The role of women in West Africa’s violent extremist groups

2018-10-12

Women’s involvement in Boko Haram attacks in the Lake Chad Basin is well known. However their role in the activities of the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), operating across the Sahel, appears to be less direct. What makes these groups include or exclude women from their ranks and operations?

Since it was formed in March 2017, the JNIM, a merger of four terror groups in Mali – Ansar Dine, Katiba Macina, al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – has carried out numerous suicide attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

The group claimed responsibility for the 14 April 2018 attack on the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali and the French operation Barkhane in the Timbuktu region. Following the attack, then Barkhane commander General Bruno Guibert mentioned the involvement of a woman suicide attacker in the operation.

Two weeks later JNIM published a communiqué to deny the allegation, stating that in its doctrinal approach, women do not participate in operations or in combat. The statement said Muslim nations still had enough men willing to take on combat roles.

Islamic State-West Africa has so far deployed only male suicide bombers, but this could change

Unlike JNIM, in the neighbouring Lake Chad region (Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger and Chad), Boko Haram continues to make headlines for enlisting women, often forcefully, into its ranks and its suicide bombing operations. Between April 2011 and June 2017, the group carried out at least 434 suicide attacks – of which 244 were undertaken by women.

The involvement of women in Boko Haram dates back to the early 2000s. For the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, urging women to join the group served two main purposes: it broadened the group’s membership, and enabled women to become wives for male combatants and mothers for the next generation of fighters. This strategy was also designed to encourage men to join the group.

Under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, who took over after Yusuf’s death in 2009, Boko Haram began abducting women and girls. While some women voluntarily joined the group, others were forcibly enlisted. More than 2 000 women and girls were allegedly abducted between 2014 and 2015.

Women played supporting roles like being informants, laundresses and cooks for extremist groups in Mali

This initially appeared to be in retaliation to the Nigerian government’s arrest of Boko Haram insurgents’ family members, including Shekau’s wives in 2012. Abducted girls and women, especially the Chibok girls, have been used as propaganda and publicity tools to attract international attention and demand ransom and prisoner exchanges from the Nigerian government.

Despite government denial, there is speculation that ransoms were paid to free the Chibok girls. The same goes for those of Dapchi who were kidnapped on 19 February 2018 by the Boko Haram separatist faction the Islamic State-West Africa (ISIS-WA), led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi.

Abducted women and girls have also been used to attract male recruits by marrying them off to fighters. Boko Haram has also used girls and women as suicide bombers because their supposed ‘non-violent nature’ presumably makes them harder to detect.

Since the split of the group in August 2016, ISIS-WA has so far deployed only male suicide bombers. However given the evolution of the roles assigned to women by the group from which it splintered, there could be a shift in women’s involvement in future.

Some extremist groups refuse to openly use women in suicide attacks in order to retain locals’ support

Unlike Shekau’s Boko Haram faction, which has been criticised for indiscriminately targeting civilians, JNIM has not openly used women in suicide attacks. This could be because the group wants to retain the support of local populations by aligning itself with norms and expectations of the role generally attributed to women.

Although JNIM has denied using female suicide bombers, an Institute for Security Studies report found that women played various active supporting roles such as being informants, laundresses and cooks for violent extremist groups in Mali. In July, a woman accused of supplying fertiliser to make explosives for Katiba Macina, an ally group within JNIM, was arrested by Mali’s intelligence services.

There are other practical reasons for women’s involvement. AQIM has reportedly encouraged its fighters to marry into the local population of northern Mali to establish itself among these communities and gain their support.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an AQIM leader, married four women from different well-known Tuareg and Arab Berabiche families to expand his network of influence. This not only allowed the group to embed itself within certain communities but ensured protection and support from local populations during the occupation of northern Mali in 2012 and beyond.

The role of girls and women in violent extremism has important strategic and operational benefits for the groups involved. The functions attributed to women and the reasons they are included or excluded must be understood. Only then can appropriate, context-specific strategies to prevent and counter the involvement of women in those groups be developed.

Ella Jeannine Abatan, Researcher, ISS Dakar

This article is the first publication of a project funded by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada on ‘Responding to young people’s (men and women) engagement in violent extremist groups in Mali and Niger’.

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Picture: Julia Burpee/IOM 2017

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