The direct participation of women and girls in terrorism has attracted increased interest with the evolution of the nature of recruitment methods. In Kenya, their involvement in terrorist networks such as Al-Shabaab is an emerging trend. Female recruitment is more evident in the coastal and northeastern provinces of Kenya, but it has also been reported in many other provinces.
Women and girls have been identified as terrorist group recruits, logistics planners, financial channels, spies for terrorist activities, and, in some cases, masterminds of terrorist attacks or advocates of terrorist cells.
Al-Shabaab emerged in the mid-2000s as an offshoot of a jihadist movement that culminated during the Somali civil war in the 1990s. After its expulsion from Mogadishu in 2006, it continued to strive to achieve its main goal of establishing an Islamist state in Somalia by violent means, launching frequent deadly attacks in Somalia, as well as in Kenya and Uganda, both of which contribute troops to the African Union force in Somalia.
In a previous study by researcher Fathima Azmiya Badurdeen, she found that women may participate willingly because the extremist ideology is compatible with their religious cultural values. They may also join because of the financial benefits that come with belonging to or associating with the group. Women can also be forced to join through deception or intimidation.
In the most recent study by Badurdeen, she looked at the different ways in which recruitment occurs to analyze the diverse motivations for women and girls to join Al-Shabaab in the coastal region of Kenya. In particular, she sought to demonstrate their “voluntary” decisions. In other words, did they join of their own will?
“I met 36 women or girls who returned home from terrorist camps or defected from the network. I have compiled 16 case stories of women and girls explaining ‘volunteering’ to join Al-Shabaab,” she said.
The study revealed that gender dynamics in subordination within the family and society contribute to recruitment; however, there were political and ideological motives as well.
According to Badurdeen, conscription was considered voluntary if a woman or girl was selected – without coercion – to join Al-Shabaab. Conscription is seen as involuntary if it occurs by deceitful or coercive means.
However, she warned that voluntary and involuntary are not always mutually exclusive, as recruits may reflect their original views depending on loyalties, social interactions, ideological resonance, and changing circumstances within and outside the terrorist network.
Moreover, there is a need to examine the various aspects of independent decision-making. Some women who join terrorist networks do so to assert themselves within regimes of oppression and patriarchy, and to embrace the temptation of liberation within the utopian caliphate.
The study revealed four main circumstances as the reasons behind the decisions to join Al-Shabaab.
First: Defending the faith
Al-Shabaab feeds on the narrative that Kenya is a Christian country that oppresses Muslims in Somalia and Kenya. This echoes with the global marginalization of Muslims. Political and religious motives emerged during the interviews, in addition to an explicit desire to support or defend their Muslim brothers.
The study explained the motives of two women to be martyr wives and play their role in supporting the Muslim nation or society, and how ideology influenced their decisions to support Al-Shabaab. These decisions belie the Kenyan media accounts of naive girls who were manipulated through romantic notions of jihadist brides or wives.
The study cited an interview with a 25-year-old woman at the time, a returnee from Al-Shabaab who defected after two years. She said, “I read a lot of material. I was sad about the treatment of Muslims as a second-class group. I did not want my people to suffer. I needed to do something. I wanted to help them in Somalia.”
Second: Response to personal crisis
Recruitment thrives on revenge among individuals who see the state as the culprit for the injustice they have suffered in their lives. A crisis event in the lives of women and girls – such as the police killing of their loved ones – has been found as an important turning point, with some women joining extremist networks to avenge the killing of a husband, fiancé, or son at the hands of government security agencies.
There is also evidence that recruits have infiltrated existing networks of affected women, including relatives of fallen Al-Shabaab members, using peer influence to influence women, or forcing them to pursue the relatives’ cause.
Third: Close personal relationships
Daily interactions with family, friends, and peers also shaped the decision to join the terrorist network. In nine out of 16 case studies, a woman’s independence in marital relationships may be restricted in ways that lead her to follow her husband or other influential male relatives.
The decision to join is independent if it is her choice. However, her choice may be coerced in the context of marital and family relations, which occurs when a woman shows excessive respect for the desires of her family members.
Some women may have been recruited involuntarily; however, after a long period of time in the terrorist camp or association with terrorist fighters, three of the 16 who were identified in this ideological study accepted and subsequently volunteered to join Al-Shabaab.
Shushan concluded at the end of the study that “examining the political and ideological motives behind women joining Al-Shabaab shows that in some cases they make independent decisions based on their response to the grievances of the Muslim community.”
But there were other structural and cultural factors that play a role as well, such as the patriarchal structure in families and their societies. The decision-making of some women corresponds to the attitudes and subordinate roles, and these women, most of whom are from coastal Muslim societies, revealed that they are exposed to traditional gender roles, which indicates the observance of social norms.
But not all the women who joined Al-Shabaab lived a life of subjugation before joining; some returnees had a good family life or settled happily.