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.

AMISOM and an Approaching 2021 : Is Somalia Prepared?

Photo Credit: Photographer Ilyas Ahmed for AMISOM.

In March 2019, it was unanimously decided by the United Nations Security Council that the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) would maintain its deployment and reduce uniformed personnel by 1000, in conformity with the prevailing plan to steadily transfer these responsibilities to existing Somali security forces. Resolution 2492 (2019) therefore authorises this reduction, allowing a maximum of 19, 626 AMISOM personnel by 28 February 2020. As the end of AMISOM’s mission is approaching in 2021, prioritised tasks for the mission include, as previously mentioned, the gradual handover of security responsibilities to Somali forces and reducing the threat posed by the Al-Shabaab.

Moreover, the Security Council authorised other key tasks to be achieved before 2021: the securing of key supply routes to areas recovered by Al-Shabaab, the conducting of ‘targeted offensive operations’ in support of the transition plan and assisting the Government of Somalia in the implementation of a total ban on charcoal exports. However, the Council has also expressed grave concerns for the ongoing humanitarian situation, namely the conflict and sexual violence that civilians continue to be victims of. It is recognised that AMISOM cannot remain in Somalia forever, and with the mission set to end in 2021, a fundamental question is provoked: is Somalis ready for AMISOM’s departure?

To provide a concise context, it is necessary to reiterate that AMISOM was established in Somalia as a regional peacekeeping mission between the African Union and the United Nations. Created by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council in January 2007, AMISOM had an initial mandate of six months. Fast forward to August 2017, the United Nations Security Council had issued a new resolution where the security responsibilities would be shifted gradually from AMISOM to the Somali security forces ‘continent on [the] abilities of the Somalis security forces and political and security progress in Somalia’.

The Al-Shabaab, also known as “The Youth”, are commonly known as an Islamist ‘insurgent group’ with its base in Somalia. The group has claimed their allegiance to other known terrorist groups such as the Al-Qaeda, and are responsible for several massive attacks throughout Somalia as well as neighbouring countries.

Though the foundational objective of the Al-Shabaab has been debated by professionals of various backgrounds, Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council has stated that the ‘unifying idea of Al-Shabaab is opposition to the Western-backed government.’ It is also stated that the group’s main aim is to establish an Islamic State in Somalia. The group is known to possess harsh interpretations of Sharia law, headed by the current leader, Ahmed Umar (also known as Abu Ubaidah), the ‘emir’, or ‘prince’. To fund their operations, the Al-Shabaab has engaged in the illicit charcoal trade that has brought over $7.5 million USD per annum, notwithstanding the United Nations ban on charcoal in effect since 2012.

The United States’ has been long concerned with Somalia potentially becoming a country where terrorist groups find ‘refuge’ in to plot attacks to the United States or to ‘destabilise’ the Horn of Africa. Furthermore, another core concern is the Al-Shabaab’s recruitment of the Somali diaspora residing in the United States. It has been found that many Americans, predominantly from Minneapolis, Minnesota, have volunteered themselves to fighting for the Al-Shabaab in Somalia. This aforementioned fact coupled with the Al-Shabaab’s enduring presence and recruitment in Somalia are cause enough for concern of the Somalia’s security personnel’s ability to handle the situation on their own in a little over a year from now. Shrinking resources certainly are of no help to them in confronting this issue themselves, come the end of AMISOM’s mandated involvement December 2021.

In addition to the physical and military power, the sheer logistical concerns of Somalia’s availability of security forces in states other than the capital of Mogadishu are alarming. In select regions where AMISOM will no longer hold presence, no security forces exist and therefore will have to be ‘built from scratch’– a time and energy consuming task.

With reports stating that the Al-Shabaab remains in control of approximately 20% of Somalia, this transition of security measures from AMISOM uniformed personnel to the Somali security forces has been observed to be a point of vulnerability, where it is feared that the Al-Shabaab may use this transitory period to their advantage in carrying out more deadly attacks. Just in late March 2019, the Al-Shabaab carried out a deadly attack at a Ministry building in Mogadishu, claiming over 15 lives. It was noted that though the group has been pushed out of former major strongholds, attacks such as these demonstrate that they remain capable of carrying out massive violence and sending the capital into a state of fear and instability.

To establish any surety in the Somali security force’s capability to handle the Al-Shabaab and overall instability in the country as of December 2021, the current transition plan can consider shifting its major focus to building a stronger Somali security force presence, as well as a re-evaluation of the transition priorities to perhaps add more pressing concerns.

Digital Repression Keeps the Crisis in Sudan Hidden from the World

Photo Credit: Photographer Ahmed Mustafa of Agence France-Presse

“How Come My Heartbreak Isn’t Loud Enough?” This message signifies the calls of the Sudanese people who yearn for democracy. The issue is, few in the international community are aware as Sudan’s authoritarian regime restricts citizens’ access to the internet to deter pro-democratic demonstrations, and hide government actions against its own people. Sudan has many challenges to overcome to secure its democratic freedom and in order to do so, Khartoum must restore its digital freedom to share its struggle with the world.

Authoritarian regimes such as Gabon, Zimbabwe, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have all blocked internet access to its citizens in the first three months of 2019. Sudan takes this repression a step further.

On April 3, a council of generals assumed power in the country against the wishes of democratic demonstrators who sought civilian rule. As a result, Sudan’s government shut down internet access to its citizens as a means to stop pro-democratic movements from mobilizing. Democratic movement activists are reduced to using text messages and secret meetings in order to organize and share information. This alternative process seems primitive compared to the share power of Twitter and Facebook.

Demonstrators engaged in a sit-in protest in Khartoum on June 3. The world did not seem to notice that this public activism turned violent when government forces used deadly force against protestors. Reports state that 30 anti-government protesters have been killed. Twitter users began to use and share the tag #BlueforSudan to spread awareness of the violent repression and support the Sudanane pro-democratic movement. Currently, Twitter users report closer to 500 deaths and 623 injured.

The blackout in the country appears to be working. With no video, pictures, or other forms of media coming from Khartoum, these atrocities are only verified by witness accounts. Major international media outlets seem weary to pick up the story.

Greater media coverage on the situation in Sudan is needed. Reporters and journalists are barred from entering the country however, there are additional means of information gathering. Al-Jazeera and NPR have both spoken to people about the occurrences, but additional coverage is required to increase awareness globally.

The United Nations Security Council recently debated the situation in Sudan and attempted to forward a unified bid condemning Sudanese actions. The draft was vetoed by China, with the backing of Russia and Kuwait, claiming it needed amendments. China claims it is an “internal issue”, while Russia asserts that the situation needed to be handled with extreme caution. Eight European nations condemned the actions by Sudan’s security forces, but as it stands, no formal action has been taken.

China typically defends Sudan’s government and its atrocities. An interest in Sudanese oil is linked to this stance. Since the discovery of oil in 1997, China invests heavily into the northeastern African nation and subsequently, defending it at the UN, even when action is needed. A transfer to a democratic framework puts Chinese oil imports in danger.

Following the coup this past April, Sudan announced that they will have a three year transfer to democracy.  On June 4th, Sudan’s government said they will have a ballot box election in nine months. The fear is that this mode of election will be rigged to favor the current administration.

The UN conducts election monitoring, when assistance is specifically requested, and this presents an opportunity to ensure a fair election in Sudan. This mechanism is beneficial if citizens doubt the integrity their national electoral process and seek outside assistance. A UN representative from the particular state, a mandate from the Security Council or General Assembly (GA) can initiate this process also. A GA mandate would be ideal, seeing the Security Council’s recent blocking to condemn Sudan’s actions.

International media outlets must report on Sudan’s current democratic struggle so that the country can have free and fair elections. These actions are only possible if the Sudanese government lifts its restrictions on civilian media, primarily internet access, so that interest builds in the situation. Media organizations must seek additional means, such as establishment with reliable sources, despite information blocks. The global community would devote greater attention to the crisis in Khartoum, and create a unified front, if they knew the state violence conducted by the Sudanese government.

Revolution in Sudan?

Since December, there have been massive protests in the streets of Khartoum, Sudan due to the poor economy, oppressive regime, and the government increasing the price of food. President Omar al-Bashir has been in power since 1989 when he conducted a military coup.

During his rule, Sudan has been under his dictatorship. He is currently accused of committing crimes against humanity, including genocide in the Darfur region. The country has also faced civil war which has created a new state: South Sudan. The citizens are exhausted with famine, war, and genocide.

They protest to have free and fair elections. In early April, al-Bashir finally stepped down and just hours later the military made a public broadcast stating that General Awad Ibn Auf ousted Bashir and the military will have a two year transition of government.

The cheers and joy in the streets immediately turned to anger. The people did not want a transitional military government, they want a civilian run government now.

They realize that this military coup will not last only two years because Sudan as well as other African and Middle Eastern countries have seen that military coups tend to last for decades.

The citizens feel that nothing will change under the Auf regime and they are not ready to give up their fight against autocracy. The leaders of the protest movements in Khartoum and throughout Sudan have urged the people to continue their fight and to keep protesting because they say that they do not want to have a reproduction of the old regime.

Thousands of people have rallied together in the streets against this new regime.

The new military regime has enacted martial law. There is now a curfew for citizens, the constitution has been suspended, a three month state of emergency is in place, and the border is closed until further notice.

It is understandable that the new regime would want to put these in place to limit uprisings and riots by the people.

Since the Arab Spring almost a decade ago, the Middle East has struggled with creating democratic regimes that protect human rights. The Arab Spring gave false hope to many Middle Eastern countries because the world saw change happening, and yet nothing changed in the governmental system between the elites and the everyday people.

Sudan is not an exception to this rule due to the events that unfolded recently because months of mass protest have led to change of regime but not a change of the system: military dictatorship. It is important to note that the people of Sudan are resilient and will continue to fight for freedom, liberty, and justice.

It just might take more time. There is hope for democracy and the people are fighting the good fight to do so. One day it will change.


Nick Webb is the Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

Egypt’s Only Democratically Elected Leader Dies in Court

 

CAIRO, EGYPT – (ARCHIVE) : A file photo dated August 08, 2015 shows Ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi greeting as he stands inside the defendants’ cage in a courtroom at the police academy during his trial over espionage with Qatar, in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, 67, died Monday during a court trial on espionage charges.
( Ahmed Omar – Anadolu Agency )

Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s former President and aged 67, has died of a reported heart attack in a public court appearance in Egypt after speaking for five minutes, according to State TV in Egypt. His death was Kafkaesque. Morsi, a loyal member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, replaced Hosni Mubarak in the first democratic election in Egypt’s history in 2012 after the Arab Revolution in 2011. However, his stint in office was short-lived. Despite winning the Presidency, he was undermined by the security services, the military, and the Mubarak-era courts.

The military removed Morsi from power in 2013 and he has since been imprisoned. The Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is now President of Egypt, played a critical role in Morsi’s downfall. Since then, Morsi has been made to make appearances to answer for crimes such as torture and espionage in Egypt’s notoriously flawed court system. The outlawed group Morsi was part of, The Muslim Brotherhood has claimed that the death of one of their most loyal members was “full-fledged murder” on behalf of the Egyptian State.

Previously, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned but tolerated by Mubarak’s government. In 2014, Sisi said the group “will not exist” when he wins the country’s Presidential elections. Today, the group is much less organized and structured; with most members in Doha or Istanbul. Hamas, the group that de facto controls the Gaza strip and that has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, has expressed sympathy for the death of Morsi. His “unforgettable and brave positions” were commended for the ease of trade and travel between Egypt and Gaza during his Presidency. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has also expressed condolences.

Egypt’s chief prosecutor Nabil Sadek is examining the cause of Morsi’s death as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are concerned of Morsi’s treatment in custody. Calls for an impartial, thorough and transparent investigation have been raised, however, with the State’s institutions acting under the influence of current President Sisi, this looks unlikely to happen. The death of Egypt’s only democratically elected President will go down as a footnote in history.

The current report so far reads that no mistreatment has occurred and therefore, the state is not to blame. However, it is well known that Morsi was held at the infamous Tora prison under grim conditions. It is also reported that Morsi suspected that the guards were trying to poison his food. Moreover, he was being held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time and denied sufficient medical care. This is in stark contrast to the treatment of another ex-President Hosni Mubarak. He was not held in Tora prison, but in a military hospital and is reported to now be enjoying retirement.

The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela Rules, were adopted in December 2015 by the United Nations and set out general practices on ethical and moral confinement of prisoners under international law. It seems Egypt has violated many principles, both legal and moral, in the treatment of Muhammad Morsi. But the final medical report of the chief prosecutors given the findings of the forensic examiners can provide correct details of his death.

For now, this case serves to highlight a myriad of developing themes in international affairs; A country sliding back into dictatorship; The weakness of international law and the lack of political will to enforce them; And religious, regional rivalries dividing countries and people in a never-ending game of geopolitics and divide-and-rule.

Although Morsi was a poor President who mishandled the economy, this was no justification for the army’s actions in launching a coup, suspending the constitution, and killing and detaining Morsi supporters in the aftermath of Sisi’s coming to power in 2014. Being aware of this harsh reality is the first step to realizing how difficult, but worthwhile, it is to work to attain peace in an often unjust and complex world.