A combination of family ties, the desire to avenge ill-treated loved ones and economic distress is driving some young Kenyan women into the arms of Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab.
Once recruited, the women play various roles in the violent extremist group as recruiters, spies, cooks and cleaners, according to a report by the Institute for Security Studies in Africa.
Researchers interviewed 108 women from communities in Nairobi, Mombasa, Garissa, Diani, Kwale and Kisumu, which have been affected by violent extremism.
They also spoke to women who had returned from Al-Shabaab camps, civil society and community leaders and organisers, as well as government officials and donors.
Responses from the study, “Violent Extremism in Kenya: Why women are a priority”, provide an expansive view of women beyond being mere victims of violent extremism. Even though the full extent of women’s involvement in violent extremism remains unknown, researchers Irene Ndung’u and Uyo Salifu found that women were more actively involved in non-combative or indirect roles than in direct ones.
The indirect roles women play appear to be more prominent than direct participation as perpetrators of violent extremist acts.
Globally, women are trapped into violent extremism and terrorism by strong relationship ties based on family, kinship and romance. They may also be driven by grievances regarding their economic and socio-political circumstances and a commitment to and/or the oppression of certain religious or ideological beliefs.
The interplay between these drivers, which create the dynamics for women’s involvement in violent extremism, is also reflected in the study’s findings. However, the report had remained embargoed for a year because of the sensitivity about releasing information regarding terrorism.
Ms Salifu, a researcher in the ISS transnational threats and international crime programme, said: “The heightened sensitivity around terrorism in Kenya and the nature of the security situation at the time gave rise to the delay in the report’s release.”
Women’s involvement in violent extremism remains deeply nuanced and defies generalisation, according to the report.
Women have reportedly travelled to Somalia to join Al Shabaab, or have been recruiting for the group, masterminding terrorist attacks in Mombasa, forming terror cells, and channelling information and finances for terrorist organisations.
Government officials in Garissa and Diani told researchers, however, that in their experience, perpetrators were often male, and aged between 16 and 25 years and that no women had been convicted on terror-related charges.
So far only four women – three Kenyans and a Tanzanian – have been charged in connection with terrorism. Maryam Said Aboud and Khadija Abdulkadir Abubakar from Malindi, Ummul Khayr Sadir Abdalla from Tanzania and Halima Adan Ali of Mombasa were charged with 19 terror charges, including being members of Al-Shabaab and conspiracy to commit terrorism in Kenya. Another five have been charged with aiding terrorists or concealing information about them.
Although none of the respondents for the study conducted in 2016 had first-hand knowledge of women who had carried out acts of terrorism, government officials told researchers that many girls had gone to Somalia, where some had been trained as suicide bombers and that one had been arrested on terror-related charges, while the others had some involvement in attacks.
Extremist groupings are increasingly targeting women and children as these might not come under the scrutiny of security agencies as attackers.
Secrecy around cultural and religious norms has likely made women fearful of speaking out even when attempts are made to recruit them. Some women are reluctant to speak publicly and prefer to have men speak for them.
Also, those who take part in violent extremism fear exposure by government officials, reprisals from Al Shabaab or being stigmatised by their communities should they confess their involvement or speak about their experiences.
Government officials claim that women play operational roles, gathering intelligence and spying for Al Shabaab. The women are reportedly ‘used to collect information [and for] surveillance because they are viewed with less suspicion’ and ‘pass this information on to others’. One official claimed that “women are part of Amniyat, the intelligence wing of Al-Shabaab”.
Speaking in focus groups, women revealed that some of them used their positions as wives, sisters and mothers to recruit for violent extremist organisations.
In Nairobi’s Majengo area, a female recruiter was reportedly well known for inducing young men in particular to join Al-Shabaab with the promise of jobs.
“It may well be that women’s involvement as violent actors is kept hidden,” the researchers say, but they cite prevalent socio-cultural and religious norms that limit the roles women play in extremist organisations. Kenya and Somalia are male-dominated societies where women traditionally play the role of nurturers and peacemakers, preferably within a domestic context.
Female recruiters continue to be viewed through the patriarchal lenses of two female stereotypes: mother and temptress. Those recruiting outside the home, such as in the refugee camps, were seen as temptresses ‘luring’ young men with false promises.
Inside violent extremist groups, women play various supporting roles for the fighting men. They could provide shelter and hide terrorists or family members involved with the groups; or take food to family members arrested on terror-related charges.
Others facilitate financial transactions to fund extremists, provide medical care in refugee camps for injured fighters, cook and clean in training camps, and radicalise their own children.
Providing ‘company’ or ‘comfort’ to the terrorists, usually through marriage among the networks of extremists’ own relatives and friends, is another unremarked role women play.