From Boko Haram Combatant To Peace Advocate: Chilling Story Of A Female Fighter

From Boko Haram Combatant To Peace Advocate: Chilling Story Of A Female Fighter

A former Boko Haram leader who abandoned a suicide mission shares shocking actions of women as combatants and her journey to redemption.

Five young women embarked on a one-way journey from a remote location not far away from the Sambisa forest area, each carrying deadly explosives and two AK-47 rifles hidden under their gowns. Their destination: Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in North East Nigeria.

With their lethal cargo set to detonate within 48 hours, these walking time bombs also had the power to quicken their mission with the simple press of a button from a remote device.

Forty-eight hours later, four deafening explosions echoed over Maiduguri, signalling the partial success of the mission. However, there was no fifth explosion. The fifth bomber, identified by her pseudonym, Ammabuwa, backed out at the last minute. Today, about nine years after the incident, she lives to tell her chilling story of life in the Boko Haram territory.

Ammabuwa’s story challenges misconceptions about the roles of women within the notorious extremist group. Her account paints a picture of the significant participation of women in the group, challenging the prevalent narrative that often portrays them solely as victims. It reveals how women of Boko Haram play multifaceted roles that encompass combat, governance, and decision-making.

At the top of the command chain

Ammabuwa is originally from Pulka in the Gwoza local government area. She got married at the age of 14 to a man she describes as one of the strong allies of the late Boko Haram founder, Mohammed Yusuf.

After Yusuf’s death, her husband carried on with his teachings and had plenty of followers. Ammabuwa says that because of his influence, he was given the position of a Munzir, which is akin to a governor.

As his wife, her responsibilities included persuading newly abducted girls to adopt the group’s violent ideologies.

“I’d admonish them until I could persuade them to get married to any of the fighters. My husband acted as their godfather.”

Ammabuwa, with a clear memory of events, shared her experiences in different communities and towns.

“Each time soldiers attacked and dispersed us, we would relocate until we captured Bama, Gwoza, and Banki, allowing us a brief respite from our migration,” she recounted.

She vividly remembered a distressing incident when soldiers, supported by fighter jets, bombarded their communities, prompting them to seek refuge in the Sambisa bushes. She also recalled a specific order; “We were instructed to attack Kawuri village, which we did by causing many casualties, burning down the entire village, and forcing many people to flee.”

Following the assault on Kawuri, Ammabuwa said they returned to Sambisa, but tragedy struck when her husband and other fighters set out on another mission two weeks later.

“That’s where he slept away [lost his life]. We don’t say our fighters, especially top commanders, are dead; we say they slept. So my husband slept in a shootout with soldiers on their way back from the operation,” she said.

After mourning him for four months, Ammabuwa faced pressure to remarry. She, however, insisted she would rather stay single “than marry someone below the status” of her former husband to avoid ridicule.

She continued, “They recommended one Amir [commander] of high ranking, but I still refused to marry him. They tolerated me for some time as I continued to turn down all proposals for marriage until they got tired and said if I didn’t want to be married again, which is against their creed, then I had to go for a suicide mission.”

She had told them earlier that she was tired of accompanying them to attack towns and villages and killing people, and she would rather accept to go for a suicide mission so that she would die and go to meet her husband.

How female bombers are primed

Before embarking on a suicide mission, Ammabuwa recounted, “They would tell you that when you get there, [you should have] no mercy or pity for anyone, regardless of the person’s relationship with you.”

The instructions included a strict prohibition against accepting any food or drink from anyone other than the last date fruit and holy water provided.

“You do not respond to the pangs of hunger or thirst,” they would emphasise. “Just focus on the mission and ensure it is carried out.”

The consequence of accepting sustenance was made clear: “Once you accept any food or drink from anyone, then you have defiled the prayers for the success of the mission, and you could be killed or arrested by the enemies. You risk not going to paradise. Should you fail to detonate the bomb or survive the explosion, you must not eat or drink anything until the next day.”

Ammabuwa explained that it is customary for Boko Haram to deploy more than one female suicide bomber at a time for impact and to prevent the mission from failing. On the day she was to be deployed, four other women had ‘willingly’ agreed to sacrifice their lives as jihadists.

Assured by her senior co-wives that her six children would be taken out of the Daula [Boko Haram’s territory] to their grandparents in Pulka, Ammabuwa prepared herself both physically and spiritually for the journey of no return.

“So they primed me for the suicide bombing attack with instructions to go to the customs area of Maiduguri for an attack in a populated area,” she recalled.

“Four other girls were prepared for the suicide attack on the same day. One girl from Bulumkutu was sent to blow herself up at the Post Office area. Another was sent to the University of Maiduguri. One was sent to the Tashan Bama area, and the last was sent to the ByePass area. I was to go to Customs.”

Each woman was equipped with a bulletproof vest containing 12 improvised bombs, in addition to two larger bombs concealed within a food warmer that they carried on their heads. They also carried two AK-47 rifles, one slung over each shoulder. Once released, their objective was to wreak havoc on unsuspecting civilians and eliminate anyone who attempted to stop them with their firearms.

“When they kitted us with the bombs, we set off on foot until we arrived at a certain location. Then, some men came with motorcycles and gave us a ride to the bushes of Mafa town on the way to Maiduguri; they had to give us the ride to shorten our journey so that the timer on the bomb would not go off before we reached the targeted location. From there, we trekked till we got to the outskirts of Maiduguri.”

Reflecting on a life of violence

Uncertain of what other girls were thinking during the journey, the long trip allowed her to review her life as a member of Boko Haram.

Not only did she support her husband and his men in their attacks on communities and the shedding of blood, but she also actively participated in warfare, killing more people than she could remember. Importantly, she did all of this willingly and was not coerced in any way.

Ammabuwa recalled how she had lived in several towns and villages across North East Nigeria, including Izza, Njimya, Salibuda, Yagameri, Mundari, Takwala, Sasa, Dlimankara, Madagali, Jiwa, Mayanti, Banki, and Kumshe near the border. She has also resided in Darul Jamil, Boroshe, Dipchari, and Yabo. In each of these places, she and her group captured and inhabited the area for a few weeks before moving on to the next.

Ammabuwa describes their approach to attacking villages as ruthless and unforgiving. “We showed no mercy, even when faced with someone in a desperate situation,” she said. For instance, during a raid on Kawuri village near Konduga town, she recalled how they broke into the home of a prominent church leader and detained him. Despite his pleas and offers of wealth, “including some wands of dollars,” they refused to take any money, as their sole purpose was to inflict harm. Ammabuwa recalls pulling the trigger on him herself.

At the war front, Ammabuwa and her fellow women fighters perform tasks similar to those of the men. The only difference is that their uniforms consist of skirts, long-sleeved shirts, boots, and hijabs. “Women fighters are rarely killed during our raids and attacks because we are positioned in the middle flank,” she explained.

As the male fighters advanced toward their enemies, Ammabuwa’s primary responsibility was to watch for the injured and those killed in action and promptly notify the rescue and first aid team to retrieve them. However, if the battle intensified, she also engaged in combat using her assault rifle.

She described their main role during combat as identifying any vulnerabilities in the battlefront and eliminating them by firing in those directions. She said the women ensured they did not leave behind their fallen comrades, regardless of how intense the battle may have been. In the worst-case scenario, they would retreat and return later to retrieve them for a proper burial.

Ammabuwa’s courage and sheer sense of valour brought her closer to meeting the brutal Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, who died in 2021.

“We lived with Imam Shekau in the same location; he is a Kanuri man with a broad face and thick body frame,” she said. “He is not as tall as people think. He is dark-skinned. He has a lot of hair on his face and is well-built. He hardly laughs, and when he is talking, you can hardly see his teeth—always with a chewing stick in his mouth. If he is addressing his people, everyone looks down.”

She received a title from Shekau in recognition of her courage and loyalty.

In her role as Hajja Umma, Ammabuwa held the power to deliver judgment on women who committed fornication or adultery. “What I do upon confirming that a woman commits such a crime is to use my hands to dig a little hole in the ground,” she explained. Following this, her two bodyguards would take over, enlarging the hole, and the offender would be subjected to stoning until death, after which they would be buried in that position. As for men, it was her husband’s younger brother’s responsibility to carry out their punishment.

When a woman was accused of theft, she would preside over the severing of their hands from the wrist with a knife. She admitted to losing count of the number of individuals she had amputated and those she had killed in battle.

Despite feeling no regret, she expressed that she would never return to such actions. “It was a war that we were fighting,” she reflected.

A devil’s change of heart

As the five girls approached the outskirts of Maiduguri, Ammabuwa was done with her reflection and made up her mind on what she must do. For the first time in many years, she felt the spasm of emotion overwhelm her conscience.

“I began to rethink my mission. My target destination was Customs, one of Maiduguri’s most populated areas. How could I just go there with 14 bombs? How could I end the lives of the poor who were simply out to find their means of sustenance? What about the kids hawking wares in the market? What wrong have they committed?”

As they inched closer to the township, Ammabuwa told the other girls she was pressed and needed to ease herself.

“The four others wanted to wait for me, but I told them to move on and that I would catch up with them. One of them insisted on waiting for me, but I told her to move on because I was closer to my location and I needed to prepare myself for the ultimate mission. So she understood and left me behind.

“I took time to unstrap the explosives from my body carefully. I was also given two AK 47 rifles loaded with magazines to be used in case the bombs failed to detonate at the specified location, or if anyone wanted to stop me in the bush. But on the way, I dropped one in the Dikwa forest, and then the second one was dropped in the Mafa forest. I changed my mind because one of my co-workers had promised to help me take my children out of the Sambisa forest.

“I knew I had done worse things in the past, but for the first time, I had become tired of the bloodletting because it was beginning to make no sense to me at all.”

A new chapter

Ammabuwa was immediately taken to the Giwa Barracks military detention facility, where arrested terrorists are usually kept. There, she stayed for a while before she was freed and asked to move to an IDP camp.

“One of my co-wives later came out of the bush together with my children, and we moved to the IDP camp,” she said. “A soldier’s constant sermons to us while at the barracks helped me to heal and repent from my past.”

Last year, Ammabuwa was among the numerous recipients of awards from the Allamin Foundation for Peace and Development for her role in mobilising hundreds of Boko Haram men and women to surrender and embrace the Nigerian government’s ongoing amnesty.

“At the Allamin Foundation, we recognise Ammabuwa’s story as one among many that challenge the mistaken belief that women associated with Boko Haram are solely victims. Many of these women are active combatants and perpetrators, responsible for atrocities comparable to those committed by men,” explained Hamsatu Allamin, the foundation’s chief executive.

She added, “There are numerous cases of women who were once deeply involved in Boko Haram’s operations. These women had previously kept their experiences to themselves, but as they’ve come to trust our work, they’ve gradually started to share their stories with us.”

Unknown to her, some soldiers had already sighted her from afar, and they were advancing towards her.

Ammabuwa knew she was in danger because she had spent so much time sitting there, and the time on the remote detonator had almost run out. Even if I said I should go and attack the soldiers with the bombs since I had ditched my guns, the explosives would go off before I got closer to them. So I had to put the suicide vest away quickly and began to go towards the soldiers. As I got to the soldiers, the bombs went off, and I was asked to lie down on the floor.

About an hour later, as the soldiers interrogated her, three reverberating explosions rocked the township of Maiduguri.