Terrorist groups are increasingly targeting young women as potential recruits, especially in East Africa. And their role is no longer confined to just being the brides of terrorists or doing social media work, they are planning and carrying out attacks. EURACTIV Germany reports.
When three women walked into one of the main police stations on the Kenyan coast on 11 September to report a stolen phone, no one was ready for the terror they would unleash.
As soon as one of the police officers requested one of them to remove their face veil to identify themselves, one of the women jumped over the counter, removed a dagger and stabbed the officer in the neck and chest. She would later douse herself with petrol.
The other women threw petrol bombs at the station, setting it on fire. In one of the most audacious terror attacks on Kenyan soil, for which the Islamic terror group ISIS claimed responsibility, the three women shouted Allahu Akbar, as police sprayed them with bullets, according to eye witness accounts.
Police have argued that the attack could have been worse, considering the women also wore suicide vests. It is an incident that has shocked police and security experts in East Africa not just for its brazen and daring approach but because of the people behind it: women.
It is a trend that is fast growing, where women are graduating from the traditional roles of being Islamic fighters’ brides and social media campaigners to being at the center of terror attacks as active fighters.
It is a strategy that terror groups have perfected because women offer operational advantages including their propaganda value and ability to get closer to targets without being suspected. The change of tact by these groups has been through targeting highly educated girls with messages of empowerment and the need for them to champion a “noble cause”.
The three women were between 19 and 25 years of age and had either completed high school or were set to attend university.
According to a Kenyan government report released last year, a majority of girls joining terror groups are indoctrinated to embrace terrorism as a just and 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.
These findings are corroborated by another report by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight country bloc in Africa, which concluded that there has been a marked increase in young women joining jihadist groups, as terrorists exploit their personal problems and promise them better lives.
“It is a tact the terror groups have perfected. Add that to the growing influence of social media among youth, who on average spend eight hours a day online. And with a majority of them unemployed and feeling disenfranchised, anyone who can tap into their desperation and turn it into an opportunity has the best chance of winning the youth over. It is how ISIS, Al Shabaab and other Jihadist groups are easily recruiting the youth,” said Dr Meredith Muli from the department of history, philosophy and religious studies at Egerton University in Kenya.
He further adds that women and young people are easy to train because they take instructions easily. It explains a foiled attempt by Kenya police in May where a medical intern at a hospital in Eastern Kenya was planning a biological attack by using anthrax. At the heart of the planned attack was a man, a medical intern at the hospital, his wife and another female accomplice.
“We are talking about women and girls, especially Muslim, who have seen their daughters, husbands and brothers mistreated by Kenyan security forces. The disappearance of their kin has sparked anger and a need for revenge, and this has made them even more lethal,” said Abdi Mustafa, a Muslim activist in Nairobi.
In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, a magazine for female jihadists called Al Ghuraba is produced with articles training female jihadists how to behave, from how to dress, and carry out successful attacks.
So what is inspiring the growing interest of women to be at the centre of terror attacks? Women are inspiring each other, with young female jihadists looking up to established fellow women for inspiration. In one case, the government of Kenya discovered in August last year that a female school teacher had been preparing and training his students to join Al Shabaab in Somalia. She prepared them to cross over to Somalia and later joined them.
In the case of the female terrorists at the coastal police station, the women are said to have been in constant communication with Haniya Said Saggar, the widow of slain cleric Aboud Rogo who had been blamed by the government for his fiery teachings and recruitment of young people to radical groups.
But the biggest inspiration to female jihadists, according to analysts, is British-born Samantha Lewthwaite, also known as “the White Widow”, who has escaped the clutches of international police and is believed to have an extensive network in Kenya.
She was married to Germaine Lindsay, who blew up a tube train in London killing 26 people in 2005. She is believed to be in Somalia and is accused of killing over 400 people.
“The fact that she has managed to escape police dragnets and is at times believed to participate actively in bombings before escaping before plotting other major attacks seems to be inspiring many girls. Of the many cases where police manage to intercept or retrieve materials from the girls they arrest, they in most instances find the girls reading about the White Window,” said Dr Julius Mutomo, a security analyst.
But the trend of female terrorists is not restricted to Kenya and East Africa. According to research by the University of Miami studying 40,000 suspected terrorists, “women are the glue that hold the organisations together”.
The Women’s Connectivity in Extreme Networks report, which was published in the Science Advances journal, noted that there has been a growing and active role of women in modern terror activities than has not been recorded before.
In the UK, according to data from Home Office, 36 female terror suspects had been arrested in the 12 month period before March this year, making up 14% of all terrorism related arrests during that time.
This was up from 10 arrested in 2011. “It is all about mind games, and terrorists have found soft targets in women through psychology. And as things stand, sadly, going by recent trends, we are going to see more women being actively involved in terror activities. This is the latest headache for security officers,” added Dr Mutomo.