NAI Guest Researcher Linnet Hamasi. Photo: Mattias Sköld

Women militants often go unnoticed

Women fighters may play a central role when al-Shabaab recruits young Kenyans to join the militant Islamist group in Somalia, according to NAI guest researcher Linnet Hamasi.

Kenyan peace and conflict scholar Hamasi became interested in women’s radicalisation after reading about the so-called “White Widow”, UK national Samantha Lewthwaite, who was suspected of having played a vital role in a terror attack in 2013 on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, where at least 67 people were killed.

Hamasi started reading about other women in Kenya who had committed suicide attacks or crossed the border to join the al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. She also studied militant movements from Kenya’s past, such as the Mau Mau rebellion against the British rule in the 1950s.

She realised that women had played an important role in militant movements in her country for decades, but rarely received attention.

“It is often assumed that terror is a man’s thing. While it is true that radical movements tend to have a patriarchal structure, women may still play an integral part,” Hamasi says.

Women play key role
Central to her ongoing research project is the hypothesis that al-Shabaab actively uses women when approaching young men and women in Kenya to find new recruits.

“The way to get to youths is through their friends, or their mothers,” she continues.

According to Hamasi, women may play a key role for al-Shabaab as both recruiters and reconnaissance agents, operating in predominantly female environments: homes, schools and markets.

“Women are the natural entry point to many private spaces.”

Act in the background
They also outnumber men at local markets, an important place for gathering information in any African community.

The patriarchal structure of Islamic communities, which places women in the background, may also favour women insurgents. Women’s lower public profile makes it easier for them to go unnoticed by government security agents, according to Hamasi.

Mattias Sköld

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