On July 24, this year, a female suicide bomber walked into a security meeting being held at the office of Mogadishu mayor Abdirahman Omar Osman and blew herself up killing seven and injuring several others.
Al-Shabab terrorists claimed responsibility for the attack, telling local media that UN envoy to Somalia James Swan, who had left the building when the attack happened, was their target. Mr Osman was critically injured in the blast and later died in Qatar where he was receiving treatment.
This was the fourth known time Al-Shabaab has used a woman in a suicide attack. Now the frequency at which it is deploying women in their attack missions is alarming regional security agencies.
Not only are they concerned by the high rate at which the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group is recruiting young well- educated women, but are also wary about the high profile positions it is giving them in the insurgency movement.
A confidential Kenyan security brief seen by the Sunday Nation reveals that the jihadi organisation is increasingly giving the young women prominent roles in carrying out intelligence operations and attacks, as they are less likely to attract attention. A significant number of women is currently thought to be undergoing training un Somalia, some of them Kenyan.
“Police sources indicate that Al-Shabaab is training women to be deployed as facilitators, logisticians and even as attackers in Somalia, Kenya and other East African countries,” said the security report.
Previously it was thought widely that women were primarily recruited by Al-Shabaab as brides for fighters and were meant to cook and clean in the militants’ camps.
However more women are now assuming greater roles in active combat, intelligence gathering, planning, coordination, and execution of attacks, according to the intelligence report.
On Saturday, Inspector General (IG) of Police Hillary Mutyambai said security agencies were on high alert.
“We are aware that Al-Shabaab is changing tack and increasingly using women as facilitators and spies, not just brides for the fighters. More women are being trained to take up more senior roles that were reserved for men,” he said.
The IG said this should be “a wake-up call to the security agencies and members of the public to be on the lookout”.
He said police had been properly briefed on the matter but urged private security guards manning various facilities to ensure they do thorough scrutiny.”
The Kenyan security report adds that some of the women are to be deployed to befriend government officials and identify loopholes in security and report to Al-Shabaab for planning of the attacks.
The most recent high-profile case involved Violet Kemunto who was the wife of Ali Salim Gichunge, aka Farouk, the mastermind of the DusitD2 hotel complex attack in January this year.
Kemunto is said believed to have facilitated the welfare of Gichunge and his fellow attackers. Police believe that she fled to Somalia on the day of the attack that claimed 20 lives.
Another female accomplice, Miriam Abdi, whom is believed to have played a central role in the delivery of the deadly weapons used in the attack is still on the run.
The new trend of Al-Shabaab recruiting an alarmingly high number of women into their rank and file is mainly because women are less lily to raise suspicious when undertaking terror activities.
“Unlike men, women are considered by society to be less violent and therefore may escape scrutiny by security officers,” said the security brief.
The first recorded instance Al-Shabaab deployed a female suicide bomber was on June 2011 when Somalia’s interior minister Abdishakur Sheikh Hassan was killed by his teenage niece in a suicide bomb attack in his house.
This was the first ever suicide bomb attack carried out by a woman in Somalia and would set precedence for the group to increasingly deploy women in their campaign of terror across the region.
The use of a female suicide bomber was a rare and surprising move from the group which has been primarily using male combatants and suicide bombers to carry out attacks in the Kenya and other East African countries. It seems the trend is on an upward rise.
In September 2016 three women — Tasmin Yaqub, Maimuna Abdirahman, and Ramla Abdirahman — casually strolled into Mombasa Central Police Station clad in buibui’s and proceeded to occurrence book desk as if to report an incident.
COURIERS & SPIES
The unsuspecting officers on duty welcomed them to present their case and that is when one of the women is alleged to have lurched forth and attacked the officers with a dagger while the two others attempted to burn the station down with petrol bombs. In the ensuing commotion the women were shot dead.
Investigations revealed that Tasmin — the mastermind of the attack — was a member of the Islamic State which claimed responsibility for the attack. Her fellow alleged attackers, sisters Maimuna and Ramla, attended Ainaba madrasa as well as Markoz Noor madrasa at Sparki mosque in Mombasa where they studied religion.
The daring frontal attack on the police station by the three women left many Kenyans baffled, few having expected women to take an active role to carry out attacks.
“The women were used as couriers and spies by the terror group since they were hard to suspect and could easily escape security roadblocks and scrutiny,” said the intelligence report.
Security analyst George Musamali notes that among the things that drive women to join Islamists groups is the “romantic notion of the lives of extremists, honour and accolades as well as the idea of being a mujahidin’s spouse, widow or mother.
This has led to many women being lured into jihadi theatres. The most notable case is that of Khadija Abubakar Ahmed, Mariam Said Aboud, Halima Adan, and Ummulkheir Sadri Abdalla, famously romanticised as the ‘AlShababes.’
The four women — all university students — were arrested in El Wak in March 2015 on suspicions that they were trying to cross the border into Somalia to join the insurgency group.
Security agencies believe that the trio was recruited online by one Halima Adan Ali, a notorious Al-Shabaab and Islamic State recruiter and financial facilitator.
The police believed that the young women were aided in their aborted mission by Haniya Sagar, the wife fiery Muslim cleric Aboud Rogo, who was shot dead by unknown people in August 2012.
Haniya and three others were charged in 2016 with aiding terror activities. She was jailed for 10 years in February 2018, but was set free on appeal in October.
Maryam died in May last year while their case was ongoing. Her three alleged accomplices, Khadija, Halima and Ummulkheir were set free by a Mombasa court in February this year on grounds that the prosecution had failed to prove 20 terror-related charges they were facing.
While women have fallen pretty to the lure of international jihadism, reports from those who have escaped the clutches of the militant group paint a picture of suffering, sexual abuse and violence that the women suffer at the hands of male fighters.
“The women indicate that they are forcibly married off to multiple men after their husbands are killed at war and this cycle continues,” said the intelligence report.
“Many women are currently calling for help to return to the country from Somalia after undergoing hell in the war torn country,” it added.
The female recruits are also used to run elaborate financial facilitation conduits that support insurgency activities. For example, Nuseiba Hajji Osman alias Umm Fidaa alias Ummulxarb is the spouse of key Islamic State point man in the region, Mohamed Ali aka Abu Fidaa.
The local female entrants add to a growing number of international women who have joined the dark world of global terrorism and in the process redefined their roles from victims to active agents.
Before them, a mother of four with a comely face from the United Kingdom, Samantha Lewthwaite, famously nicknamed the “white widow”, had captured world imagination after she joined Al-Shabaab.