Spotlight: Understanding women in West African violent extremist groups


The West Africa and Lake Chad Basin regions are battling a surge in extremist violence that is threatening to spread from the Sahel to coastal states. More than half of the 434 Boko Haram suicide attacks in Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger and Chad between 2011 and 2017 were carried out by women. The group has a long history of enlisting women, often by force. 

Policy to counter violent extremism is often based on the perception that women are merely victims, but preliminary Institute for Security Studies (ISS) findings show this isn’t always the case. Some women are recruited by force, but others willingly join the ranks of terrorist groups.

The ISS set out to address a lack of evidence-based research into why women in West Africa join extremists, the trajectory of their involvement, and how some were able to resist recruitment. The results of the 30-month investigation will enable gender-specific responses to be included in strategies to prevent and counter extremism.

‘A better understanding of men and women’s role will help guide more effective and holistic responses to a fast-expanding security crisis,’ says ISS researcher Jeannine Ella Abatan, who coordinated the research.

By the time we confirm our findings we have a broad community of people ready to use them

The ISS deployed a network of researchers in Mali and Niger made up of people who live in affected areas and speak local languages. Interviews were conducted  in a transfer camp for defectors, in prisons, and in areas where groups are present and active. The researchers also spoke to community members, soldiers, religious authorities, traditional leaders, journalists, prison guards, and women and youth associations.

Access and authorisation to conduct interviews were secured through the ISS’ reputation as a trusted African research organisation, with governments recognising that the findings would inform policies to prevent and counter violent extremism.

Governments have often mistakenly assumed that women were recruited only to be wives and mothers, but the ISS study shows that extremists also use them in strategic and operational roles. This backs up research by the ISS on the role of women in violent extremism in Kenya. In the case of Boko Haram, women are enlisted for suicide bombings, and the research shows that in Mali, women provide intelligence and logistical support to violent extremist groups. 

The ISS study is collaborative and guided by consultations with government policy makers, military officials, civil society organisations, local communities and development organisations. The team maintains close relationships with those seeking effective responses to extremism, providing regular updates on its results.

‘By the time we confirm our findings we have a broad community of people ready to use them,’ says ISS Senior Researcher Fonteh Akum. Top officials in Mali and Niger have welcomed ISS insights into a complex and fast-changing situation. The ISS has also provided technical support on initiatives to prevent violent extremism in Benin.

The quality and value of the ISS research has been recognised internationally, with the ISS invited to share its analysis with United Nations bodies, and Danish and Canadian teams working in the Sahel. The study is also an opportunity to develop the next generation of human security researchers, with early-career staff from Mali and Niger working on the project.  

The project is being implemented with the support of the International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada and the UK government's Sahel Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF).

For more information contact:

Jeannine Ella Abatan, ISS: +221 771 723 312, [email protected]

Picture: YouSense

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