Africa is one of the environments conducive to the spread of extremist groups. Sixty-four terrorist organizations reside in the continent, five of the most dangerous of which are based in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel with ties to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.
These five groups are Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), and Jamaa Nusrat Al-Islam wa Al-Muslimin (JNIM). The latter is a merger that took place in 2017 of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Al-Dine, Al-Mourabitoun and the Macina Liberation Front.
The map of terrorism in Africa is constantly changing and the terrorist groups’ activities usually extend to neighboring countries to create new groups and encourage others to pledge allegiance to umbrella organizations, such as in Cameroon, Kenya and Niger. Contributing to their widespread are the marriage between extremist ideologies and the ethnic, tribal, and historical complexities of the region, coupled with the failure of social integration policies, the unsuccessful attempts on the part of the political leadership at managing human diversity and economic resources, and the regional security void.
For decades Africa remained forgotten by the world economic map, resulting in nothing but developmental failure that turned the continent into an economic reservoir for the West.
On the popular level, poverty and social isolation led the African youth to delve into extremism, violence and rebellion. Other factors, such as marginalization, deprivation of social rights, low education standards, the wrong interpretation of religious texts, worsening economic conditions and losing one or both parents, are exploited by terrorist organizations to recruit new male and female elements, found a study conducted by the United Nations Development Program on reasons for extremism in Africa.
Extremist organizations have focused on activating the role of women within their ranks. How this was done differed from one group to the other. Some terrorist organizations focused on exploiting women through spreading their extremist ideologies among the mothers and wives of militiamen to raise a generation loyal to them. Other groups made of women a means to guarantee the protection of tribes, or used them as sex slaves, human bombs or a tool for extortion or bargaining.
This way the African woman’s relation to terrorism is multi-dimensional. She is the victim at times, the criminal at others. She may also be directly or indirectly involved with terrorist operations, and at times merely sympathetic.
There are three models that exhibit the African woman’s relationship with terrorist organizations, and these are:
Jamaa Nusrat Al-Islam wa Al-Muslimin
When the JNIM claimed responsibility for the attack against the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali on 14 April 2018, a number of sources announced a woman was involved in the suicidal operation. Two weeks later, the JNIM released a statement negating the news, saying that the group’s creed forbids the participation of women in suicidal attacks and combat operations. The Islamic State, the statement continued, had enough men who were ready to do their fighting parts.
The JNIM alleged that it retains for women their traditional role of serving their husbands, raising their offspring and doing logistical works outside the battlefield. Perhaps these allegations were driven by the JNIM’s desire to maintain the support of the locals who have a certain perspective about women in general. But the JNIM also uses women in espionage, making explosives and they are married off to JNIM militiamen north of Mali to set its roots deep in society and gain the support of local groupings.
Former military commander of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, married four women from different Tuareg and Arab families to expand his network of influence and authority. Belmokhtar’s marriages helped his organization consolidate its foothold in these societies and guaranteed their protection and support by the locals during and after the 2012 occupation of northern Mali.
The organization exploited women to the extreme, kidnapping and recruiting them to conduct suicidal attacks. Boko Haram executed 434 suicidal operations between April 2011 and June 2017. Of the 338 bodies that were identified of the suicidal attackers, at least 244 were women, which means that at least 56 per cent of Boko Haram’s suicidal operations are conducted by women. This percentage makes the group the first in history to depend primarily on women in its suicide operations.
The group adopted this strategy less than two months after 276 female students were kidnapped from Nigeria’s Chibok town on 14 and 15 April 2014. In June of the same year the first suicide attack by a woman took place. Countless women were kidnapped afterwards. Between 2014 and 2015 more than 2,000 girls and women were kidnapped, and in 2018, 110 female students were kidnapped from a school in Dapchi, northeast Nigeria.
All these girls and women were either recruited against their will, turned into combatants and suicide attackers, sex slaves or cooks after Boko Haram realized the importance of using women as assets, be they victims or attackers. In both cases, women were used as a propaganda tool to draw world attention and as a bargaining chip to exchange for prisoners with the Nigerian government. After all, these women became a strong, shocking weapon that was difficult to detect and spread terror among the people.
The role of Boko Haram’s women isn’t limited to slavery or suicide attacks. They go on about their traditional roles, such as marriage and having children, in addition to assuming leadership positions within the ranks of the organization. The group turns some women into criminals to buy their loyalty.
Like with other extremist and terrorist groups, enrolling women among Boko Haram ranks serves three purposes: increasing its members and bridging the gap should a shortage in the male fighters occur; guaranteeing the continuity of the group by providing wives for fighters and mothers for the following generations of children fighters; and providing an alluring weapon to encourage more men to join the group.
The Lord’s Resistance Army
This is one of the most violent extremist groups in Africa. It was responsible for a number of disturbing events in the African Great Lakes regions and conducted several terrorist operations. The Lord’s Resistance Army was behind the massacres in South Sudan, northern Uganda and eastern Congo.
The group’s terrorist activities range from street wars to kidnappings and sexual violence, and its women constitute 30 per cent of its total fighters. Most of these women were either threatened with murder if they chose not to join the organization, or forced to serve the militiamen and have their children who would later be trained to become fighters. Some other women in the Lord’s Resistance Army are militarily trained to engage in combat, smuggle weapons or run logistical operations.
These three models are examples of how African women are exploited by terrorist groups, willingly or not. Despite the rarity of information and research on the subject, it has been proven that the role of women in terrorist groups is on the rise.
The reasons that drive women to willingly join terrorist groups range from their desire for empowerment, to revenge as a result of social depression or their hope to change their difficult living conditions.
For the terrorist groups, women have become an important strategic target, a main component in their structure and a successful asset, hiding behind the garment of womanhood and becoming one of the propaganda tools for the creed of violence and hatred the terrorist organizations want to impose on the world.
This article was first published in: Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, Africa 2019… Equilibrium Severs … Promising Future, Cairo, March 2019.