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Please, Save My Life.’ A Bomb Specialist Defuses Explosives Strapped to Children
Terror group Boko Haram has led the way in using children, especially girls, as suicide bombers. Nigeria now has hundreds of officers trained to disarm them
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria—A 14-year-old girl in a black veil walked onto the road, raised her hands and made a plea to the soldiers nearby. She had been strapped to a suicide bomb and didn’t want to die.
It was explosives specialist Randy Iljeseni’s turn to defuse the girl, one in an army of child bombers deployed across northeast Nigeria by jihadist group Boko Haram. He grabbed a pair of fabric scissors, mouthed a brief prayer and slowed his breathing. He began to slice into her bomb-strapped belt. Some of his closest friends had died this way.
“You must do it gently. Most of them you first cut with scissors,” said Mr. Iljeseni, a tall and wiry 35-year-old with an intense stare, recalling the episode. “If this thing explodes, you will be gone.”
On the sharpest edges of the global war on terror, behind the multibillion-dollar endowments of jet fighters, armored cars and drone feeds, lurks a U.S.-aided program that is low in technology but high in effectiveness: bomb squad training.
From the Sahara to East Asia, hundreds of small bomb-disposal units are taking on the hair-raising assignment of disabling improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The devices may be buried in roads, cars or public buildings. In a gruesome turn, they are often strapped to children—mostly girls—by jihadist terrorist groups.
The bomb squads’ work is especially intense in northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin, where the Islamist group Boko Haram is leading the way in the use of child bombers. Its insurgency, which first flared exactly a decade ago, has left tens of thousands of people dead and forced millions from their homes.
A few years ago, there were only a few dozen men and women like Mr. Iljeseni trained to do this work in Nigeria. Now there are hundreds.
The bomb squads receive some of their training from a traveling boot camp of U.S. ordnance experts schooled on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. They aren’t imparting a skill as much as a state of mind: a mix of courage and composure that can be sparked in a classroom but only truly learned in the live-or-die moments before the puzzle of a live bomb.
This year, U.S. Army trainers will travel to 22 countries to conduct 52 courses. More than half will take place in the Lake Chad region.
“It’s low-cost, big return—it helps us save a lot of lives,” said Lt. Col. Armando Hernandez, who served with the Explosive Ordnance Division across the Middle East and Africa and now helps oversee training operations from a base in Italy. “We don’t just teach them to understand the bomb, but to go after them aggressively.”
Last year, 57 children died in northern Nigeria after being strapped with explosives by Boko Haram, according to data from the United Nations. About 67% of them were girls.
In Boko Haram’s evolving strategy, children as young as 10 are helping to construct the bombs as well. They stuff nails and ball bearings as shrapnel into vests for other children to wear, and then euphoric crowds cheer on the bomb carriers, say survivors of Boko Haram camps. Clerics frame the mission in religious terms.
“We must always achieve 100%” in defusing bombs to survive, said Ntul Silvanus, commander of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in the state of Borno. He has personally defused five bombs in the last three months.
The practice of suicide bombing has turned daily shopping errands in the city of Maiduguri, the largest in Nigeria’s northeast, into hourslong expeditions, with airport-like security at the entrances to vegetable markets. Security guards in the commercial center struggle to remember how many times they’ve hit the floor after the clap of a suicide bomb.
Mr. Iljeseni has defused dozens of human-borne explosives. He compares his work to crossing a river.
“Or, or. It is these two simple words,” he says. “Or you come out alive, or you come out dead.”
The bomb doctor
Mr. Iljeseni was working as a beat cop when he joined Nigeria’s elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in the mid-2000s, a few weeks after his father’s funeral. He was looking for a sense of purpose.
The country was in a period of relative peace, and most of Mr. Iljeseni’s new job meant accompanying construction crews as they triggered controlled demolitions to pave roads through the countryside.
By 2010, Boko Haram, a reclusive group camped in the forest, was gathering force. It began to hit government buildings, churches and mosques with crude fertilizer bombs in its quest to carve out an Islamist state.
Within four years, Boko Haram’s insurgency had expanded from northeast Nigeria into three neighboring countries. Its members torched villages, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing.
Mr. Iljeseni’s team began to encounter far more female bombers than male. The women’s long veils could easily conceal explosive devices. They were less conspicuous than young men in the marketplaces and mosques where large groups of civilians gathered.
The terror group also held thousands of children it had kidnapped—more than 10,000 boys, by the estimation of Nigerian officials, and a similar abundance of girls. The kidnapping of 276 high-school students from the town of Chibok in April 2014 prompted global outrage.
The next year, a detachment of American trainers began rotating through Nigeria, passing on the hard lessons its soldiers had taken from Iraq. “With IEDs, there’s a million different ways they can be made, so we teach them the thinking,” said Katie van Dwy, a U.S. Army ordnance trainer who has made four trips to Lake Chad. “We learn a lot from [trainees]….They will come up with scenarios we would not have thought of.”
The Nigerians left with rudimentary tools, given to them by the U.S. military: ropes, carabiners, metal detectors and scissors. American officials worried that anything more high tech would eventually break down and not be repaired.
The more visceral training took place on the job. Mr. Iljeseni stood next to his superiors, sweating under the bright sun, as they destroyed live bombs. He unearthed IEDs buried next to highways or hidden in trash bins. He watched checkpoints for vehicle-borne bombs.
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