Boko Haram has normalised the use of children as human bombs in its attacks. This tactic contradicts Islamic jurisprudence, which the group purportedly fights to establish.

On 21 August, the United Nations expressed alarm over the use of children as ‘human bombs’ by the ISIS affiliate Boko Haram. The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, said that the jihadi group had used 83 children in attacks in the eight months from January to August 2017, four times as many as in the whole of 2016. This number consisted of 55 girls and 27 boys, most of whom were under 15 years of age, and one baby strapped to a girl. As damning as this report is, it is not the first one revealing Boko Haram’s exploitation of women and children. The group has normalised the abuse of children in its campaign of terror and violence.

On 9 August, a study by researchers at West Point and Yale University, both in the United States, revealed that the majority of bombers used by Boko Haram are women and children. The report, which analysed 434 bombings carried out by the jihadi group since 2011, showed that at least 244 of the 338 attacks in which the bombers’ sex could be identified were undertaken by women or children. Similarly, a report by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigerian Security Tracker highlighted that female suicide bombers were responsible for roughly 50 per cent of the deaths caused by Boko Haram from May to mid-August 2015.

Boko Haram uses children as human bombs for several reasons. Firstly, due to their natural innocence, children are less prone to suspicion and scrutiny by security agencies and thus more likely to hit the group’s targets before being detected. Secondly, young age prevents children from understanding the grave consequences of the mission they are sent for, both to themselves and to their victims. Children are therefore easily recruited; they do not know that they are taking their own lives. Thirdly, because the group uses men as foot soldiers to launch attacks and defend its territory, it is more ‘practical’ to use women and children for suicide missions.

Boko Haram explicitly claims not only that its war is sanctioned by Islam but also that it is fighting to establish ‘pure’ Islam as taught and practised by the Prophet Mohammad. However, the group’s use of children for suicide missions contradicts Islamic jurisprudence. The position of Islamic law on recruiting children as soldiers is explicit: Muslim jurists are unanimous that attaining the age of 15 is a prerequisite for a Muslim to fight in a jihad. This principle was deduced from a tradition (sayings, practices, and tacit permissions granted by Mohammad) in which the Prophet refused to accept volunteers aged 13 or 14 at the first and second battles of Islam (the Battles of Badr and Uhud) but accepted them when they turned 15. While Muslim jurists make exceptions to the general rule prohibiting the involvement of women in warfare, they make no exception to the prohibition on children in warfare.

Boko Haram attempts to justify its use of women in bombings as falling within exceptions to the general ban on the engagement of women in warfare. But the group has never tried to explain the ideological basis for its use of children. This is an indication that the group has no scintilla of evidence in Islamic law to support this act. The group’s use of girls is even more problematic, because according to most Muslim jurists, even women are not allowed to participate in warfare, let alone girls.

The fact that these children are employed for suicide missions is another important point; in Islamic law, suicide bombing is forbidden for three reasons. Firstly, one is not permitted to kill oneself. Secondly, suicide bombers kill innocent people, and this is contrary to Islamic jurisprudence. And thirdly, Islamic law forbids punishing one’s enemy with fire such as that unleashed by exploding IEDs. This position is based on verses of the Quran and traditions of the Prophet and is the viewpoint of most classical and contemporary Muslim jurists.

The abuse of children in attacks by the ISIS affiliate is not only forbidden in Islam but also has serious implications. While women as bombers could be willing perpetrators, it goes without saying that children are victims. The tactic of exploiting them creates suspicion and fear not only of children escapees but of every child, who could be a potential bomber. In an area hit by an unprecedented humanitarian crisis most of whose victims are children, this is a lethal trend.   

In sum, it is clear that Boko Haram’s actions are wrong on all scores: the group’s use of children is un-Islamic, its use of girls doubly contradicts Islamic jurisprudence, and its deployment of bombs and explosives is a further charge against the group. There is no gainsaying that Boko Haram, like other jihadi groups, cherry-picks aspects of Islamic law and jurisprudence that suit it. It is paradoxical that Islamic law could be subverted to establish Islamic law. This is a plain contradiction in terms.