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Women: New faces of terrorism in Kenya

Wanjiku MwauraSeptember 13, 2016

Three women were killed in Kenya after they attacked a police station. Experts say the presence of women on the front line of terrorism means that the extremists' tactics are changing.

Kenia Mombasa Angriff auf Polizeistation
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The attack in Mombasa last weekend was the first after a quiet period. Meanwhile, the regional fight against terrorism continues with heads of state from the Horn of Africa region scheduled to meet on Tuesday in Somalia's capital Mogadishu for the 53rd summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). There they will address different issues, among them security within the region. The growing role of women as active fighters presents them with a new challenge.

Origins of al-Shabab

After the Somali government collapsed in 1991, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) provided legal systems and evolved to offer more services, including education and security. In the beginning, the ICU maintained law and order and that made them popular among Somalis. In 2006, the Ethiopians arrived in Somalia to support the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in stopping the extremists. The ICU broke up into smaller and more violent extremist groups from which the al-Shabab was born. Speaking to DW, Stig Jarle Hansen - an expert on al-Shabab and Islamism on the Horn of Africa - points out that one of the main goals of the al-Shabab is to gain control of Somalia.

Spread and radicalization

The group didn’t just stay within Somalia. As regional extremism grew, fuelled by an increased openness to al-Qaeda philosophy, al-Shabab went on to recruit new members from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. This brought terror to these countries, as we saw happen in July 2010 in Uganda during the World Cup final game. There has also been a rise in terror-related activities in Tanzania in 2015, according to a report released earlier this year by IGAD.

Al-Shabab has increasingly targeted women and children for terrorist radicalization to use them for attacks in the region. Radicalized people no longer identify with their country and are used to carry out attacks against their fellow citizens. According to the IGAD report, the number of women ready to join jihadist groups is growing. And one way they are lured to join is by offering them a pillar of strength when they have personal problems. The women are also promised travel documents and all-expenses-paid trips.

Expert Stig Hansen told DW that the extremists have other strategies too. "I think very often what’s scary with the al-Shabab inside Kenya and with their Kenyan affiliates is that they basically use aspects of the truth that they twist and turn. There are property conflicts along the Kenyan coast and these property conflicts haven’t been properly addressed by the Kenyan government," he said. This is one example for how al-Shabab exploits conflicts to instigate mistrust.

Kenia Mombasa Angriff auf Polizeistation
Kenyan police cordon off a police station in Mombasa after a terror attack.Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Women and terrorism

This is the first time in Kenya that women have been used to carry out an attack against a police station in broad daylight. The attack that happened on September 11 at Mombasa police station has been linked to Jaysh Al Ayman, which is an affiliate of al-Shabab.

This means that extremism in Africa is starting to include women as active fighters. According to Hansen, until now women had taken a back seat in al-Shabab operations. Jihadist women in Somalia had been used mainly to provide operational assistance. He adds that elsewhere in the region the women are being used to recruit members in the diaspora.

"You also have this strange phenomenon where you actually have a magazine for female jihadist called Al-Ghuraba that has been produced in Dar el Salam in Tanzania," he said. The magazine publishes articles on how to behave if you are a female supporting the jihadists. "What to do, how to dress, how to provide logistics or support. So there are special signs there that seem to indicate that the role of the female has been strengthened," he said.

Zureiya Mohammed, a Muslim human rights activist, agrees that the situation is changing. Speaking to DW she said that over the last few years, she has been dealing with the issue of terrorism and she is aware that women have been ever more active on the international front. "Unfortunately, this is with us now," she said.

A history of terrorism

Kenya’s experience with terror attacks didn’t start with the al-Shabab in 2011. In 1975, the first bomb exploded in Nairobi since its independence in 1963. A blast in a bus killed at least 30 people. But despite a public outcry, there were no arrests made and no one ever claimed responsibility for the attack.

In 1980, a second attack happened in Kenya when a bomb destroyed the Norfolk Hotel owned by Jews. The attack was claimed by an Arab group that said they were retaliating against Kenya for allowing Israeli troops to refuel in Nairobi during an air raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda four years earlier. But the attacks that drew international attention were the 1998 explosions at the US embassies in both Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam by al-Qaida.

Al-Shabab now resists the presence of the Kenyan army in Somalia and have retaliated against Kenya’s attempt to help stabilize their country. They have organized a series of attacks within Kenyan borders. There were two dramatic attacks: one in September 2014, when they lay siege to the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi; and the second, in April 2015, an attack at Garissa University that stunned the country.

Karte Kenia Mombasa Englisch

Impact on the economy

Following the attacks, the economy suffered because people were scared of being in public places where lots of business is conducted. Embassies issued alerts to people travelling to Kenya. Victims suffered psychological trauma which also had a short-term effect on business. According to the tourism board of Kenya, in 2014 the number of visitors was 381,278, but the figure fell to 284,313 in 2015.

Hansen believes that one of the reasons for such attacks is to hit Kenya where it hurts most. "The tourist industry is so important for Kenyans, so they are hitting at the strategic industry inside Kenya by creating some kind of insecurity," he said.