The rise of women in terrorism

Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, were movements largely associated with men; not anymore, and Kenya is a growing recruitment field. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • An alarming concern is that the women being radicalised are youths in their marriage age, according to Mr Adan Osman, the director of the De-radicalisation Department at the Mandera county government.
  • A government report released last year said girls are made to view terrorism as a noble cause.
  • “The girls attracted to these groups are generally in the adolescent-young adult category. They tend to have a romantic notion about the lives of the extremists,” the report said.

“Assalam aleykum, how are you? Am now in Syria ... Tell everyone not to look for me am doing very fine.”

Less than 48 hours after Ms Twafiqa Dahir sent that message to her cousin Rahama Abnasir in May last year using the messaging application Telegram, saying she had joined the Islamic State terror group (also known as Isis), the police rubbished these claims.

She had no ID card and, therefore, could not have acquired a passport, they said of the girl who – together with her childhood friend Ms Salwa Abdalla – could have become the first confirmed cases of Kenyans who have joined Isis.

After all, terrorism has always been a mainly male affair, and ISIS was one of Kenya’s least concerns as East Africa is thousands of kilometres away from its hotbed in the Middle East, analysts argued.

But when three suspected female terrorists were shot dead by police as they tried to attack the Mombasa Central Police Station last Sunday, two facts were conspicuous: women and terrorism.

ISIS was the first and still remains the only terror group to have claimed responsibility for the botched Mombasa raid even though Al-Shaabab, which has carried out several large-scale attacks in Kenya in recent years, was initially thought to be responsible.

As details continue to unravel about the three attackers, the scary reality that girls and women are being lured to join terror groups is now a hot topic among various stakeholders.

The major concern is what the future holds for Kenyans, now that there are all indications that women terrorists are “graduating” from simply helping male militants behind the scenes to taking an active role in attacks.

Lifestyle spoke to parents, government administrators, activists, religious leaders and scholars — all of whom said that unless there are changes to the ways that young Muslim women interact with the outside world, Kenyans may not have seen the last of raids executed by women.

An alarming concern is that the women being radicalised are youths in their marriage age, according to Mr Adan Osman, the director of the De-radicalisation Department at the Mandera county government.

A government report released last year said girls are made to view terrorism as a noble cause.

“The girls attracted to these groups are generally in the adolescent-young adult category. They tend to have a romantic notion about the lives of the extremists,” the report said.

In the Mombasa attack, Ms Maimuna Abdirahman Hussein, Ms Ramla Abdirahman Hussein and Ms Tasnim Yakub Abdullahi Farah approached the station posing as ordinary citizens who had come to file a complaint with the police.

Two police officers at the reporting desk then asked one of the women to remove her veil to reveal her face. She reportedly defied the order and jumped over the counter, holding a dagger that she had concealed under her buibui.

A witness, Ms Salma Mohammed, said one officer was stabbed in the neck and chest, prompting his female colleague to flee. The same attacker then doused herself with petrol and set herself on fire. The three women were later shot dead. Investigations continue.

So far, Ms Naema Mohammed Ahmed, Ms Saida Ali Haji and Ms Shukri Ali Haji — who police say are Somali refugees — have been taken to court on suspicion that they housed the leader of the three women, Ms Tasmin Yakub.

The police have also arrested Ms Sagar Rogo, the wife of slain Muslim preacher Aboud Rogo, who is suspected to have been in communication with Ms Yakub.

While investigators try to solve the puzzle of this single incident, the bigger picture is far from pretty.

As reports of young women embracing terrorism emerge, there is also a crop of worried parents.

A common concern among parents is that they are no longer able to keep track of who their children are communicating with — and the fact that terror groups are using the Internet to recruit is scary.

“Our hearts are shaken. Our new reality is constructed by the fact the recruitment process seems to be right in the midst of the circles of our own children. In my case, I am asking myself: how much closer could this get?” asked Ms Amina Ibrahim, a mother whose article in the Sunday Nation last year spoke for many. 

She added: “Mothers of young adults are worried and asking questions whether we actually know our children, who they associate with, listen to, chat with and who is influencing their worldview more than us.”

Ms Farida Rashid, the founder of the Kenya Muslim Women Alliance (Kemwa), a community-based organisation in Mombasa, told Lifestyle that most parents are scared of admitting that their daughters have left home to join terror groups.

“No mother will say their daughter is missing. A woman can report the husband or son but we’ve not witnessed a mother say her daughter has joined a terror group,” said Ms Rashid, adding that she has spoken to more than 1,000 people on various occasions on the dangers of joining terrorism.

“It is a great danger when the girls are going in. It needs us to join hands as women and as a community,” she said.

To stem this, Ms Rashid advised mothers to go to their children’s rooms in their absence “to investigate what they are up to.”

“We should also vet madrassa teachers to know what they teach because Islam preaches peace,” she said.

Mr Abdirahman Hussein, the father of two of the three girls killed last weekend in the Mombasa attack, is reported to have been worried about the material his children were accessing and never encouraged his daughters to venture out unnecessarily.

Close family friends said the girls had been raised under strict conditions, noting that the family had installed Wi-Fi at their home so that the girls would not venture out in search of Internet services.

As a pointer to the concern the father had over his daughters, relatives said he had reported the disappearance of the girls as soon he realised they had gone missing on Sunday morning. Their mother reportedly fainted when she received the news of them being killed at the police station.

“I find it odd that a woman, with the [limited] powers she has, can go up to a station for a raid,” said Ms Rashid. “The country is scared to see such a thing happening in Kenya. We don’t know what can happen next.”


Another set of agonising parents emerged last year when the two girls linked with ISIS disappeared, with suspicion that they had fled to Syria.

Their mothers cut a figure of despair when they spoke to journalists on the whereabouts of their daughters, noting the lack of an identity card as an unresolved puzzle on how they travelled.

The University of Nairobi, where Ms Dahir was studying, said on Friday that she is yet to return to the institution.

A female terrorist whose influence parents should be wary of is British-born Samantha Lewthwaite alias “the White Widow” whose network is suspected to be well within Kenya.

Ms Lewthwaite was added to the Interpol list of wanted persons in 2013, shortly after the terror attack on the Westgate Mall, on suspicion that she has played a part in a number of attacks in Kenya since 2011.

According to the BBC, Ms Lewthwaite’s name was thrust into the limelight in 2005 after her husband Germaine Lindsay blew up a tube train in London where 26 people died. She was quoted wondering how a “naive” man like her husband could have been lured into terrorism.

She would later disappear from the UK and was once tracked to Kenya. She is now believed to be living in Somalia and reports indicate that she could be reaching out to prospective terrorists in Kenya.

Discussing parents’ anxiety in her article, Ms Ibrahim wrote: “It is obvious that terrorism and radicalisation have come too close for comfort, affecting everybody and more so mothers. We hope we can find more avenues to reach out to our youngsters and make them allies to our beliefs and values.”

Before the photos of those arrested following Mombasa’s attack got into newspaper pages, there were images of alleged “Al-Shabaab brides”, who were arrested in the North Eastern Kenyan town of Elwak early last year when they were suspected to have been on their way to Somalia to join the militants.

Ms Khadija Abubakar Abdulkadir, Ms Maryam Said Aboud and Ms Ummulkhayr Sadri Abdulla were later charged at the Mombasa Law Court alongside Ms Halima Adan with a number of terror-related charges.

In a hearing held in April, the prosecution said that the mobile phones and laptops recovered from the accused had videos and pictures of former Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and the current group’s head, Ayman Al Zawahiri.


The court was further told that the accused had a video of extremist preachings of the late Muslim cleric Sheikh Aboud Rogo, which were intended to be used in radicalisation.

During a court session last year, prosecutor Eugene Wangila said the suspects had links extending to as far as Syria and Sudan and that their accomplices were at large.

But despite the message of glamour and selflessness terrorists use to lure women into their ranks, danger lurks. Mandera County Commissioner Fredrick Shisia referred Lifestyle to the case of Isnina Musa, whose body was found buried in a shallow grave last year, saying it was a pointer to the increase in women being lured into terror, then getting eliminated by their masters.

Ms Musa’s body was discovered by herdsmen days after people suspected to be security officers picked her up from her kiosk in Mandera town.

Distancing police from the disappearance of Ms Musa or any other terror suspects in Mandera, Mr Shisia said terror cells are often ruthless.

“Those blaming security agents of disappearance of suspects forget that terror cells are merciless to members who go against their ideals once recruited,” he said.

Mr Shisia added that terror cells have effective intelligence networks that oversee those who have been given assignments to execute.

He could not confirm whether there were women on the security watch list within Mandera County.

“I cannot tell if we have women on our radar because it will be jeopardising our tracking of the same. But it is something that is there,” he said.

In Mr Shisia’s view, women have always been involved in various terror activities at different stages with various roles assigned to them.


“It is not new in Mandera. It has been there, it shall continue being there. But as managers and co-ordinators of security matters, we have been discussing this to find a lasting solution,” he said.

Mr Shisia noted that the society’s reluctance to accept that some women can aggressively be involved in crime can lead to swift and successful operations by female terrorists.

He noted that terrorism is all about “ambushing” and since women attract less suspicion, they are the best agents in accomplishing terror missions.

Mr Shisia noted that one of the slain terror suspects in last week’s Mombasa attack is from Mandera.

“The recent attack in Mombasa has a relation to Mandera as the lead suspect comes from here,” he said.

Prof Halimu Suleiman, a sociology professor at Pwani University, gave an emphatic “definitely” when asked if there will be more women joining terrorist groups in future, saying that modern-day parents are partly to blame.

“There are specific lessons that parents have to take charge of. One of those lessons, which is related to issues of radicalisation, is to enable parents to instil in their children the ability to differentiate sources of information. This is very critical: what information do you take and from whom?” he said.

He added: “The challenge that we have is that today’s parents do not have time with their children. So, the children have no way of authenticating information they get from other sources. In the absence of the parents’ authentication of information, then children take these sources as authentic sources. In the process, they get involved in dangerous information.”

Another reason why more women may become terrorists, he said, is because there has been “systematic marginalisation” of Kenyan women, especially in giving them an education.

“These girls also have dreams in life and, therefore, they can easily be lured to this issue of radicalisation and terrorism,” he said.

A similar view on parenting is held by the organising secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, Sheikh Mohamed Khalifa.

“Even though there are parents who try and teach their children proper values and religious teachings, they fail by not warning or punishing them whenever they do wrong and that is our biggest challenge in addressing violent extremism in this region,” he said.

“This makes the children feel that whatever they are doing is okay as there is no punishment for it. If they are caught by police for wrong doing, their parents bail them out.”

Concerned that mothers may not be doing enough to curb the radicalisation of youths, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) on Thursday launched an anti-extremism programme.


Speaking in Mombasa at the launch of the programme, NCIC vice-chairperson Irene Wanyoike said women have a lot of useful information which can assist in addressing radicalisation.

“They are the ones who are at home with their children and are in close-knit relations with them. Their children who are recruited go back home to them, they may even know where the weapons they own are hidden but they are afraid of speaking or reporting those issues,” she said.

To ensure her four children didn’t fall into the radicalisation trap, Ms Afiya Rama, who chairs the Mombasa branch of Maendeleo ya Wanawake, said she had been open with them and that she ensured they got proper Koran teachings.

“When raising my children, I used to be very open with them. I used to have regular sittings with them and reminded them time and time again that if they followed bad behaviour and teachings, then they would have a bad life but if they upheld obedience and discipline, life would be good for them,” said Ms Rama, whose youngest child is now a first year university student.

Ms Rama believes that radicalisation of young boys, and most recently girls, emanates from poor upbringing by some parents, lack of proper teachings of the Koran and negative peer influence.

There also seems to be new methods of recruitment. An August 2015 government report claimed a female teacher recruited her students and later joined them in Somalia.

The report said the state security agencies were closely monitoring at least six schools that had seen students drop out to join terrorist groups in Somalia and Syria.

This comes amid reports that ISIS has now started using women to stage its attacks, notably a February raid in Libya where seven suicide bombers were involved.

Interestingly, Nigeria-based terror group Boko Haram, which last year pledged allegiance to ISIS, conducted a raid in July 2015 using women.


By Elvis Ondieki, Vincent Achuka, Rebecca Okwany and Manase Otsialo


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