Women in Al-Shabaab through a New War’s Lens

By  Phoebe Donnelly

When we read or hear about Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, we rarely learn about women inside the group. [1] When we envision a member of Al-Shabaab we envision a man, and the group is seen as composed only of men. Women are not primarily in combat or leadership roles, and yet Al-Shabaab relies heavily on women in its operations. Studying the role of women in Al-Shabaab has revealed an important flaw in traditional analyses of non-state armed groups.

I have two objectives in this post. The first is to highlight the ways in which Al-Shabaab relies on women in key non-combat roles. The second is to advance the argument that since warfare is different today than in the past, we need to recognize other vital roles relevant in today’s wars. These roles lie outside stereotypical combat roles, which remain heavily masculinized. When we look beyond combat roles to other types of important positions in a non-state armed group, we discover the ways in which armed groups rely on women.

My argument is based on original data from Kismayo, Somalia, a town that was ruled by Al-Shabaab from approximately 2008 to 2012.[2] The data revealed the ways in which Al-Shabaab values female members and supporters, despite not frequently using them in combat roles.

Conflicts today do not look like those in the past. Mary Kaldor created the “new wars” framework to describe this shift.[3] Despite the recognition of the changing landscape of conflict, scholars and policymakers still privilege the role that was seen as most important in past conflicts, namely that of a combatant. The role of combatant is traditionally seen as being filled by a man.[4] However, for non-state armed groups today, roles like fundraising and intelligence gathering are just as vital to the group (if not more). Groups like Al-Shabaab understand the role gender plays in Somalia and are able to use traditional ideas about women and what they see as their unique strengths to successfully fulfill the group’s needs.

A major role for which Al-Shabaab relies on women is fundraising. This important role for women in fundraising becomes clear in the trials of Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, two women in Minnesota who were convicted of fundraising for Al-Shabaab in the United States. During the trial of these women, attorneys played recorded phone calls between Ali and key Al-Shabaab leaders and between Ali and a network of fundraisers she led. In one call played at the trial, Ali is leading a conference call with other women in the United States (some calls had as many as 143 women) and tells the women their work sending money and clothes to Somalia “is like someone who went to jihad.”[5] On another call she tells the women, “…we are the youth!” (youth referring to the translation of Al-Shabaab).[6] Ali was told details about Al-Shabaab’s operations in Somalia and brags that Abu Mansur (also known as Mukhtar Robow), an important figure in the group and Al-Shabaab spokesperson at the time, always answers her phone calls.[7] The importance of external assistance, including financial support from the Somali diaspora, is highlighted in the new wars framework. [8]

Al-Shabaab especially relies on women’s financial skills and support in areas under its control. The fact that Al-Shabaab controls territory means the group has an even greater demand for resources. Women in Kismayo were key fundraisers for Al-Shabaab and would convince women and men to donate money or other goods like jewelry to help support the group. Individuals in Kismayo spoke about Al-Shabaab trying to build ties with business women because of their access to funds and strong business skills. This type of economy that is “heavily dependent on local predation”[9] also closely supports Kaldor’s new wars framework.

Another key role women play in Al-Shabaab is in intelligence gathering. In asymmetric warfare and in situations in which Al-Shabaab is seeking to govern a region, intelligence is a crucial asset. Government and security actors within Somalia, as well as the local population, are less likely to see women as a threat and may not suspect them of working with Al-Shabaab. Because of this perception of women, individuals are more willing to talk openly with women or with women present. Somali women are also seen by some as more trustworthy and able to keep secrets, so people may speak more freely around them.

Finally, women play traditional domestic roles inside Al-Shabaab. These roles are frequently seen as unimportant, similar to the way in which domestic work is not valued in many economies. This work is essential to a non-state armed group, especially when we consider that group members and their families cannot access traditional services like stores or hospitals. A woman who provides medical care to Al-Shabaab combatants is likely the group’s only way to access health services.

Even for those who still value the combatant role above other roles in the group, there are important patterns in who brings combatants into the group. Women are valuable recruiters for Al-Shabaab in Kismayo as well as areas in Kenya.[10] Unlike men who primarily recruit other men, women can recruit men (mostly their family members) and women.

Recognizing women’s roles in Al-Shabaab provides a more complete image of the group’s operations. This does not mean that security forces should target women with repressive measures, as government counterterrorism measures often further fuel cycles of violence.[11] Instead, this information should be important as we consider how to create successful amnesty and disengagement programs. Defector programs are usually designed only for men. In the case of Al-Shabaab, I have not found evidence of any defector programs that accept women.[12]

It is time to stop applying an outdated model to understand the division of labor in non-state armed groups and instead recognize the varying roles inside these groups that matter to today’s forms of conflict. When we have a more accurate picture of the needs of non-state armed groups, we recognize that both men and women are filling key roles. Al-Shabaab provides a particularly salient example of this pattern. When scholars and policymakers rely on outdated analyses, they miss the key role women play in the group. Al-Shabaab recognizes the power of women, and it is time for those outside the group to start asking the right questions.

More about the author:

Phoebe Donnelly is the Stanley Kaplan Postdoctoral Fellow at Williams College. She is a PhD Candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Phoebe is also a visiting fellow at Feinstein International Center and a Women and International Security Next Generation Gender Scholar.




Works Cited

[1] One notable female member of Al-Shabaab has become a “mythological figure” in the press as described in BBC News, “Profile: Samantha Lewthwaite,” BBC, September 26, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-24204517

[2] African Union Mission in Somalia, “Sector II Profile: Kismayo,” http://amisom-au.org/sectors/sector-2-kismayo/

[3] Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era 3rd ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).

[4] See Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 10.

[5] See “Sentence Hearing,” United States of America v. Amina Farah Ali, United States District Court District of Minnesota, CR-10-187, May 16, 2013.

[6] See “Trial – Volume II,” United States of America v. Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, CR-10-187, October 4, 2011.

[7] See “Trial – Volume VII,” United States of America v. Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, CR-10-187, October 12, 2011.

[8] Kaldor, 109.

[9] Kaldor, 94.

[10] For information on female recruiters in Kenya see, Fathima A. Badurdeen, “Women and Recruitment in the Al-Shabaab Network: Stories of Women Being Recruited by Women Recruiters in the Coastal Region of Kenya,” The African Review 45, no. 1 (2018): 19-48.

[11] See United Nations Development Program, “Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment,” 2017, http://journey-to-extremism.undp.org/content/downloads/UNDP-JourneyToExtremism-report-2017-english.pdf

[12] For information on Al-Shabaab defection programs see, John Horgan, “When Terrorists Defect,” CNN, May 3, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/03/opinions/somalia-lost-boys-opinion-horgan/index.html.