What Goes On In The Mind Of A Terrorist Woman?

Women have so often been seen as victims in conflict areas. But there are many other faces to their experience of war: such as women as vigilantes and, in this case, women as insurgents.

Mariam’s story is different in many ways. She has had no experience of abduction or forceful radicalisation. She has always believed in the Boko Haram cause, she tells me. As far back as 2008, when the group’s founder Mohammed Yusuf gathered people harmlessly in his mosque in Borno, Nigeria’s northeast, to preach his ideology. Long before they took up arms against the state. She went, unfailingly, every day, to his sermon sessions to listen to him. They were often long drawn but never exhausting. The man was a fine orator. 

It was in one of those sessions she met the man who would later become her husband. He was a disciple of Yusuf, she says. One of his boys. And when the group became violent and began to shoot random people suspected of criticising them as they rested in front of their homes, as the Nigerian military responded with violence by shooting at them even in instances where they were merely protesting peacefully, as things eventually reached a boiling point after Mohammed Yusuf was arrested and then killed by the Nigerian police while still in detention, she and her husband migrated to Sambisa forest alongside many members of the group. There, she would proceed to spend the next decade of her life.  

The couple grew in rank slowly but steadily through the group’s hierarchy.

Every day she woke up, she put her house in order, got her children dressed, and then proceeded to the mosque to listen to sermons from the group’s leaders. On some rare occasions, she said, Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s successor, delivered those sermons himself.

The sermons ranged from admonishments for them to obey their husbands to the need to remain steadfast on God’s path. Mariam rose very quickly because, unlike many women who were abducted and had to be forcefully radicalised, such as some of the Chibok girls, she was a natural. It did not take long for her to become head of the women in her area. 

The experiences of abductees are vastly different from those of people like Mariam. Even though some of them eventually get radicalised as a consequence of having to spend so many years among such people, they are usually at first subjected to ill-treatment, such as being turned into slaves. 

“The abductees were a lot more difficult. Especially those Chibok girls. They were very stubborn and their minds were nearly unshakable. They were full of so much anger,” Mariam says. Tragically, some of them were eventually bent. 

Mariam, however, was already steadfast in her conviction. And so when one day, a few years after she moved to Sambisa, she was asked if she wanted to partake in Amaliah, her response was an ecstatic yes. Amaliah is a term the terror group uses to mean suicide bombing for women.

It was 2014 or maybe 2015, she forgets now. But those were the years when suicide bombings from the group were at their most rampant. 

She was handed some new clothes, her hair woven into fine cornrows, and her hands and feet adorned with henna. It was customary for one to strive to meet their creator in the best possible outlook, she says.

She was not alone in being prepared for this act. Her sisters, friends, and her sister-in-law were also being prepared. They spent long hours discussing it in ecstasy, with the leaders letting them know they were God’s chosen. 

Mariam looked forward to the day so much that she started to dream of it in her sleep, she tells me.

“It was the only thing I thought of.”

In the coming days, her sister-in-law successfully detonated a bomb in Amchide, a Cameroon border town. 

“She killed so many people,” Mariam says, and there is pride in her voice. 

She waited and waited for it to get to her turn.

So when her husband discovered that she was pregnant and declared that his pregnant wife would not partake in a suicide bombing, Mariam was devastated. 

When I ask her if she did not feel any form of fear about the prospect of dying by suicide bombing or even living in a place where there were constant airstrikes, she looks at me in a funny way and then chuckles.

“Why would I be afraid? Afraid of what? There is nothing to fear when you are doing God’s work,” she says.

Mariam clad in a blue hijab. Photo: Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu/HumAngle. 


About five to six years after they moved to Sambisa, her husband came down with a terrible illness that simply refused to leave no matter how hard she cared for him. Even though they had access to medical supplies and even a doctor, he did not recover. He later died. 

It was during his last days the doctor disclosed to Mariam that her husband had contracted HIV. To this day, she does not know how.

After he passed, she, too, fell terribly ill. 

She spent a long time in agony over whether she, too, had contracted the illness from him. So when after months of being sick, she discovered from the doctor that she was positive as well, she received the news with some sort of relief because at least the agony of not knowing had been taken away from her. 

She tried to take care of her children as best as she could without infecting them, and she succeeded. The doctor gave her antiretroviral drugs, which she took daily. 

However, about two years later, her access to the drugs began to falter. Whenever they ran out and she could not take them for even a day, her body would begin to revolt immediately. And it was this that terrified her. She became worried for herself and her children.

She knew she had to leave the forests and return to Maiduguri when the drugs became increasingly tough to come by. Perhaps there, she would have more drugs. 

When she came back to the city, she found that she was right. She got a steady supply of drugs from the hospital and for free. 

Mariam has seven children, and none of them knows she is HIV positive. They know she takes certain drugs every day and that whenever she takes them even a few hours late, her body begins to lose grip of itself, but they do not know what it is for. 


One day, shortly after she moved back, a man who lived in her new neighbourhood came to her to ask to marry her. She declined but did not tell him why. The man persisted until finally, she told him her secret: she could not marry him or even any other man as she was HIV positive. The man, while saddened, responded in a way that shocked her.

“He told me he didn’t mind. That it is Allah who gives good health. And if it was His will that I would infect him, then so be it.” 

And so they got married.

Even though they went on to have kids, the man never contracted the disease from her. In fact, when he died years later, it was from a different illness. 

“When he fell sick, I thought he had finally contracted it from me. But when we went to the hospital and ran tests, he was negative.”

I ask Mariam if she is sure she is, in fact, HIV positive, and she says yes. When I spoke to a human rights activist familiar with her case and who had been with her husband in his last days, he confirmed the situation. 

“Her husband was negative even after many tests. She, however, is positive.”

The scientific explanation for this is that she is no longer able to share the virus with other people as a result of her medication. 

“When a person living with HIV is taking effective antiretroviral therapy and has a suppressed viral load, they are no longer infectious,” according to UNAIDS, the organisation spearheading the global effort to minimise AIDS as a public health threat.

Given her prolonged use of antiretroviral drugs, Mariam’s viral load possibly became suppressed, making her no longer infectious. 

Aftereffects of living in Sambisa

Many women went into combat during her stay in the forest area, she says. 

“We went with sticks, cutlasses, whatever we could lay our hands on. Anything at all … But I never shot someone with a gun. We would charge at them shouting the Takbir.”

Speaking on education, Mariam says if she weren’t so poor, she would have sent her children to school. This is inconsistent with the Boko Haram belief, and I point it out to her. 

It would be possible to uphold that belief while still on the insurgent group’s grounds, she tells me. But here in the city, her children would be disadvantaged without an education. 

Nigeria’s deradicalisation programme for terrorists or ex-combatants has come under heavy criticism for not having space for women, making it possible for women to leave the group and return to the city without having been disengaged from their extremist beliefs by professionals. 

Experts have said this has serious consequences. Dr Fatima Akilu, a renowned behavioural psychologist who designed and implemented the first deradicalisation programme for former combatants in Nigeria, told HumAngle last year that one major risk is that women may end up doing more damage in the society as they return unregulated, such as helping to silently recruit more members for the group. This is possible and often undetected as women are perceived as weak and harmless. 

Mariam says that when she left the terror group and was finding her way back to Maiduguri, she ran into soldiers. They questioned her for a few minutes but — possibly thinking her harmless — let her go. 

Women’s active role in the insurgency as recruiters and even fighters has been emphasised by many people HumAngle has spoken to. 

Mariam tells the story of a woman who played an active role in strengthening her conviction and faith in the Boko Haram course. Her name was Laraba. 

“She always had on a long, black hijab, and her eyes were fierce,” she says. 

“Even as a fellow woman, you could never look her in the eyes. You would be too terrified to. She delivered sermons so well. Sometimes, she would weep while she preached to us. It was because of her that many of us wanted to partake in Amaliah.”

Mariam sounds like she has great admiration for the woman. 

“She engaged in combat, had a gun, and sometimes fought side by side with Shekau. She killed so many people.”

In addition to the need for a system capable of disengaging women, however, children are also being left to fall through the cracks. 

To this day, whenever her children see members of the Nigerian army, as little as they are, they carry sticks and stones and begin to charge at them, screaming Allahu Akbar in a manner reminiscent of how it used to be whenever the uniformed men invaded their settlements in Sambisa. 

This shows an entire generation of children who have had to spend their formative years in non-state-controlled territories are growing up with hostile feelings towards the Nigerian army and seeing them as the enemy.

These days, Mariam spends her days caring for her children and ruing the day she left Sambisa. Things are pretty difficult for her, she says. 

If she were there, she would at least enjoy the perks of community, of having like-minded friends who would share food and clothes with her as they did when her husband first passed. Here, everyone is focused on themselves and their family.

“If not for the HIV situation, I never would have left.” 

Mariam’s name has been changed at her request to protect her identity. 

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Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu is the Managing Editor at HumAngle. She researches and investigates terrorism & insurgency and its human cost and aftermath, particularly how they affect transitional justice issues, displacement, migration, and women. She is a 2023 Pulitzer Centre grantee, a 2023 International Women Media Fund awardee, and a 2022 Storify Africa fellow, among several others.

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