WASHINGTON —As Kenya continues its fight against Al-Shabaab, the Kenyan government and media need to better understand the role of female extremists to create a more effective counterterrorism strategy, experts say.
Dr. Fredrick Ogenga, a visiting scholar at the Wilson Center and a communications professor at Rongo University College in Kenya, said the Kenyan government must “incorporate a gendered component” into its national counterterrorism approach.
Ogenga said Kenya had not seen women on the frontlines conducting terrorist attacks until recently. On Sept. 11, the 15th anniversary of 9/11, three women tried to attack a police station in Mombasa. They were shot and killed by the officers.
He knows of at least nine cases of Jihadi brides, women who leave their homes to marry extremist operatives. He said many came from upper middle class families and were well educated. Thus, the traditional idea of what makes someone vulnerable to extremist ideology should be challenged, he said.
The government’s current counterterrorism strategy broadly focuses on Somalia as the source of terrorism, according to Ogenga. Al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization based in Somalia, aims to create an Islamic state in Somalia and has launched many terrorist attacks in bordering Kenya. In 2011, Kenya invaded Somalia in in response to the attacks and the operation continues today.
Kenya has long been victim to terrorist attacks because of its border with Somalia, as well as the fact that many global companies operate in Kenya, he said. Terrorists see Kenya as a center of Western interests in Africa.
Nearly 150 people were killed last April when Al-Shabaab attacked a Kenyan college. In 2013, Al-Shabaab carried out an attack on Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi that killed at least 61 people.
Ogenga said the media also creates misunderstandings of the role of women when it solely “depicts women as victims and bystanders.”
“We approach gender and terrorism from the perspective of women who are vulnerable as opposed to the perspective of women as active players conscious of their agency,” he said.
Dr. Kathleen Kuehnast, senior gender adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, a federal research organization that specializes in ending conflict, said extreme notions of male or female gender roles need to be challenged. The idea that women are peacemakers and men are war makers is oversimplified, she said.
Kuehnast and Ogenga said creating ideological empowerment and educating children from a young age is crucial in combating terrorism.
Kuehnast said, “violence is what makes the relationship visible to us,” but women’s path to extremism starts long before that.
However, Kuehnast and Ogenga said much more research on gender and counterterrorism must be done.
“That is actually our problem right now. We have so little research,” Kuehnast said.