Why do women join Al Shabaab? from White Widow to Kenyan locals

By  Davis Watiti 

March 4, 2021 

Above image credit “13APR11 AU/UN IST Victim of al-Shabaab’s Reign of Terror Recuperates in Martini Hospital, Mogadishu” by AMISOM Public Information is marked with CC0 1.0 

Seen above, Al Shabaab’s presence in Eastern Africa has taken a massive toll on the residents of the region. In the knowledge of this suffering, why then do local people chose to fall in line with this ideology of murder? 

Over the years, Al Shabaab has fostered infamous female recruits. Crisis Group International made note of the effects that recruitment to Al Shabaab has on Somali women, as of late 2019. Somali women and foreign-born women have had a notable role in the movement. Kenya is likewise a crisis center for recruitment into the movement that, while diminished over time, has not disappeared.  Within this week alone, Al Shabaab was reported by the Anadolu Agency to have executed five people for spying on the group.

Femme fatales of Al Shabaab 

Among the most famous, is European-born Samantha Lewthwaite was a leader of the organization. Lewthwaite was named as one of the Mombasa grenade attack terrorists of 2012. She recently appeared in the Netflix documentary series under her nom de guerre “White Widow,” and has been reported by Mirror UK as connected to some “of the most appalling” terror acts of the 21st century.

The White Widow was born in Northern Ireland and grew up during the conflict between the IRA and the Irish government. She was coverted to Islam at age 17 and met her deceased husband Germaine Lindsay at a protest against unjust wars in Hyde Park, London. Germaine Lindsay became one of the suicide bombers of 7/7 London subway attacks. Though Lewthwaite claimed to have no knowledge of Lindsay’s intentions, his death seemed to birth in her a conversion to the darkest realms of Islamist ideology.

Following in the White Widow’s footsteps, why do women join Al Shabaab?

Lewthwaite’s conversion and radicalization as a leader of the Al Shabaab movement came from a break of pattern with the locals who are targeted in Kenya. In this analysis, we explore why Kenya has become a recruitment hub for the radical Sunni Islamist movement in Somalia, and why females join the movement.

Why Kenya?
In 2011, Kenya deployed troops to Somalia under Operation Linda Nchi to fight Al Shabab militants in southern Somalia. Kenya says the operation aimed to create a buffer zone between Al Shabab-held territories and Kenya. In the process, the Kenyan forces captured the port of Kismayo and quickly joined troops from the African Union Mission (AMISOM) in Somalia in battling Al Shabab.

Why do they do it? 

Poverty and hopelessness have driven many Kenyans to cross the border and join the Al Shabaab terror group in neighboring Somalia.

For the past decade, Al Shabaab has targeted marginalized communities along East Africa’s Swahili coast who share historical ties through Islamic culture and ancient trade routes.

The terror group also targets vulnerable unemployed young people in Kenya’s underdeveloped North Eastern Province, which borders Somalia and is predominantly inhabited by the Somali community.

The group has also exploited local grievances, attracting impoverished young people across faiths in Kenya who feel the government has failed them.

Rampant corruption and a judicial crisis have fuelled the militant recruitments. For decades – even before 2013 when devolution came to effect – resource allocation was skewed which resulted in the marginalization of some areas. An effect that is still being felt to date.

“The extremists are promising hefty pay for local fighters who have largely remained unemployed or poorly paid,” Khalifa said. “They target those below 30 years, Kenya’s biggest population and one which has been greatly affected and impacted by unemployment.

Khalifa also said terror attacks increased when Kenya joined the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) in 2011, sending its troops to ‘stabilize’ the country. There are several reasons why locals support Al Shabab and the most common ones are unemployment, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance, and political and economic marginalization.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Kenya leads other East African countries with the largest number of unemployed people. Records show that one in every five Kenyans is unemployed compared to Tanzania where one in every 20 Tanzanians is without a job.

Youth unemployment in Kenya has been described as a ticking time bomb. Three-quarters of the population are under the age of 30.

While it’s true that Al Shabab has used social media to recruit young unemployed people, the terror group also uses other ploys to enlist its members. One of them is to lure teenagers with well-paid jobs.

They are taken to training camps, given code names, and taught how to make bombs and to wield weapons until they ‘graduate’ and inflict violence upon people and the state.

Al Shabab’s use of Kiswahili and the depiction of Swahili-speakers in its media propaganda are indicative of the insurgent movement’s desire to attract more recruits from East Africa, where Kiswahili, the language of an estimated 35 million people, is widely spoken. Kiswahili, a Bantu language, is a lingua franca in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and parts of southern Somalia.

Subverting roles of women contributed to female radicalization
An examination of the political and ideological motivations behind people joining the Al-Shabaab shows that in some cases, they do make autonomous decisions based on their response to the grievances of the Muslim community.

But other structural and cultural factors were at play such as the patriarchal set-up in families and their communities. Some women’s decision-making conformed to subservient attitudes and roles. These women, mainly from the coastal Muslim communities, revealed that they were subject to traditional gender roles, suggesting deference to social norms.

Nuances betray the pattern

But not all women joining the Al-Shabaab lived lives of subjugation before joining. Some returnees had good family lives or were happily settled. Yet, in other cases, the women were happily settled and one tragic event sent them into an unprecedented spiral of mass killing. This pattern in particular has been highlighted in the life and radicalization of County Down Northern Ireland-born Samantha Lewthwaite. It showcases the difficulty in determining a clear pattern for why women are radicalized, particularly to Islamism.

Rachel Brooks contributed to this report.