Al-Shabaab: Inside the ranks of women fighters

Wednesday January 31 2018

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. PHOTO | FILE

By The EastAfrican

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.

Intelligence wing

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.

READ: Somalia confirms rescue of 35 children from Shabaab school

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.


Somali women carry weapons during a demonstration organised by Al Shabaab on July 5, 2010. They were protesting against Amisom forces. PHOTO | AFP


The picture of women’s involvement in violent extremism as enablers and sympathisers is complex, as aptly summarised by an Anti-Terror Police Unit officer quoted in the report: “Some women are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are the caregivers to the terrorist and play a supportive role; they are facilitators because they are least suspected,” said a police officer.

Also, fear [of security agencies] discourages women from disclosing information, especially where police are deemed to be corrupt and extortionist.

Returnees interviewed for the ISS study did not appear to be inspired by ideological or religious factors in joining Al Shabaab.

Aside from finding work, following partners and husbands to Somalia was a leading motivator for many women. One reported that her brother’s widow went to Somalia with their daughter to visit his grave a while back. They have not returned since.

Women’s participation in extremism remains hidden from policy view, with official interventions targeting visible young males. Some of the women revealed in the focus group discussions that their partners are members of Al Shabaab in Somalia, and explained that girls entering unions with such men risk being radicalised.

Interviewees spoke of women being blackmailed, intimidated or kidnapped by people known to them to join Al Shabaab. One returnee said her husband’s friends forced her to join him when he left six months after they married.

Poor education

A poor educational background may also play a factor as s senior counter-terrorism official noted that most of the girls recruited to join Al Shabaab through personal relationships have only have a primary school education. However, this does not exclude recruitment of the more educated.

Others choose to join their loved ones in Somalia as testified by a woman from Kwale who said that her 34-year-old female cousin was radicalised by her husband and followed him to Somalia, where she has also joined Al-Shabaab.

Extra-judicial killings

Revenge for the ill-treatment of loved ones at the hands of security agents was noted as a key factor in influencing women to become involved in extremism.

Interviewees cited experiences including the extra-judicial killing of their husbands and children, media profiling of Islam, police brutality and the disappearance of innocent people, allegedly at the hands of security agents, turning them away from formal state securitisation activities.

One woman, who said she was not aware of the government amnesty programme for those returning from terrorist training in Somalia, is sceptical of state efforts to counter violent extremism: “I believe my religion is under threat because those who are guilty of terrorism and the innocent are treated in the same manner by the authorities.”

High unemployment

Another said that her 24-year-old daughter received $170 (Ksh17,000) to join the extremists, instead of the $260 (Ksh26,000) promised. She was ferried to Oman, where the her recruiters demanded $400 (Ksh40,000) ransom for her release.

Al-Shabaab has capitalised on the high unemployment levels in the coastal region to lure youth with promises of jobs, money and other livelihood opportunities.

“Poverty is pushing people into embracing Al-Shabaab. If one is earning $30 (Ksh3,000) but is promised $260 (Ksh26,000), that is a lot of money and the person will choose to join Al Shabaab,” one woman added.


From left: Ummul-Khayr Sadir Abdalla, Maryam Said Aboud and Khadija Abubakar Abdulkadir, three terror suspects appearing before a Mombasa court in 2015. PHOTO | NATION

An informant — with the pseudonym Khadija — was interviewed over the telephone for this study. She was in hiding, fearing for her safety at the hands of the police and fellow returnees.

Men who join Al-Shabaab often leave their homes and families without breadwinners. Women step in as heads of households, but the burden of providing for their immediate (and often extended) families is exacerbated by the lack of a regular income, and many find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Citizenship rights

The denial of citizenship rights was mentioned as a factor that could drive women to radicalisation. Two women in Lamu reported that their sons were denied national identity documents because they look Somali.

The lack of this document has major implications for travel and access to higher education opportunities.

Most of those interviewed for the ISS study had only a primary school education. They added that perceived injustices against Muslims, as well as media profiling, had created a feeling of being ‘under attack’ within the community, especially among husbands and sons.

“Islam is not terrorism but a religion that has been misused to carry out terror attacks,” said an unnamed interviewee.

Returnees speak out

22-YEAR-OLD FROM LIKONI: “I was married to my first husband for six months before he left for Somalia. I do not know if he is still alive. I was 18 years old when I went to Somalia. I remember finding myself in a forest after getting into a car with my husband’s friends, who harassed, intimidated and forced me to go and join him, although I never found my husband at the camp. The living conditions at the camp were terrible; we were treated like slaves and ate only once a day.”
“We were verbally and physically abused. I did not get married to any of the group’s members but they would use us for sexual purposes. We were given contraception so that we did not conceive. I fled when I got the chance and to take advantage of the Kenya government’s amnesty.”

24-YEAR OLD INTERVIEWEE: “Poverty is pushing people into embracing Al-Shabaab. If one is earning $30 (Ksh3,000) but is promised $260 (Ksh26,000), that is a lot of money and the person will choose to join Al Shabaab...”

“I was born in Garissa and became involved when I was 20 years old. I went to college and high school. I joined with Al Shabaab because I was jobless and needed a job. A friend took me to Mombasa where we stayed for some days before we hopped onto a bus and were given a drink (which must have been laced with a drug), after which I found myself in Burabe.”

“We were about 40 girls in a camp and all of us were Kenyan,” she says.

“I received religious, weapons and combat training, as well as suicide bombing. I was a virgin when I arrived and after receiving basic training, I declined sexual advances by a fighter. I stabbed him to death and because of this incident, I was made commander in charge of the women because they saw I could fight,” she adds.

“I returned to Garissa through Doble where she sold the gun for money to buy passage back to Kenya because of the amnesty programme, but did not enroll in it fearing how the government would treat me. The reaction from my family was also disheartening and I currently live with friends. But it has been difficult because I am jobless.”