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Women’s Roles in Al-Shabaab: Deeper Understanding and Research Is Needed

women 300x167 - Women's Roles in Al-Shabaab: Deeper Understanding and Research Is Needed

The ‘daughters’ of Al-Shabaab, armed with assault rifles. Credit for image and caption: Al Jazeera.

In April 2019, it was reported that recent studies over-emphasise the role of men in terrorism, therefore overlooking and underestimating the influence of women. Accounting for over 15-25% of membership in terrorist organisations, women possess a significant role in the recruitment, operations and delegation of terrorist groups, to name a few.

Data originating from the Western Jihadism Project revealed that the role of women in such organisations take the form of traditional gender roles, where women are less likely to be involved in the planning of attacks, and more likely to support the organisation “behind the scenes”. Given this context, this piece will explore the role of women, specifically within the Al-Shabaab.

A woman in the Al-Shabaab operating in Kenya participated in an interview held in 2015 with an Al-Jazeera reporter. She recounted to have given shelter to Al-Shabaab members, whilst they referred to her by the name “Mother”. This woman also stated that she remembers providing accommodation to a young man named Ikrima. Ikrima would later be identified as one of the planners of Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that left over 67 people dead.

Consistent with this woman’s account, it is identified that women in the Al-Shabaab play the role as “wives” of fighters, and partake in domestic activities. Women in the Al-Shabaab are reported to also be used as sex slaves, in addition to helping to attract new recruits. These women are often tricked into the Al-Shabaab by being lured with the prospect of employment, counselling or financial support. Some of these women who escaped have shared their stories, though they lived with the lifelong emotional, psychological and even physical scars inflicted upon them by the group.

In 2017, one woman stated that she had fell victim to this luring, and shared her account of the horrors she experienced while she was forced into sexual slavery by the Al-Shabaab. This woman recounts being smuggled from Kenya into Somalia and was brutally beaten and raped by as many as six Al-Shabaab men. One day, when the camp was empty of men, she managed to escape and encountered authorities who helped her to a hospital and eventually back to Kenya. She later learned that she was infected with HIV. The Al-Shabaab are reported to use women in sexual slavery to control the breeding of the next generation.

With consideration to the foregoing, not all women within the Al-Shabaab are tricked or lured into operating with the group. Recent studies have shown that there exists women voluntarily travel to Somalia to support the group’s agenda. A ‘key aspect’ to the Al-Shabaab’s operations is that Somali officials (such as officers or border control agents) do not recognise nor do they perceive women as a threat, allowing women to seamlessly pass through security checks. Therefore, women are often tasked with the transport and smuggling of weapons and go undetected at checkpoints. They are also tasked with gathering intelligence and information for the Al-Shabaab, as their manoeuvres and actions as women often pass without arousing suspicion.

The concern raised here is that the role of women within the Al-Shabaab remains under-reported, overlooked and rather unexplored. Continued research and analysis should be therefore encouraged regarding the significance of the role of women in the Al-Shabaab. Moreover, it must be emphasized that not all women within the Al-Shabaab are working with the group voluntarily, and a greater issue that must be addressed are the women who voluntarily join the group.

It has been reported than many young women specifically from Kenya travel to Somalia to join the group. These women often feel helpless in their former communities, and severe poverty often push them to join the Al-Shabaab. Another motive for women joining the group are their feelings of resentment towards Kenyan authorities who may have mistreated their sons or husbands. Joining the Al-Shabaab is therefore a form of retaliation and revenge, and analysts have even reported that for these women, joining the group is a form of empowerment.

However, as previously mentioned, once these women have experienced the reality of their role within the group (the brutal treatment and being forced into sexual slavery), women are left with two core choices: either remain in the group or attempt to return to Kenya. Those who remain in the group have reported that they stay because of fear or hopelessness. Those who attempt to return to Kenya face difficulty in returning to their former communities, and even face extrajudicial killings by Kenyan authorities if it is discovered that they were in Somalia assisting the Al-Shabaab.

The vulnerability and precarity of women’s roles in the Al-Shabaab necessitates more profound research, and equal recognition when conducting studies related to the group’s operations. Although not all women are tricked into joining the extremist group, resources can be made available to all women to provide education of the realities of the horrors of the Al-Shabaab. It has even been suggested that Somali forces should encourage more female presence of officers within their commands, to empower women and to demonstrate that there are options to empowerment, and that they need not to join the group.

Extremism Assessment Series: Antifascist Action (ANTIFA)

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Image: The most identifiable form of the Antifa logo used by the group and found in public sources.

  • ANTIFA represents a semi-disorganized collection of extremists on the far-left, sometimes considered the alt-left
  • ANTIFA is more accurately described as a brand, as opposed to a formal group, however, for ease of understanding it may be referred to as such throughout this assessment
  • With the upcoming presidential election, ANTIFA violence should be expected to rise alongside increasing political turmoil

Summary of Extremist Narrative

 ANTIFA’s self-described purpose is to counter fascism and prevent fascism from taking root in society. The ‘enemy’ of ANTIFA does not stop solely with fascists, however. Individuals believed to be far-right, conservative, and even individuals considered center-left on the political spectrum may be identified as an enemy of ANTIFA. Within the often militant organization, tactics for accomplishing objectives can vary from acts of violence, vandalism, criminal damage to property, or spreading of propaganda in interest of their ideology.

Within the social and political roots of ANTIFA, free speech is targeted as believers in the underlying ideology of ANTIFA believe that select speech is violent and must be suppressed for the betterment of overall society. This is a key justification for believers to resort to violence. As such, law enforcement has been deemed as an accessory to the enemy by ANTIFA as law enforcement seeks to separate clashing political protestors, hence preventing ANTIFA from attacking those they deem the enemy.

History of the group

 The majority of individuals who identify as ANTIFA come from Marxist political backgrounds, including communists and socialists. It is important to understand that ANTIFA does not represent a single organization or network. Numerous groups or individuals may consider themselves ANTIFA members, leading to the group being highly disorganized in terms of the overall structure.

The history of the ideology that brought about ANTIFA can be found in both the history books as well as in the writings of various political theorists. Communism, socialism, and far-left anarchism have had a small following within the US for well over a century. Such Marxist political leanings often call for a societal revolution to rise up through militant activities to support their political agendas.

Political theorists have argued that the spread of extremist political leanings begets the rise of the opposite form of extremism along the linear political spectrum. Regardless of which form of extremism first came about, ANTIFA believes that ‘fascist creeping’ has begun to attempt to take hold within the United States. This partially is cited as justification for violent acts against those considered supporters of fascism. While various international groups have used a varying version of ‘anti-fascist action’, the current American use began in the mid-2000s.

In the lead up to the 2016 presidential elections, ANTIFA surged in activity and membership with followers engaging in acts of violence across the nation. Protests and counter-protests sparked civil unrest unlike anything observed in decades in the United States with groups like ANTIFA at the forefront of the violence.

 Current state of the movement

 ANTIFA is very much active as an extremist ideology and brand. With the modern version of the group having become increasingly active and violent since its inception just over a decade ago, ANTIFA will be a source of far-left extremism for the foreseeable future. The ability for ANTIFA to inspire and recruit people into its brand of thinking is highly dependent on a politically volatile United States, which most would agree is the current operating environment. With the looming 2020 presidential election approaching, look for ANTIFA or ANTIFA inspired violence to increase.

 Where is ANTIFA operating?

As has been widely observed, ANTIFA is often found participating in political protests across the nation. Primarily located in major US cities or on college campuses nationwide, ANTIFA often has a presence amongst more volatile far-left protests.

 What are the primary recruitment methods into the movement?

ANTIFA messaging can be found easily on the internet. The spread of Mark Bray’s 2017 writing, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, is a ready source of information for the brand and helps to spread its ideology. The spread of this and related writings on the internet has been fostered by various online communication platforms that also serve as communications centers for the coordination of physical militant activities and the organization of protests and counter-protests.

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.

Content Moderation Presents New Obstacles in the Internet Age

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Image Credit: Cogito Tech (Cogitotech)

The first instance of a terrorist recording violent crimes and posting it online occurred when Mohammed Merah — the perpetrator of the 2012 Toulouse and Montauban attacks in France — did just that with his GoPro. Seven years later, the culprit of the Christchurch mosque shootings used a similar method. These attacks both beg the same question: How are social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter handling extremist content posted to their sites?

As a consequence, tech giants began the process of addressing this problem and seek to formulate a specific mechanism that targets extremist content. Facebook and Google focus significant attention towards development of their automated systems or AI (Artificial Intelligence) software to detect and eventually remove content that violates their policy.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) acts as a cooperative between tech companies to pool extremist content already in existence. A key purpose is to create unique digital fingerprints of contentious material called “hashes.” Hashes are then shared within the GIFCT community to ensure an expanded reach to tackle such material efficiently and the burden is lifted upon a single network to contain the bulk.

YouTube uses techniques like automated flagging also. Membership of their Trusted Flagger Program includes individuals, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and government agencies that are particularly effective at notifying YouTube of content that violates its Community Guidelines. YouTube has removed 8.2 million videos from its platform using these techniques as of March 2019.

In a Wired interview, Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Mike Schroepfer described AI the “best tool” to keep the Facebook community safe. AI is not infallible though, as it sometimes fails to understand the nuances of online extremism and hate. This is the point where the human moderators enter the picture.

The Verge provided a detailed piece detailing the lives of Facebook content moderators. Once the post has been flagged, the moderator can either delete it, ignore it or send it for further review. The moderators are trained to look at signs that are distressing for any number of people.

It took 17 minutes for the original live stream of the Christchurch attack posted on Facebook to be removed. That was more than enough time for it to be downloaded, copied, and posted to other platforms. Facebook claims it removed 1.5 million copies of the Christchurch footage within the first 24 hours, but copies remain.

Content moderation is such a mammoth task for social media companies because of the sheer scale of their operations. Millions of people are online and accessing these services at the same time. Errors are expected. The Christchurch attack exposed a glaring shortcoming in content reporting: livestreaming. Moderation has mechanisms for standard uploaded videos but there are not enough tools to moderate a livestream.

Another issue facing social media companies remains the tech savvy nature of modern extremists. Such content can be uploaded by manipulating audio and video quality to bypass the filters in place. Language poses another problem as most of the automatic content moderation is English-language based. Nearly half of Facebook users do not speak English therefore the company needs to expand its technology to incorporate other languages.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram continue to develop their AI tools and improve their human moderator strategies. Nevertheless, the sections taking advantage of current security loopholes are evolving as well. With 4.3 billion internet users in the world in March of 2019, content moderation itself is under scrutiny.

Hezbollah and the Terror-Crime Nexus

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Image Credits: Foreign Policy illustration and Getty Images

As the US security apparatus continues to publicly focus on Iran’s expansion in the Middle East, it has done little to actively address the threat posed from Iran’s favorite proxy, Hezbollah, on the southern border. Hezbollah has been known to operate international money laundering and drug trafficking operations via Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico for years. These operations, other than, notably, the Lebanese Canadian Bank case, have most often been prosecuted as drug-related crimes, rather than crimes of terrorism.

Hezbollah’s drug enterprise is not separate from its terrorist activity. Hezbollah, as directed by Iran, began engaging in the drug trade from its inception in the 1980’s, “for Satan—America and the Jews. If we cannot kill them with guns, so we will kill them with drugs.” As such, the American strategy of prosecuting drug crimes connected to Hezbollah as just that, rather than as crimes of terror shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Hezbollah’s motives.

According to a 2018 CDC study, cocaine was involved in 19.4% of drug overdose deaths in 2016— cocaine which has often made its way into the US via Hezbollah channels. In recent years, the spike in prescription drug related deaths has led the Trump administration to declare a national emergency. The opioid epidemic has at least partially driven the decline in US life expectancy, and opioid overdose victims are often found to have also taken cocaine.

The CDC study claims that in 2016 alone, more than 10,000 Americans died from drug overdoses involving cocaine; that number is more than three times the amount of Americans that died in 9/11. When you take into account the stated goal of Hezbollah to use drugs as weapons to neutralize its enemies, one wonders why the American government has yet to address this activity with the same severity as it does traditional acts of terror.

There is a law on the books that could have been used to prosecute this enterprise: the United States enacted a federal terror financing statute in 1994 after 1993’s World Trade Center bombing, under which entities can be prosecuted for knowingly providing “material support or resources” to another entity to conduct terror operations.

While money laundering can often remove the evidence needed to prosecute terror financing under the 1993 statue, the proof uncovered by the Project Cassandra task force directly ties the drug trafficking funds to Hezbollah. However, up until now, the failure to do so appears to be political, as the Obama administration allegedly did not want to engender bad faith during the Iran deal negotiations.

This has resulted in severe immediate threats to US homeland security. In May, a New York court indicted Ali Kourani, a naturalized US citizen and Hezbollah operative who allegedly attempted to identify Israeli targets in New York and obtain information on John F. Kennedy International Airport security protocols. Prior to setting up shop in New York, Kourani was previously involved with a dealership in Michigan that sold used cars to Benin; it is not unlikely this business was part of the network of used car dealerships used to launder Hezbollah’s drug profits.

Even as the United States aims to keep tensions away from its soil by announcing its intent to establish a military coalition to protect commercial shipping vessels in the waters surrounding Yemen and Iran, it leaves its doorstep unguarded by failing to take direct action against these networks.

Now that the current administration has pulled out of the deal, and is faced with rising tensions from Iran, the next move should be to go after Hezbollah’s crime-terror infrastructure under terror financing laws. Project Cassandra amassed the evidence; the Trump administration should use it to protect US citizens and put pressure on Iran.

Exclusive interview with Khalid Noor on Doha peace conference

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From Left, Khalid Noor and Lotfullah Najafzada at Doha peace conference. July 8, 2019.

Amid a series of peace talks over the last months, Taliban and Afghan representatives gathered in Doha and agreed on a roadmap to end the 18 years of war. Since last year, the U.S. appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as the lead Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation to broker a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, in hopes for a long term ceasefire. 

In Doha, Qatar, a meeting co-hosted by German and Qatari officials brought together diverse individuals interested in achieving lasting Afghan peace. Sixteen Taliban and sixty Afghan representatives (composed of delegates from political parties, government officials and civil society organizations) engaged in discussions that led to a potentially positive arrangement. Doha conference, instilled newfound hope as the Taliban agreed to reduce its reliance on violent attacks by avoiding various public spaces. Rise to Peace’s Ahmad Mohibi interviews Khalid Noor, one of the participants at Doha conference, to give a closer look at the future of the Afghan peace process. 

What is your takeaway from the Doha Peace Conference?

Khalid Noor: I think the Doha meeting was a great opportunity for the two sides [Taliban and the Afghan representatives] to sit down and share their issues, and to explain their concerns with each other. The talks provided the opportunity for both sides to discuss some of the most sensitive and critical topics that were overlooked at previous peace talks. For instance, we talked about regime creation. I personally changed the nature of the meeting from ceremonial to more serious discussions with my thoughts, that we want the regime to be the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — this is our goal and our red line. The Taliban wants an Islamic Emirate and that’s their red line. 

What were some of the questions that were brought forth to the Taliban at the Conference?

Khalid Noor: We would like to know how likely it is that the Taliban is willing to participate and accept our Islamic Republic if we bring substantial changes. My next point was that elections are valuable to us and we are not willing to lose them at any cost. Our fellow citizens are concerned about this, but they want to know: will you [Taliban] participate in an Afghan lead election that is controlled and financed by Afghans after reaching an agreement on a coalition government?

The moderator interrupted me shortly after my first two questions and requested if it’s possible to avoid technical and serious questions in order to not disrupt the meeting. I respectfully accepted but continued with my last question: Is it possible to elaborate and emphasize freedom of speech? For instance, you [Taliban] have said though press releases and other forms of public messaging, that the Taliban would respect freedom of speech. Although, in your other statements the Taliban threatens media over the same matter. It’s imperative for us to understand, ‘what’s happening on your side and what is your vision of certain freedoms in Afghanistan?’

What was one of the main points that both parties were mostly concerned about?

Khalid Noor: After listening to each other’s questions and concerns, the two sides started to raise their issues about violent attacks. For instance, we shared our sorrows and criticized the current Taliban tactic of sending suicide bombers to kill innocent people in congested parts of the cities. It is not Islamic or logical. The Taliban also criticized the Afghan government by saying that the government ‘only talks about the civilian casualties caused by us [Taliban] and not the night operations conducted by the government, that resulted in the martyrdom of our people and civilians. No news agency reports that. So, when you [Afghan government] raise such concerns, it’s also necessary to discuss our casualties as well.’ One of the Taliban members sternly asked, “Do you think our civilian casualties are not human beings?”

Were there any other matters discussed following the Taliban’s concern of mass casualties?

Khalid Noor: The Taliban raised another point about human rights after we repeatedly defended human rights, women’s rights, and freedom of speech. They told us, “since you are speaking about human rights, is human rights only what you hear about on television and what you believe is right, or do you think about what we go through? They [Afghan National Security Forces and Coalition Forces] enter our homes at night, disrespect our women, our children, and mothers.  For example, one of our commanders was arrested by the Afghanistan National Intelligence Agency and the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

When he was taken into custody at NDS, the investigators told him “Now call your God to help you.” The Taliban expanded on this example and challenged us on “what part of this misbehavior of our personnel, where torture is following the principles of human rights?” They continued and said, “if you look at the prison systems, they are not fair to us [Taliban]. Aren’t your human rights’ values applicable to this case or it’s only the media that shows our negative actions?” Taliban said “we are not denying our mistakes. We have done mistakes but to be fair, it’s good that both sides accept the mistakes.”

Who were some of the other key representatives at this Conference?

Khalid Noor: The two sides listened carefully to each other’s issues and concerns. Our Muslim scholars, who were part of the Kabul delegates, also condemned Taliban actions and illustrated that our interpretation of Islam is better than the Taliban interpretation. The Muslim scholars added that it’s imperative that we [Afghan and Taliban] scholars sit and discuss these issues and come to a conclusion whose interpretation of Islam is right or wrong.

Would you consider this meeting successful?

Khalid Noor: The main point of this meeting was that an opportunity emerged so that both sides could clearly raise their thoughts patiently. This was unlike many other peace talks. In previous conferences, the intra-Afghan dialogues were smaller, about 5-6 people from the Taliban and Afghan side. Unlike before, this time we were part of a bigger team where we discussed various topics. Most importantly, the Taliban delegates participated in the conversation and answered questions. This was a great achievement.

What can be done to increase the likelihood of success in future peace talks?

Khalid Noor: On day two, we were more open to collaborative discussions compared to the first day where mostly everyone was serious and had this hatred towards each other. Representatives from both sides felt comfortable to share something and they listened to each other. I really think that this was a good meeting as the two sides exchanged ideas. If we had one or two more days, I really believe that our discussion could have been more technical and friendlier. It’s imperative to keep such talks in the future. In addition to actual Afghan-Taliban peace negotiations, we need to have separate dialogues, because negotiations can be tough sometimes and in that circumstance, it’s better to refer the issue to the dialogue team, so they can discuss it without a judgment call or simply answer out of ignorance.

Do you believe that the Taliban will keep their promise in efforts to reduce violence? 

Khalid Noor: It’s too early to know if the Taliban will keep their promises or not. But I have to express that the two sides [Taliban and Afghan government] should be involved and support each other. It’s important that both the Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban fighters implement the promise reached by both sides at the meeting. We are both held accountable. A judgment call can be made if we see a civilian casualty in any of their attacks. We would ask them: You promised us that you would not attack civilians, so what happened that now you attacked schools, hospitals, and targeted civilians? Thus, their promise is a way to keep them responsible for their actions.

This is in case they break the agreement, and they most likely will. But, it’s difficult for us to understand how strongly they are going to keep their promise.

What are some of the drivers for the Taliban to end their fight and join the Afghan government?

Khalid Noor: Some of the main reasons that the Taliban are willing to come to a negotiated settlement and end the war which the Afghan and American governments, along with the international community, believe that no party or side will create peace through war or the use of force. Neither the Taliban can defeat us, nor we can defeat them. In the past 18 years, we have been fighting continuously on the frontlines. Although the Taliban had massive casualties, they are still standing strong against the Afghan government. I do believe that each side has come to the understanding that negotiations are the best option, as war is not the solution to problems.

At the same time, we can tell they [Taliban] are tired of fighting and do not want to continue this war. Their foot soldiers are getting older and the leadership may face trust issues with the current generation of soldiers, as they may not be as loyal. I do not know for sure, but this is my personal understating.

Taliban said, “We also would like to see our children go to school. But because of you [Afghan government], we seek refuge in the mountains, so we cannot send our children to gain proper education and have the basic needs of living.”

What can the Afghan leaders offer to meet those drivers?

Khalid Noor: I strongly believe that the two sides [the Afghan government and the Taliban] should compromise on certain issues and accept each other’s point of view. Without compromise and understanding, there is no other way to solve the problem. The two sides should meet in the future to discuss their concerns. They may need to revise some of their strong policies or views to reach the common goal of a deal to build a regime in Afghanistan.

How does the U.S. contribute as the main broker in intra-Afghan dialogues?

Khalid Noor: The U.S. role in negotiations is critical. Bringing the two sides to a negotiation table is great assistance. Second, if the U.S. direct talks with the Taliban are successful, then this will definitely support the Afghan peace process. Additionally, the U.S. role in pressuring political parties and the Afghan government, so they can come to a united stand in efforts to negotiate with the Taliban, is very critical. I do believe that the U.S. has a key role in encouraging politicians, elites and the opposition to work together on a unified agenda and concept.


Ahmad Mohibi, a writer and activist is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

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