Experts dig into growing recruitment of women into terror cells

A woman arrested on suspicion of attempting to join terror group Al-Shabaab is led away to a cell at a Mombasa court on March 30, 2015. More women are joining terrorist organisations. PHOTO | LABAN WALLOGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Once recruited, the women play various roles in the group as recruiters, spies, cooks and cleaners, according to the study.
  • On September 2016, two interns at Malindi Hospital were arrested on suspicion of having links to Al-Shabaab.
  • Many of them were influenced by a strong faith of revenge on what they believe is an oppression and injustice meted on fellow Muslims.

She could have used her academic credentials and rich family background to land a job and advance her career as a leading pharmacist in Kenya.

However, Ms Khadija Abubakar’s dream of becoming a pharmacist was cut short when she was arrested on March 27, 2015.

Khadija, then 19, was studying Pharmacy at Mount Kenya University when she got arrested on accusations of attempting to sneak to Somalia and join Al-Shabaab fighters together with three other women.

Her arrest and subsequent prosecution effectively ended her dream of becoming a pharmacist.

“The case is moving slowly but I am hopeful that it will end well. It is set for hearing this month,” Ms Khadija told the Sunday Nation last week. She is out on a Sh500,000 bond.

Ms Khadija is among the young, educated Kenyan women, many of them from affluent families who have been linked to terrorist groups.


Also facing terrorism related charges are Ms Maryam Said Aboud and Ms Halima Adan, both Kenyans, and Ms Ummul-Kheir Sadri Abdalla, a Tanzanian.

All the four were university students at the time of their arrest.

Ms Ummul-kheir was studying medicine at the International University of Africa in Khartoum, Sudan, while Ms Maryam was a Bachelor of Commerce student at Kenyatta University.

A study Violent Extremism in Kenya: Why women are a priority, conducted by the Institute for Security Studies in Africa, shows that at least 58 students abandoned universities to join terrorist groups in Somalia, Libya and Syria in the last three years.

The report says 14 were recruited to the terrorist organisations last year while the rest joined earlier.

The figure could be higher because authorities have not established the fate of others who have been reported missing.

Others who left the country to join the terrorist groups were students from top schools in the Coast region.


Once recruited, the women play various roles in the group as recruiters, spies, cooks and cleaners, according to the study.

Researchers interviewed 108 women from communities in Nairobi, Mombasa, Garissa, Diani, Kwale and Kisumu.

They also spoke to women who had returned from Shabaab camps, civil society and community leaders and organisers, as well as government officials and donors.

On September 11, 2016, police foiled an attack at Mombasa’s Central Police station.

It later emerged that the raid was executed by three young women from an affluent Mombasa family and were among the best performing learners in their school.

They were identified as Ms Tasnim Yakub, the suspected mastermind, Maimuna Abdirahman and Ms Ramla Abdirahman.


Sisters Maimuna and Ramla were brought up in a strict setting, and were not allowed to socialise or step out of the house without the consent of their parents or older siblings.

The family even installed Wi-Fi in their home so that the girls could not go out looking for internet services.

Maimuna had been admitted to the Technical University of Mombasa for a diploma in pharmaceutical technology and was to report before she met her death.

She attended Alfarsy Girls Secondary School in Mombasa and scored grade B in 2013.

On September 2016, two interns at Malindi Hospital, Mohamed Shukri and Abdulrazak Abdinuur, were arrested on suspicion of having links to Al-Shabaab.

Both were studying medicine at Saratov State Medical University in Russia.


In the probably the most prominent case, Abdirahim Abdullahi abandoned the University of Nairobi’s Law School to join Al-Shabaab.

He was killed at Garissa University College after he led three other terrorists in gunning down 147 students on April 2, 2015 in one of the worst terrorist attacks in Kenya.

On February 2016, police arrested Hassanaen Ahmed, a University of Nairobi biochemistry student, as he was reportedly leaving the country to travel to Libya to join the Islamic State group.

Later in May that year, Gloria Kavaya, a microbiology student at Kenyatta University was also arrested after she disappeared from school, changed her name and embarked on what police said were plans to travel to Syria.

A study by Prof Kimani Njogu of Twaweza Communications on why cases of well-educated youth, especially women, from wealthy backgrounds left the comfort of their homes to join terrorist groups revealed that a majority were driven by “anger” directed at those they viewed as oppressors of their “brothers and sisters” in the Middle East.


He said many of them were influenced by, among other issues, a strong faith of revenge on what they believe is an oppression and injustice meted on fellow Muslims.

“It is important to note that these young men and women go against their education and wealth because they believe their brothers and sisters in the Middle East deserve assistance because they are under oppression from western nations,” Prof Njogu said.

“They also believe the world is unequal and it favours other religions and oppresses Muslims. They will go to the extent of targeting Western installations.”

Prof Njogu added that new converts were easily attracted into terror cells because of their limited understanding of the Quran and other religious ethics.

“They later on engage in terrorist activities as a compensatory move after joining the religion,” he said.


United Nations Women Peace and Security Consultant Fatuma Mohamed called on the government to conduct more research on why wealthy, young educated women join terrorist groups.

Ms Mohammed said if no research was done, such cases would be hard to contain.

“What we need to ask is why they are joining these groups?” she said at Sarova Whitesands in Mombasa.

In 2016, the Commission for University Education raised alarm at the surge in the number of students being arrested on suspicion of joining IS.

The Commission reported that at least 44 students had abandoned studies to become fighters.

Concern was especially growing over the number of students studying medicine who were detained on suspicion of belonging to such groups.