Once their favourite targets, Al-Shabaab now turn to women to dodge crackdown

Al-Shabaab fighters

An earlier photo of Al-Shabaab fighters.

Photo credit: File | AFP

On August 8, Somalia's military court, which usually tries high-level criminal suspects, witnessed a spectacle: four women, all married, were paraded as terrorism suspects.

Identified as Khadra Mohamed Isse, Aisha Muhyadin Mohamud, Zahra Hussein Isse and Naima Farah Sheikhdoon, they were accused of aiding Al-Shabaab leaders in the Lower Shabelle region, south of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

But they put up a spirited fight. Their lawyer argued that the state was criminalising association, and they said they did not necessarily know everything their husbands were doing behind their backs.

One of them admitted to being the wife of a member of the extremist group but said that didn't qualify her to know everything the militants were doing.

Another woman denied the accusation, arguing that her husband could be working for anyone, including the government, without saying so. 

"He could even be working with you. How should I know?" she said, pointing her finger at a prosecutor.

According to her defence lawyer, "All that has been shown here is that the women are married to members of Al-Shabaab. Being married cannot be a crime and they should be released.”

Yet the case itself highlighted something that security experts in Somalia had initially ignored: How women support the group's activities.

Initially, Al-Shabaab had one of the most draconian policies for taming women. First they killed their husbands or sons, then they controlled what women wore.

For example, in 2010, when Al-Shabaab militants took control of Bakara Market, the largest trading centre in Mogadishu, they set up checkpoints to see if shoppers were wearing bras.

They ordered women to shake their bodies to see if their breasts moved. Those who wore bras were not considered proper women because their breasts could not shake.

The motive was that, according to the extremists, wearing a bra, or men dying their grey hair black, was tantamount to cheating, illegal according to their interpretation of Islamic Sharia (law).

These days, Somalia in general has moved on from that, especially after African Union forces helped drive the militants out of Mogadishu. Bras and all kinds of women's underwear are sold openly in the market and women don't have to shake anything.

But in the wilayat (regions) controlled by Al-Shabaab, the screws have been tightened.

Women and even girls living in the wilayat are more likely to be married off to Al-Shabaab fighters or their supporters, and they often have no right to say no. The Shabaab brides then become key cogs in the expansion of the empire of terror.

Abdi Jimale, who spent several years in parts of Lower Jubba region where the group controls large swathes of territory, believes that women under Al-Shabaab rule can be dominated in many ways.

"Women can either be manipulated or forced to serve the movement in many ways," said Jimale, who has analysed the group for years.

"Parents are forced to let their girls be married off to Somali militants or to the so-called migrant jihadists (foreign fighters)," Jimale added. Once they become 'family', the women are then used to recruit others, using their soft power and ability to be ignored by the authorities.

They can also be used to transport weapons, exploiting the fact that society often sees women as victims rather than perpetrators.

In court last week, the prosecutor argued against the women's release, saying they were aiding the terrorists by knowingly transporting "highly explosive, harmful devices on behalf of their partners" whom they met in the bushes of the Lower Shabelle region (south of Mogadishu).

The prosecutor asked for maximum sentences for the women, saying: "I ask the honourable court to impose the most severe sentences so that it sets a good example of what can be expected of an accomplice to terrorism.

As much as they were victims, the women were deadly when they were used as terror merchants. In August 2019, the then mayor of Mogadishu, Abdirahman Omar Osman 'Yariisow', was assassinated by someone he worked with every day: a blind female office assistant. Strapped with explosives and tailing her boss, she went undetected. She blew herself up, killing the mayor and six others, Somalia's interior ministry said at the time.

It wasn't the first time. In April 2012, a young woman strapped with explosives blew herself up at the National Theatre in central Mogadishu. She targeted a meeting where Somalia's then Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas was addressing an audience of around 200 guests.

Prominent figures including Aden Yabarow Wiish, the then chairman of the Somali Olympic Committee, and the president of the Somali Football Federation, Said Mohamed Nur, were killed in the blast. It was the first time Somalis had experienced a terrorist attack orchestrated by a woman.

At the time, civil society actors had always advocated for the protection of women and children from the threat of al-Shabaab.

Four years later, in 2016, in Bardhere district of Gedo region, some 450 km southwest of Mogadishu, the local authorities ordered all women married to al-Shabaab and Daesh (Islamic State -IS) fighters to leave the district within seven days.

The deadline, announced by the district commissioner at the time, was justified on the grounds that the extremists' wives were contributing to insecurity, without specifying how.

Similar orders were issued by the Tiyeglow district administration in the Bakol region, some 220km south-west of Mogadishu, targeting women associated with al-Shabaab. Shabaab responded by targeting the officials in an assassination campaign.

But it seems that al-Shabaab has learned that it needs all capable people, including women and girls, to carry out its terror. The women don't have to love it.

Once a woman or girl is married, she is known to be in their circle.  But in the wilayat, women don't usually decide what is best for them. They are guided by men, says Jimale. 

So far, Jimale believes that women have not only carried weapons unchecked. Those who work in what appear to be small businesses are used to facilitate money laundering and to store weapons for the group. Their position in the trade in government-controlled areas allows the Islamists to gather counter-intelligence and hide their Shabaab wares, such as grenades, ammunition and other small devices.

Somalia's interior ministry admits that al-Shabaab has even infiltrated government offices, including tax collection centres and other top offices. In an earlier interview, Ahmed Maalim, Somalia's Minister for Interior, Federal Affairs and Reconciliation, said al-Shabaab was now Somalia's public enemy number one. He argued that the government was fighting the group on three fronts: Militarily, by targeting its finances and by discouraging recruits from leaving the group.

"Somalia's main challenge is terrorism from groups like Khawarij (Al-Shabaab) and Daesh," Maalim told Nation.Africa earlier this year.

"These groups have blocked access to the affected communities and completely cut off the regions from the rest of the country and humanity."