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Women and Al-Shabaab’s Insurgency Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°145

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What’s new? Women form an important social base for the Islamist Al-Shabaab insurgency in Somalia. Some help it recruit, generate funds and carry out operations. These understudied realities partly explain the insurgency’s resilience.

Why does it matter? Understanding what Al-Shabaab offers Somali women, despite its brutal violence, patriarchal ethos and rigid gender norms, and, in turn, what women do for the movement could help the Somali government and its foreign partners develop policies to help sap support for the group.

What should be done? While the insurgency persists across much of Somalia, women will likely continue to play roles within it. But the government could develop a strategy against gender-based violence that would signal it is doing what it can to improve Somali women’s plight, while integrating more women into the security forces.

I. Overview Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency remains a formidable fighting force in Somalia despite years of operations against it. Its staying power stems from the Somali state’s weakness and its own tactical flexibility and ability to generate revenue, navigate clan politics and provide some order in areas it controls. Crisis Group’s interviews with women previously linked to Al-Shabaab, and verification of their statements with former militants and close observers of the movement, suggest that women also help sustain the insurgency. While Al-Shabaab imposes restrictions upon women, it can provide some security and its courts often uphold Islamic family law to their benefit. Some women recruit, fundraise, spy or smuggle arms for the group. While Al-Shabaab remains potent and controls some areas, women are likely to continue in such roles. But by developing a strategy against gender-based violence the Somali government could demonstrate that it is doing what it can to alleviate women’s suffering. It can better integrate women into the security forces and study women’s roles in Al-Shabaab to improve efforts against the militants.

Since African Union (AU) forces ousted Al-Shabaab from major towns across the country in 2014, Somalia’s war has largely ground on in a holding pattern. The government nominally controls population centres, but has struggled to extend its presence further, deliver services or stem graft, tasks made all the harder by worsening relations between Mogadishu and leaders in regional states. Al-Shabaab controls many rural areas, including around the capital, extorts both travellers along major routes and businesses across much of the country, and provides services that many Somalis turn to in the absence of functioning state institutions. It plays clever clan politics, avoiding too close an association with any one clan, but often backing weaker groups against stronger rivals or mediating disputes. While its attacks provoke fury, in places it offers a certain predictability amid the disorder that afflicts much of the country.

Assessing how Al-Shabaab’s rule affects women and the role women play in the movement is hard. Widespread insecurity, the movement’s covert presence and intelligence operations in areas nominally held by the government and the fear it inspires makes gaining access to women associated or previously associated with it difficult. In these conditions, Crisis Group was able to interview a limited number of women formerly married to fighters, as well as relatives of such women, and then verify findings with former male militants, government officials, security officers, activists and rehabilitation advisers. The picture these interviews paint is partial but offers insight into how women in Al-Shabaab-held areas regard the movement and how some actively support it.

"What seems important is to recognise that the militants have a gender strategy of sorts."

Al-Shabaab’s brutal insurgency has entailed considerable suffering and hardship for many women but its rule can bring benefits. It imposes severe limits on women’s comportment and access to the public sphere, restrictions resented across much of Somali society. Where it controls territory it can, however, offer women and girls a degree of physical safety – hardly complete, but still appreciable – in a country where they are otherwise exposed to violence. Through its courts, Al-Shabaab upholds tenets of Islamic family law that, to some degree, protect women’s rights in matters such as divorce and inheritance in a manner the official justice system does not. While many instances of forced marriage between militants and women and girls exist, for some families marrying daughters into Al-Shabaab may bring a degree of financial stability.

Women also appear to play more active roles in the insurgency, involved in activities critical to its resilience. They help recruit and proselytise. They gather intelligence that enables military operations or extortion, or ferry explosives ahead of attacks, taking advantage of the fact that security forces tend to watch women less closely than they do men. In a handful of cases, women carry out strikes themselves, though Al-Shabaab deploys far fewer women suicide bombers than, for example, the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram. For the most part, women do not participate directly in military operations or decision-making.

Women’s cooperation with Al-Shabaab does not necessarily reflect their sympathy for the movement. In areas where militants dominate or exert influence, paying extortion money, marrying into the insurgency or even actively collaborating can be a matter of survival. Militants coerce people into complying alongside offering incentives. Many who marry militants or otherwise join the movement are still young girls. Even those who voluntarily seek out the movement’s courts tend to do so because the state offers no alternative. That said, some women members do express strong support for the movement and its goals and regard themselves as full-fledged members.

The policy implications of these findings are not immediately evident. While Al-Shabaab’s insurgency persists, women will likely continue to play roles within it. Clearly any enhanced security procedures for women should be carried out cautiously; further screening of women must be conducted by women, for example, lest it generate local anger. Overall, what seems important is to recognise that the militants, notwithstanding their Salafi-inspired doctrine, have a gender strategy of sorts, engage women and, in some cases, meet some of their needs. The Somali government has made some efforts: in government-controlled areas women have greater freedom of movement, an increasing number of girls have joined the school system and the number of female civil servants has risen in recent years. But it could do more. Parliament has failed to pass a sexual offences act, for example, and the government has taken few steps to address sexual violence, including by the security forces. Somalia’s largely broken justice system offers women little.

Making headway on such issues might not do much to alter women’s calculations in insurgent-controlled areas, but would at least signal that the government recognises Somali women’s plight and is prepared to do what is within its power to improve it. By more effectively integrating women into the security forces, studying in closer detail the role women play in sustaining Al-Shabaab’s insurgency and adapting accordingly, the government could also devise a more nuanced strategy against the insurgents.