Nigerian Muslim Views on Suicide Bombing

The aftermath of a suicide bombing in Borno state, Nigeria.
Blood stains the wall of a damaged mosque in Ummarari village following a suicide bombing in Borno, Nigeria, March 16. Suicide bombers are commonly used by Boko Haram in its attacks against the Nigerian state. Stringer/Reuters

This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Historically, there has been no West African tradition of martyrdom by suicide. Suicide, in fact, continues usually to be viewed as anathema. Nigeria's first case of suicide bombing occurred only five years ago, in 2011. Since then, it has become associated with Boko Haram, the radical, Islamist movement that seeks to destroy the secular government in Nigeria.

The Pew Research Center in 2014 did a poll on Muslim views on suicide bombing in fourteen countries with large Muslim populations. Pew summarized the question as, "Suicide bombings can be ___ justified against civilian targets in order to defend Islam from its enemies." Respondents could fill in the blank with "often," "sometimes," "rarely," "never," and "don't know." Pew also aggregated "often" and "sometimes" into a single figure.

The highest "often/sometimes" aggregated percentages were Palestinian Territory (Gaza) at 62 percent, Bangladesh at 47 percent, and Palestinian Territory (West Bank) at 36 percent. The lowest were Pakistan at 3 percent and Tunisia at 5 percent.

There were three sub-Saharan African countries on Pew's list: Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania. The aggregated "often/sometimes" scores were respectively 19, 15, and 26 percent. If the aggregated score for Nigeria is broken down, 9 percent opted for "often" and 10 percent for "sometimes." As noted in a March 15 blog post, polling indicates about 10 percent of Nigerians are favorably disposed toward Boko Haram and about twenty percent of the country's Muslims are favorably disposed toward the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The percentage of Nigerians who say "suicide bombings can be often justified…" and those who say "suicide bombings can be sometimes justified…" is within the range of those Nigerians, presumably mostly Muslim, who are favorably disposed toward Boko Haram and the Islamic State, both of which make prominent use of suicide bombers.

The aggregated figures for views on suicide bombings in Senegal and Tanzania are surprisingly high. They may indicate more sympathy for radical Islamic movements than conventional wisdom accounts for.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.