Boko Haram and the Kidnapping of Women: A Troubled Tactic


2014 is set to be the bloodiest year since Boko Haram launched an insurgency in northern Nigeria, its first attack in September 2010. So far this year more than 600 people have been victim to Boko Haram, only a fraction of the 5,000 killed in the conflict since 2009. Amid the rising death toll, an important aspect of Boko Haram’s tactics remains overlooked: the kidnapping of women. This article addresses this under-researched aspect of Boko Haram, arguing that this is a significant evolution in tactics.

Boko Haram members have for some time harassed and abused both Christian and moderate Muslim women. Now there is a new focus on kidnapping women to demonstrate enemy vulnerability, a focus Boko Haram is ruthlessly determined to exploit. The strategy differs from other Islamist groups, to which they have been compared, such as the Taliban. The Taliban are deliberately and increasingly killing women, and have used women as suicide bombers. Boko Haram also kills women, but often deliberately spares them. Kidnapping is now the statement tactic of choice.

This has been evident in recent bloody attacks, carefully planned by the group. In the town of Buni Yadi in Yobe state in the early hours of 25th February, more than 50 Boko Haram militants stormed into Federal Government College. With students asleep in their dormitories, Boko Haram fighters faced no opposition. They locked the doors and set the men’s accommodation ablaze, reportedly slitting the throats of anyone trying to escape through dorm windows. Only a week before, Boko Haram had similarly laid waste to Konduga village in Borno state, killing more than 50 people. In the same week, they also murdered around 100 people in Bama town, the second assault there in less than a year.

This pattern of murder and destruction is routine for northern Nigerians, who live under perpetual fear of Boko Haram. But, kidnapping women is new to them. In Konduga, 20 girls were taken hostage, prompting a statement of concern from the United States diplomatic mission in Nigeria, and attempts by local police to deny the abductions; and at Buni Yadi, Boko Haram abducted 16 female students. Boko Haram is campaigning for an Islamic state or, in the words of leader Abubakar Shekau a “government of Allah, by Allah, and for Allah”. However, alongside this goal, Boko Haram has a new target: women, kidnapped on the direct orders of the leader himself.

Women are increasingly being drawn into this conflict, and as this analysis explores, to ignore this is to risk not only women’s security, but also an evolution in Boko Haram’s strategy.

Instrumentality: Women as Pawns

Shekau’s order to kidnap women dates back to 2011 and 2012, when the Nigerian government detained more than 100 wives and children of key Boko Haram leaders, among them Shekau’s own family. In response, Shekau issued his first video message in January 2012 threatening to retaliate by kidnapping the wives of government officials. Several more similar videos and statements followed. However, Boko Haram’s first abduction came over a year later in May 2013 when in Borno state militants captured more than a dozen government officials, along with their families. In a subsequent video message, Shekau emphasized the importance of capturing the family members as retaliation, saying, “We kidnapped some women and children, including teenage girls.” The next kidnapping was carried out during a mass assault on the Bama police barracks, in which insurgents abducted 12 Christian women and children, mostly related to male police workers. Shekau then used another video message to declare that he would make these hostages his “servants”, if certain conditions were not met, one of them the release of the wives of the Boko Haram militants.

The government’s mass detention of Boko Haram’s female family members has proved a source of grievance ever since, with Shekau making repeated reference to these arrests in his video-messaging campaign. The government has persisted nonetheless. After security forces detained ten women related to Boko Haram in September 2012, Shekau’s fifth video message threatened revenge on wives of government officials. In this address, Shekau alleged the possible sexual abuse of the Boko Haram female family members by the government, promising the retaliatory targeting of “enemy” women:Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women…to your own wives according to Shariah law.”

Boko Haram has routinely victimised Christian women in northern areas and this generic culture of discrimination has no doubt enabled the escalation in recent violence. However, historically the group’s gendered ideology did not consider women combatants, casting only men in such roles. Shekau has declaredunarmed men, youths, women, cripples and even under age” as illegitimate targets.  Insurgents frequently spare Muslim women, even where they kill Muslim men. When Boko Haram attacked a college in Yobe in September 2013 they killed all the male students, and let the women live, as they did at Buni Yadi.

This is not to say that Boko Haram does not kill women. It does.  But where this happens it does not seem to result from a deliberate order.  However, Shekau’s  specific and recent call to kidnap them indicates a marked change in tactics, embedded in an apparent sense of moral justification and desire for revenge. A cycle has been established of the government detaining women related to Boko Haram, followed by retaliation, in which the insurgents abduct women, both Christian and Muslim. There is no evidence that the women captured on either side have any direct involvement in the conflict; however, all are instrumental in the battle between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government.

State of Emergency, Effect on Women

Recognising the severity of the escalating situation, President Goodluck Jonathan imposed a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states in May 2013, attempting to clamp down on Boko Haram. However, this has had another unintended effect on women. As Boko Haram’s men come under pressure, the group has utilised women in weapons smuggling operations around Maiduguri in Borno state. In June 2013, the Civilian Joint Task Force, a youth volunteer group used by the government, found an AK-47, a pistol and multiple IEDs in the garments of each of two “shivering” veiled women. Two months later, two women hiding rifles in their clothing were among five suspected Boko Haram militants arrested by the security forces. Boko Haram militants are also disguising themselves as women in order to evade arrest. In July 2013, three men dressed as women were killed, and around 20 others arrested in an attempted attack on a police station.

The increased government pressure on Boko Haram in its northern strongholds has also led to insurgents apparently abducting Christian women as they flee security forces. In stories reminiscent of the behavior of rebel movements in conflict zones in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, women in rural areas are being increasingly subjected to kidnap, forced marriage, and rape. In Uganda in the 1990s, soldiers with Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army were routinely engaged in the sale and “transfer” of women. Militant forces captured and exploited women as assets, using them to cook and clean. Such practices are now evident in Nigeria, where there has been a reported increase in gender-based violence against Christian women in northern areas, with increasing levels of sexual violence, including rape, torture, and also murder.

The Christian Association of Nigeria has been reporting the abduction of Christian teenagers since July 2013. In one widely reported case, from November 2013, 19-year-old Hajja told how she was abducted by 14 Boko Haram fighters from a rural region of Gwoza in Borno state. During her three months of captivity, she was forced to cook and clean, convert to Islam, and lure government soldiers into positions where they could be targeted. A Gwoza official estimates that more than a dozen other Christian women remain in captivity in similar circumstances, with young girls being particularly targeted.

Safeguarding women

The Nigerian government’s intention to put pressure on Boko Haram via the arrest of the wives and family members of its leaders has backfired. Shekau has made clear that what the government can do, Boko Haram can do too, and more effectively. Boko Haram is increasingly abducting women during raids. It is also capturing and exploiting women as domestic support when they flee from security forces through unfamiliar terrain. The state of emergency has additionally seen Boko Haram diversify its tactics by utilizing women to smuggle arms. This mirrors the use of women by other Islamist groups in times of pressure. In the mid-2000s al-Qaeda in Iraq used women to smuggle weapons and carry out suicide attacks. However, Boko Haram’s strict gender norms suggest that if women do carry out support operations for the group, it is unlikely to constitute more than an emergency measure.

In order to stop the abductions, this aspect of Shekau’s tactics must be explored. So too must the Nigerian government address its policy of detaining women related to Boko Haram. It has only strengthened Boko Haram’s resolve, and shows no signs of bringing the group to the negotiating table. The government of Nigeria has failed to fulfill its promise to “crush” Boko Haram, enabling Shekau to widen the group’s ambitions. Shekau has called out to al-Qaeda and even proclaimed his intention to attack the oil-rich Niger Delta in a speech made while surrounded by Boko Haram’s armed personnel carriers, likely stolen from Nigerian troops. His threat to women is no less serious.

President Jonathan has recently appointed a new chief of defense staff member to tackle the escalating northern violence. This article suggests he faces difficult questions, one of which must be: how can the risks faced by Nigerian women be alleviated? As tensions rise, Nigerians are protesting Boko Haram’s targeting of women. Last year, Nigeria launched a National Action Plan for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, on the safeguarding of women in conflict. If 2014 is to become more secure for Nigeria’s women, this resolution must be rigorously applied. Failure to do so will make it more difficult to counter the insurgency, and to protect a part of the population, women, who are already at increased risk.


Jacob Zenn (@bokostan) is an analyst of African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC and a legal adviser on international law of freedom of association. He authored “Northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram: The Prize in Al-Qaeda’s Africa’s Strategy” in 2012 and currently consults on countering violent extremism in West Africa and Central Asia.

Elizabeth Pearson (@lizzypearson) has recently completed an MA in International Conflict Studies in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, where she was a Simon O’Dwyer Russell Prize-winner 2012–13. Her research interests are radicalisation, gender and terrorism, and her MA dissertation examined the question, ‘How does the UK’s Counter-Radicalisation strategy Prevent understand gender?’ Elizabeth also has more than fifteen years experience as a radio producer, reporter and feature-maker, and works freelance, mainly for BBC Radio Four.


Photo credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development