Al-Shabaaab, the Somalia-based terror group, has been largely portrayed as a male organization in its more-than-decade-long operational history, but it’s now emerging that women are also at the center of one of Africa’s deadliest insurgencies.
The group, al-Qaeda’s terror network affiliate in East Africa, is waging its war from bases in southern Somalia, with the aim of overthrowing the UN-backed government and replacing it with one governed through Sharia (Islamic) law. Its violent actions have also been felt in neighboring Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda.
Since 2006, the militant group has been the subject of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops’ military operations, but the force has remained resilient despite the onslaught by the better armed African militaries. In al-Shabaab’s campaign of terror, there are women who play key roles.
They are not mere victims, but active players who the group heavily relies on for non-combative roles. These are indirect roles and are viewed as more important for the survival of the group than the female actors moving to the frontlines as combatants.
The profile of women within al-Shabaab and their role has appeared to rise over the years. Many of them are victims of multiple rapes and brutal treatment by the militants.
Some of the women have escaped from the battleground to tell their own story and the stories of those still remaining in al-Shabaab camps.
Female jihadists within al-Shabaab were not considered a key factor in al-Shabaab until the emergence of British national Samantha Lewthwaite, also known as the “White Widow,” or Sherafiyah Lewthwaite.
After the Nairobi Westgate Mall shopping terror attack in September 2013, Lewthwaite became one of the most wanted terror suspects for her role in masterminding the assault which killed more than 60 people.
A member of al-Shabaab, Lewthwaite is also believed to have directed other car and suicide bomb attacks in Somalia and Kenya, including the Garissa University College attack during which 148 people—mainly Christian students—were killed.
Lewthwaite, the widow of Germaine Lindsay, the 7/7 London terrorist bomber, is wanted in Kenya for being in possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit a crime.
She has been accused of planning and executing grenade attacks on churches. A grenade attack that hit fans watching football in a bar in Mombasa during the Euro 2012 soccer championship was believed to part of her work.
The female jihadist’s whereabouts remain unknown to date, but there is speculation that she is hiding somewhere in Yemen under the protection of al-Shabaab fighters.
Source: The Jamestown Foundation