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Why are young women drawn to extremism?
26 June 2015

In East Africa and across the globe, the Internet is increasingly being used to recruit and radicalise young women into extremist groups. In March, three young women – two Kenyans and one from Tanzania – were arrested en route to Somalia, where they were allegedly headed to join extremist group al-Shabaab.

The incident raised concerns about a possible new trend in the region, as well as the readiness of governments to understand and address it. The women were arrested near the town of El-Wak, close to the Kenya-Somali border. Kenyan security forces suspect they were travelling to participate in training to become suicide bombers, or to be married to al-Shabaab militants.

Other media reports suggest that the girls had been recruited via social media platform WhatsApp, and they might have intended to join the Islamic State (ISIS) as so-called jihadi brides. The three girls are currently in custody facing terror-related charges.

These arrests add to a growing number of incidents of young African women being recruited into extremist groups, the extent of which is yet to be fully established. A similar incident was recently reported in South Africa, where a 15-year old girl was detained, allegedly en route to join ISIS in Syria. Many such cases have been reported in North Africa, where the trend has acquired its greatest impetus in Africa, while in Europe there have been several reports of girls running away from home to join ISIS.

The arrests add to a growing number of incidents of young African women being recruited

To what extent the Internet is being used to recruit young women in East Africa is still unknown. In March this year, ISIS reportedly recruited several medical students – including women – from a prestigious medical university in Sudan. It is unclear whether there may be recruiters who are specifically targeting young women in this region. What is evident, however, is that extremist groups systematically and intentionally use the Internet and social media to spread jihadist propaganda. This is increasingly targeted at young women, who may be vulnerable due to factors such as their quest for political and social identity.

In the case of the three girls arrested at the Kenya-Somalia border, ongoing investigations indicate that a female ISIS insider recruited the Tanzanian girl, who in turn recruited her two Kenyan friends. Such peer pressure may be one of the key drivers of radicalisation, particularly among teenagers. The recent disappearance early last month of two other Kenyan girls is another case of childhood friends who are also alleged to have joined ISIS together. This lends credence to views that peer pressure is an important factor, and also adds to growing concerns that ISIS may have gained a foothold in Kenya.

There is an urgent need for concerted regional and international responses and cooperation

Empirical studies undertaken by Institute for Security Studies senior researcher Anneli Botha identified the instrumental role of religion in the radicalisation of youths in Kenya: 87% of Kenyan youths interviewed in the study cited this as the main reason for joining extremist group, al-Shabaab. However, a combination of peer pressure and religion could also account for why young people join extremist organisations, given that most respondents who joined al-Shabaab were between 20 and 25 years old.

While this study did not include female respondents, it is telling that almost all of the women in the reports cited above fall within this age category. A gendered approach in counter-radicalisation interventions is therefore not only necessary, but also essential.

Unlike the Chibok case in Nigeria, where Boko Haram forcibly abducted schoolgirls, these examples reflect the increasing concern that young women are making voluntary choices to join extremist groups. Reports of the fate that awaits them, including sexual violence, do not seem to act as a deterrent. What could be driving these choices? Typical teenage rebelliousness, the romanticising of extremist jihadism and boredom may well offer some answers. Nonetheless, a gendered understanding of what motivates these decisions would ensure that counter-radicalisation programmes offer real alternatives to young women.

Countering violent extremism requires a more nuanced understanding of gender

Studies have shown that belonging to extremist organisations provides young people with ‘a sense of identity, prestige or pride, acceptance, responsibility and outlets for frustration and excitement.’ Western countries, particularly, see many stories of well-educated girls from affluent families who are intercepted while travelling to Syria, either as ISIS fighters or brides.

Based on media reports, such cases are on the increase – particularly in the United States and United Kingdom. Given that terrorism is a global problem and the Internet is borderless, there is an urgent need for concerted regional and international responses and cooperation in dealing with this trend.

The role that educators and learning institutions play in radicalising young people, including women, also needs further investigation. Clerics and other important religious figures may influence the choices of young people. Research suggests that apart from friends, such figures are the most likely to introduce young people to such groups as al-Shabaab (in the case of Kenya).

In the March al-Shabaab attack at Garissa University that saw 142 students killed, the alleged mastermind, a former madrassa teacher, is believed to have been radicalised while in high school. In another incident, where two Kenyan women students informed families that they had travelled to Syria, one was a part-time teacher at a local girls’ high school. This points to a need for stronger scrutiny of educators and school curricula, including programmes and activities in places of learning and worship. While those in influential roles may radicalise young, impressionable minds, they may also serve as valuable mentors and roles models to assist young people as they navigate periods of uncertainty.

It is clear that countering violent extremism and radicalisation requires a more nuanced understanding of gender as well as the factors driving young people to join such groups. The policies of governments – and the range of services that they provide to young people, including young women, their families and communities – are significant factors within this framework. These require ongoing enquiry and significant development if they are to have any success in curbing these worrying trends. Platforms such as the recent civil-society-led forum on gender dimensions of terrorism and counter-terrorism in Kenya; and the ongoing government-led regional conference on youth counter-radicalisation, are meaningful steps in this regard.

Irene Ndungu, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Nairobi

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