Monday,20 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1434, (14 - 20 March 2019)
Monday,20 May, 2019
Issue 1434, (14 - 20 March 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Women as victims of terrorism

Whether as sex slaves, human bombs or tools used for extortion or protection, more and more African women are being exploited by terrorist organisations, writes Ouafae Sandi​

The African continent is an environment conducive to the spread of extremist groups. Sixty-four terrorist organisations are based in the continent, five of the most dangerous of which are based in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region with ties to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS).

Terrorist groups’ activities often extend to neighbouring countries to create new groups and encourage others to pledge allegiance to umbrella organisations, such as in Cameroon, Kenya and Niger. Contributing to their spread has been a marriage between extremist ideologies and the ethnic, tribal and historical complexities of the region, coupled with the failure of social-integration policies, unsuccessful attempts on the part of the political leadership at managing human diversity and economic resources, and the regional security vacuum. 

Poverty and social isolation have in some cases led African youth to be drawn to extremism, violence or rebellion. Other factors, such as marginalisation, the lack of social rights, low education standards, false interpretations of religious texts, worsening economic conditions or losing one or both parents, have been exploited by terrorist organisations to recruit new male and female elements.

Terrorist organisations have also focused on activating the role of women within their ranks. How this has been done has differed from one group to another. Some have focused on exploiting women through spreading extremist ideologies among the mothers and wives of militiamen to raise a generation loyal to them. Other groups have made use of women as a means to guarantee the protection of tribes, or used them as sex slaves, human bombs or as tools for extortion or bargaining. 

Whether these women are willingly or unwillingly involved in terrorist operations, the relationship between African women and terrorism is multi-dimensional. The former military commander of the terrorist group Nusrat Al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) Mokhtar Belmokhtar married four women from different Tuareg and Arab families to expand his network of influence and authority, for example. Belmokhtar’s marriages helped his organisation consolidate its foothold in these societies and guaranteed their protection and support by locals during and after the 2012 occupation of northern Mali.

The JNIM says that it guarantees women what it calls their traditional roles of serving their husbands, raising their offspring and doing logistical work outside the battlefield. Perhaps such statements have been driven by the JNIM’s desire to maintain the support of locals who may have certain views about women. But the JNIM also uses women in espionage, making explosives and marrying them off to JNIM militiamen in the north of Mali to plant roots deep in society and gain the support of local groupings.

The Boko Haram terrorist group in Nigeria exploits women in extreme ways by kidnapping them and recruiting them to conduct suicide attacks. The group carried out 434 suicide operations between April 2011 and June 2017. Of the 338 bodies that were identified of the attackers, at least 244 were those of women, which means that at least 56 per cent of Boko Haram’s suicide 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 fewer than two months after 276 female students were kidnapped from the town of Chibok in Nigeria on 14-15 April 2014. In June of the same year, the first suicide attack by a woman took place. Countless other women were kidnapped by the group 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 in northeast Nigeria.

All these girls and women were either recruited against their will or turned into combatants and suicide attackers or sex slaves or servants after Boko Haram realised the importance of using women as assets, whether victims or attackers. It used such women as propaganda tools to draw world attention and as bargaining chips to exchange for prisoners with the Nigerian government. The women became a shocking weapon that was difficult to detect and was used to spread terror among the Nigerian people.

The role of women in Boko Haram has not been limited to slavery or suicide attacks. They also go about their traditional roles, such as marriage and having children, in addition to assuming leadership positions within the ranks of the organisation. The group has turned some women into criminals in order to buy their loyalty.

Like with other extremist and terrorist groups, enrolling women into the ranks of Boko Haram serves three main purposes: increasing its members and bridging the gap should a shortage of male fighters occur; guaranteeing the continuity of the group by providing wives for fighters and mothers for the following generations of child fighters; and providing an alluring weapon to encourage more men to join the group. 

The terrorist group the Lord’s Resistance Army is one of the most violent in Africa, and it has engaged in activities ranging from street battles to kidnappings and sexual violence. Women constitute some 30 per cent of its fighters. Most of these women were either threatened with murder if they chose not to join the organisation, or they were forced to serve the militiamen and have their children who would later be trained as fighters. Some other women in the group have been trained to engage in combat, smuggle weapons or run logistical operations.

Sadly, the statistics show that the role of women in terrorist groups in Africa is on the rise. The reasons that drive women to join terrorist groups willingly, rather than being forced to do so as in the examples above, range from their desire for empowerment to revenge as a result of social deprivation or their hope to change difficult living conditions. 

For the terrorist groups, women have become an important strategic target and a main component in their structures and a significant asset. They have become a propaganda tool for the creed of violence and hatred that the terrorist organisations want to impose on the rest of the world.

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