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The Woman Question in Online Extremism and P/CVE in Kenya: Toward a New Gendered Approach

The Woman Question in Online Extremism and P/CVE in Kenya: Toward a New Gendered Approach
7th December 2023 Miraji Mohamed
In 16 Days, Insights

This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).

Introduction

Over the years, research on extremism has increasingly paid attention to gender as an important category. While these developments are broadly associated with western anxiety surrounding the increasing threats posed by extremist and terrorist groups, particularly in the successful years of Daesh, these changes can be attributed to the spectacular media focus on so-called (pejoratively) ‘jihadi brides’ and the increase in foreign terrorist female fighters, particularly those involved with jihadi extremism. Resources were then dedicated to understanding why and how women join extremist groups and what can be done to mitigate this threat. 

While these developments should be celebrated, critical questions must also be posed. Here, Cynthia Enloe’s question, “Where are the women in war and conflict is still relevant, but only takes us so far. Research about women’s radicalisation often focuses on white women, and non-white western women engaged in extremism, for example, work about Roshonara Choudhry, the women’s forum on Stormfront, Women Dawah, and on far/alt-right women. With this proliferation of scholarship and media coverage, we must ask why research and the media focuses attention on specific women (i.e. white and/or non-white western women) joining Daesh? This focus makes commentators lose sight of the fact that women from the global South formed a majority of women in the Caliphate and the majority of women who remain in Daesh’s camps. Why are these women invisible? 

The gendered dynamics of extremism in Kenya offer a compelling yet underexplored case study for addressing this issue. This is because Kenya is particularly afflicted with jihadist terrorism, with the primary group being al-Shabaab. In addition, Kenya—like other African nations—is influenced by a blend of local patriarchal culture and colonial gendered practices that have historically limited women’s agency (e.g., exclusion of representation in government, limitations to roles as mothers and homemakers). This positions Kenya as a locus of P/CVE interventions rooted in gendered peace and security frameworks – primarily steered by western stakeholders – that promote women as peacemakers. These measures acknowledge women’s agency on the one hand, while on the other, obscure the myriad positions, roles and expectations projected on women in relation to (countering or preventing) extremism in the Kenyan context. Thus, peace and security frameworks, media coverage, and academic research shape how women are engaged in measures designed and implemented to counter and prevent violent extremism. 

Using Kenya as a case study, this Insight shows that challenges in understanding online radicalisation partly stem from 1) a lack of in-depth examination of how people are being radicalised by al-Shabaab’s online content in local contexts and 2) an understanding of gender that views women’s participation in extremist and terrorist groups within rigid ‘traditional gender-based roles and expectations. This is relevant because research only focusing on white women, or western women risks misunderstanding local drivers by promoting specific western conclusions as general principles globally. 

“Robed attackers! Three female assailants! Three veiled attackers!”

On 11 September 2016, these three subheadings formed the headlines of Reuters, Standard Media Kenya, and CNN after a police station was bombed by Islamist militants in the city of Mombasa. The shock of the attack was compounded because the attackers were 1) veiled, 2) Muslim and 3) women. These actions did not resonate with dominant notions of femininity and the societal expectations such notions project on (particularly Muslim) women. Details of the attack itself are marred with inconsistencies. This could be partly attributed to Kenyan security forces’ securitisation of information related to attacks which fosters a lack of transparency and an increasing deterioration of the public’s trust in the police. Thus, the details about the 11 September 2016 attack made public by the police and media offer conflicting accounts. For example, some testimonies claimed that perpetrators were wearing bullet-proof vests underneath their veils, while others said one of them had a suicide vest that did not detonate due to quick police action. 

The attackers were identified as Tasmin Yakub Abdullahi Farah, Fatuma Omar Yusuf and Mariam. Following this attack, the police investigated the residence of Tasmin Yakub, arresting three other female suspects described as being Somali refugees. Amaq, a news agency affiliated with Daesh, claimed responsibility for this attack, citing that it was conducted by ‘supporters’ of the Caliphate. Notably, this was the first attack in Kenya that Daesh claimed despite several individuals having already been arrested on suspicion of being linked to Daesh.  

Following the attack, police investigations recovered a handwritten note that highlighted the women’s affiliation with Daesh through their allegiance pledged to “the caliph of the Muslims, the Amir of Believers, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.” Their ideological affiliation was further cemented by directly referencing Daesh’s activities: “Know that Islamic State soldiers are everywhere,” … “O filthy Kenyan government, don’t think we’ve forgotten how you mercilessly killed our brothers … We promise to make your women widows and your children orphans.” The note links the women’s justification for violence to Daesh’s objectives but also directly cites the women’s motivations for the attack as driven by local grievances–the treatment of Muslims by the Kenyan government

Despite these developments, commentators have had a hard time moving away from the gendered understanding of terrorist violence that reduces women’s involvement to supportive, romantic or maternal roles. Second, accounts focusing on Black and Brown women based in the ‘global South’ often (un)intentionally reproduce imperialist gendered and racial hierarchies. They are portrayed as not considered capable of, or are stereotyped as not civilised enough to be driven by personal grievances, ideological affinities, or to understand and articulate their motivations for joining. For example, women travelling to join al-Shabaab and or Daesh territories have commonly been viewed as confused or manipulated into participating in violence by their male relations. Their motivations are personalised, as in the case of the Kenyan police station attack, even where the women cite political grievances. Their actions are sensationalised and exceptionalised since the prevailing understanding is that, particularly in East Africa, “women mostly play the role of comforters of male fighters”. Interpreting women’s engagement and roles within terrorist organisations in purely romantic or sexual terms infantilises women and reduces them to sexual deviants, diminishing their involvement and obscuring their motivations and the myriad other roles they play while being part of these groups. Notably, details later indicated that the radicalisation of the three women might have occurred online.

Finding Gender in Online Radicalisation in Kenya

Kenyan authorities believe the three women “were active on the Internet within jihadist circles after intercepting chatter between the girls and Jihadi groups”. However, there are concerningly limited details about this case study regarding the women’s online behaviours, their preferred platforms, the materials they accessed/shared, the amount of time they spent in the channels/chat rooms, what they talked about and, eventually, how this engagement with (online) content and other actors informed their violent actions. Thus, this case highlights the need for research that examines how people are radicalised online in the Kenyan context. Part of the inconsistencies surrounding this case—i.e., how the attack was presented and what entailed the online radicalisation of the attackers by the news media and the police—is due to the lack of publicly available information. 

While Daesh claimed responsibility for this attack, some initial coverage alluded to the possibility of al-Shabaab’s involvement.  This is because of Kenya’s proximity to Somalia, where al-Shabaab is based, the existence of al-Shabaab ‘traveller’ networks in Kenya facilitating youth recruitment to training camps across the border, and a robust online al-Shabaab propaganda campaign tapping into existing grievances of Kenyan Muslims. Hence, the discrepancy between local knowledge of al-Shabaab’s influence and police narratives of Daesh radicalisation generated substantial confusion. This disconnect is further enabled by the limited number of studies empirically assessing al-Shabaab and its online radicalisation activities, particularly concerning the gendered dynamics. 

A few studies discuss al-Shabaab’s online radicalisation strategies, showing that some young Kenyan men and women are lured online with the promise of jobs and or scholarship opportunities. Other studies exploring al-Shabaab’s digital presence have analysed how the group used Twitter during and after the Westgate Mall attack to justify the attack and frame the narrative or its use of audio-visual materials such as the bilingual Gaidi Mtaani magazine for broader recruitment and outreach efforts. 

Research has shown that al-Shabaab effectively used communication technology from as early as 2006 on particular video streaming websites, Internet chat rooms and social media platforms to recruit, create and disseminate their propaganda, communicate with their supporters and operatives, and fundraise internationally. The audio-visual content translated into Swahili and other local languages is often posted on YouTube and amplified on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to lure susceptible individuals. So, while there is work on the online content produced by al-Shabaab and its use of mainstream social media platforms, there is a dearth of studies about how individuals, particularly women, are being radicalised by al-Shabaab content in Kenya. This absence of research begs the question of what type of online P/CVE measures Kenya has in place and how these measures capture the specifically gendered dynamics of radicalisation.

Kenyan P/CVE Efforts

Over the years, the Kenyan government has increasingly taken steps towards preventing and countering violent extremism, however, these approaches do not effectively incorporate gender within their frameworks. These primarily include adopting the National Strategy for CVE (a gender-blind instrument) and the subsequent County Action Plans for P/CVE (a siloed pillar approach). Beyond sensitisation, dialogue forums and stakeholder engagement, P/CVE in Kenya is predicated on traditional gendered roles and expectations frameworks that only engage women as peacemakers. This is problematic, given evidence from Kenya showing that women have different experiences with extremism and the increasing number of women joining extremist groups.  These include the three police station attackers along with additional cases, including four Kenyan women who were charged with possessing terrorist visual propaganda, three of whom were arrested in a Kenyan town en route to Somalia to join al-Shabaab; and numerous others serving sentences in Kenyan prisons. Whether these women were radicalised online remains unknown and unknowable under current institutional practice. 

Whilst legislative initiatives have been proposed, e.g., the Social Media Bill (crafted out of the Kenya Information and Communications Act, (KICA), 1998), they have been criticised for their broadness, vagueness, and potential infringement on freedom of expression. Technological solutions have been similarly challenging even with regulation; as research has shown, tech companies have difficulty regulating content in non-western and non-dominant languages. Moreover, compliance with new and stringent facets of regulation, such as requiring user administrators to moderate content, will certainly prove challenging to implement as the regulatory authority (the Communications Authority of Kenya) may not have the capacity to enforce these rules. 

Finally, backlash from the public in response to these regulations also suggests that users’ willingness to comply with the regulations will be limited. In addition, for regulative frameworks to work, there needs to be a harmonisation between how they define key terms like ‘extremist’, ‘terrorist’ or ‘inciteful’ content and the platforms’ terms of service. Failure to recognise and address this may lead to subjective applications or censorship.

Conclusion

The problems of research and online P/CVE in relation to gender in Kenya are in some ways representative of larger issues within the field (e.g., lacking incorporation of gender-based research and the generalised application of limited studies), but they are also distinct and specific. Understanding the local and global nature of radicalisation is crucial if we are to tailor efforts towards finding a balance between recognising local differences and the worldwide impact of online extremism. 

So, while advocating for ‘the local’ in Kenya, I recognise that media coverage and academic output about white women and western women are not without their own problems. Media coverage continues to sensationalise women who perpetrate political violence regardless of their location, and gender scholars have long noted that academic research is regularly laced with undertones of shock concerning women’s participation in and commission of violence. This shock often stems from predominant gendered constructions of women as nurturing and apolitical, which position them as de facto peacemakers. For ethnic minority women from western contexts, such as Shamima Begum, many analyses are layered with racist and orientalist tropes that view them as second-class citizens and disposable populations, leading to public calls for harsher punitive measures for their involvement with Daesh. To address these problems, neither a solely local nor a solely global approach will work. 

A realistic picture of Kenyan radicalisation can only be assessed if it includes local women’s experiences, concerns, interests, and motivations. It is crucial that P/CVE approaches incorporate the reality that women’s experiences within terrorist or violent extremist groups vary across contexts and along intersectional axes of identity (race, class, sexuality, citizenship, etc.). Thus, research founded on white women’s and western women’s accounts risks generating one-size-fits-all P/CVE measures that do not address localised or individualised concerns. 

Dr. Miraji Mohamed is a postdoctoral researcher at Dublin City University and affiliate at the Cyber Threats Research Centre (CYTREC) at Swansea University. Her research focuses on conceptualisations of ‘radicalisation,’ and ‘extremism,’ practices of preventing and countering violent extremism, gender and extremism, online media representation of (counter)terrorism and how these shape the Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism agenda.