organised crime, especially bank robbery. As security agencies tighten the noose on its funding streams, it is feared that the sect may turn to other criminal activities such as kidnapping, trafficking in SALWs and narcotics, and offering protection rackets for criminal networks to raise funds.[5]

Boko Haram: A History of Violence

The sect’s resort to violence in pursuit of its objective dates back to 24 December 2003 when it attacked police stations and public buildings in the towns of Geiam and Kanamma in Yobe State. In 2004 it established a base called ‘Afghanistan’ in Kanamma village in northern Yobe State. On 21 September 2004 members attacked Bama and Gworza police stations in Borno State, killing several policemen and stealing arms and ammunition. It maintained intermittent hit-and-run attacks on security posts in some parts of Borno and Yobe States until July 2009 when it provoked a major anti-government revolt. The fighting lasted from 26 to 30 July 2009, across five northern states: Bauchi, Borno, Kano, Katsina, and Yobe. Over 1000 persons, mainly the sect’s members, were also killed during the revolt and hundreds of its members were also arrested and detained for formal trial. The revolt ended when their leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was finally captured by the military and handed over to police.  Yusuf was extrajudicial murdered in police custody, although police officials claimed that he was killed while trying to escape. 

Since the July 2009 revolt, the sect has evolved from a group that waged poorly planned open confrontation with state security forces to one that increasingly uses IEDs, guerrilla warfare, targeted assassination, and suicide bombings in its violent campaign. Attacks have focused largely on state security
forces (police, soldiers, civil defence, and prison wardens, among others) and churches, and to a lesser extent on mosques, media houses, community and religious leaders, politicians, and other civilians who they consider as ‘enemies’. A conservative estimate of over 3,000 people had been killed by the sect since 2009. Its occasional dispatch of suicide bombers generates the greatest anxiety in Nigeria. 

Suicide Bombing: Boko Haram’s new Weapon of Choice

Although suicide terrorism has become a key dimension of modern terrorist acts, its application is harks back to ancient practice. Its “use by the Jewish sect of Zealots (Sicari) in Roman-occupied Judea and by the Islamic Order of Assassins (hashashin) during the early Christian Crusades, are legendary examples of its ancient historical root”.[6] Suicide terrorism refers to a form of extremely committed violence carried out in asymmetric fashion by someone who is intent on taking his or her own life or deceived into thinking he or she wants to take his or her own life in order to take the life of another or others.[7] The perpetrator’s ensured death is a precondition for the success of the mission. Thus, the terrorist is fully aware that if he or she does not die, the planned attack will not be implemented.[8] 

The use of suicide bombing is increasingly being embraced by terrorist and extremist groups. For instance, between October 2000 and October 2006 there were 167 clearly identified suicide bomber attacks, with 51 other types of suicide attack.[9] Analysts believe that the shift to suicide terrorism is not only a reaction to increased security and counterterrorism measures, but also the result of an evolution in the ideology of terrorists. In particular, the success and glorification of suicide operatives, such as the September 11 attackers, has been a critical factor in this ideological shift and globalization of martyrdom.[10]

On 16 June 2011, the BH dramatically changed the landscape of internal security in Nigeria when it mounted the first ever suicide bombing at the Police Headquarters in the Federal Capital city, Abuja (henceforth 16/6 bombing).[11] The 16/6 bombing marked a radical departure from BH’s previous operational tactics. On 26 August 2011, it dispatched another suicide bomber that rammed his car into the United Nations building in Abuja, killing 23 people and injuring many others. The UN bombing was devastating evidence that the group aims to internationalize its acts of terror. The sect has since 2011 made suicide bombing a key tactics in its violent campaign, adopting different modes and focusing on diverse military and civilian targets. 

The modes of its suicide attacks have largely involved fitting IEDs on common means of transportation in Nigeria – vehicles, motorcycles and tricycles – or strapped at the body of the suicide operative. The size of the IEDs ranges from small contraptions stuffed into used can drinks to large containers such as cylinders and drums fitted into the boot of a car. Thus, the sect so far has relied
mainly on vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), twice on body borne improvised explosive device (BBIED), and once each on motorcycle borne improvised explosive device (MBIED) and Tricycle (popularly known as Keke NAPEP) borne improvised explosive device (TBIED). Although data in table 1 is not exhaustive, it listed some of the suicide bombings by the sect.

Table 1: Some Reported Suicide Bombings mounted by the BH (June 2011- Nov 2012)






16 June 2011

Mohammed Manga (35 years old)

VBIED (ash-coloured Honda 86)

Police Headquarters, Federal Capital Territory, Abuja

At least 7 people were killed, about 33 vehicles were burnt beyond
  recognition and over 40 others damaged beyond repair

26 August 2011

Mohammed Abul Barra (27 years old)

VBIED (Honda Accord car)

UN House, Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

The explosion killed 24 persons and injured over 100 others.  The building houses over 400 staff of 26 UN
  humanitarian and development agencies. It was the sect’s first attack on an
  international organization

4 November 2011

26-year-old Abi Yusuf

VBIED (black Jeep)

JTF headquarters in Maiduguri, Borno State

The suicide bomber and a soldier died in the attack at the JTF

 26 April 2012

Umaru Mustapha and another unnamed suicide operative

VBIED (Honda Accord (Academy)

SOJ Global Plaza, which houses The Sun,
  Thisday  and Moments
  Newspapers, at Ahmadu Bello Way, Kaduna, Kaduna State

The first suicide bomber exploded his car at the SOJ Global Plaza,
  killing three persons and injuring 25 others. The second suicide bomber
  (Umaru Mustapha) whose car did not explode was handed over to the police

30 April 2012

Names not disclosed or reported

Motorcyle borne Improvised Explosive device (MBIED)

The convoy of Taraba State Police Commissioner, Jalingo, Taraba State

Three suicide bombers riding motorbikes rammed into The convoy of the
  Police Commissioner, killing at least 11 people

3 June 2012

Name not disclosed or reported

VBIED (Honda Civic car)

Harvest Field of Christ Church in Yelwa area of Bauchi,  Bauchi state

A suicide bomber drove into the church premises, killing at least 21 people and injuring 45 others.

13 July 2012


Name not disclosed or reported

A 15-year-old suicide bomber laced his body with explosives (BBIED)

the Shehu of Borno, Alhaji Ibn Abubakar Umar Garbai Elkanemi, and the
  deputy governor of the state, Alhaji Zanna Umar Mustapha

At least five people and the suicide bomber died in the attack at the
  central mosque in Maiduguri, Borno State

3 August 2012

Name not disclosed or reported

BBIED (a suicide bomber laced his body with explosives)

The Emir of Fika Alhaji Mohammed Abali Ibn Muhammadu Idrissa, at