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.

How Overfishing Led to Piracy


Source: www.voanews.com

In Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur’s film, The Pirates of Somalia, Bahadur travels to Puntland, embedding himself in a world known to few Western journalists. Oscar contenders have little to fear from Bahadur’s release, but The Pirates of Somalia does something remarkable: it gives us a naturalistic impression of Somalis as friendly and welcoming people and it shines a light on the rationale some give for turning to piracy.

It goes without saying that violent solutions to grievances should never be condoned, but contextualizing the behavior of Somalis who turn to attacking ships and taking hostages does prove enlightening.  For instance, it was 1991 when Somalia last had a functioning government. The country has staggered on as a lawless, failed state for the last 26 years. One consequence is that the waters off its coast have been treated like an international cornucopia, with, “…fishing fleets from around the world illegally plundering Somali stocks and freezing out the country’s own  rudimentarily-equipped fishermen.”

This report asserts that more than $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from Somalia’s unprotected coast by illegal trawlers every year. Not only are the waters overfished, but Somali fishermen don’t have the resources to compete with technologically advanced, large-scale fishing vessels. What’s striking is that while some reports say pirates are often former fishermen, many actually are not. In fact, some are simply poor people capitalizing on the misfortune of their anarchic and economically hemorrhaging state. While honest, hard-working people may be easier to forgive for turning to profitable, but illegal activities, both they and their non-fishermen compatriots reveal two iterations of one problem: Somalia can’t protect itself or an industry its people need to survive.

A NATO-led effort has reduced piracy in recent years, however, problems remain. Could the very thing that led to piracy also be its solution? According to PBS, “Access to domestic and international markets could change lives. But to sell fish internationally, Somali fishermen will have to raise their standards.” The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization is taking a stab at a solution by building a fish processing plant, though it is not operational yet. Changes are required to allow fish to sell in out-of-state markets, but such changes are achievable in the near future.

The Pirates of Somalia could have brought us deeper into the history of Somalia and the intricacies of the lawless coastal waters that resulted in overfished seas. But it succeeds in showing us that not all Somali pirates are what many think – violent, greedy men hoping to grab treasure for their chest. A deeper look into this enduring problem shows the solution, like that of many dilemmas, lies in addressing its root cause. Too often we get so bogged down in debating the nuances of a volatile issue that prescribing a solution takes many, unnecessary years. The solution to the piracy predicament in Somalia could really be something quite straight-forward: fish.