If you read Kenyan media reports about jihadi brides signing up to marry militant fighters in Somalia, you would be forgiven for thinking this is a new development in East Africa.
Yet it is a trend that can be traced back to the 1990s, when Osama bin Laden established a regional base for al-Qaida in Mombasa. He was operating from Sudan at the time and he sent some of his people to set up a cell in Kenya. These men married Swahili women, starting a phenomenon that has seemingly been hidden from the public consciousness until now.
More recently, we have seen an increasing number of reports in the Kenyan media about women who marry fighters or are radicalized into carrying out or planning attacks. Yet, a lot of what we read is sensationalized and quite limited in its reach, which can have a dangerous effect on the way people perceive this phenomenon, breeding prejudice and fear.
I have been working on a research project, funded by the Wilson Center, to better understand the relationship between the media and female jihadism in East Africa. And what I have learned so far is that much more can be done to deal with this issue in a responsible and intelligent way.
Most of what we know about women joining al-Shabab, the Islamic terrorist organization originating from Somalia, is gleaned from scattered reports of women caught trying to cross the border into Somalia or to carry out an attack in Kenya. Any real information on how these women are becoming radicalized is often missing.
But the picture is a lot more complex than the idea – peddled in the popular press – of a jihadi bride, forced or coerced to join a radical group out of poverty or ignorance or both. Unlike in parts of West Africa, where extremist groups like Boko Haram recruit women by kidnapping them or otherwise forcing them to join, women in Kenya appear to be joining al-Shabab under their own will. We have few examples in Kenya of women being kidnapped or forced to marry a jihadi husband.
To the contrary, the profile emerging of the kind of women signing up to fight with al-Shabab is young, educated and relatively well-off. Far from being vulnerable and disempowered, they are often independent thinkers, sometimes university students or graduates, and even women who are prominent in their communities.
It is increasingly clear that a lot of work has gone into training these women, into building a very strong person-to-person relationship with them over time, convincing them, radicalizing them and luring them into accepting an extremist and violent ideology.
My research suggests drivers for these women include a heavy religious element. Many of them access material on social media or online that pushes them towards adopting a more hardline ideology. There is also an element of romanticism in the way these women view their journey to fight for a better cause. They often share a sense of injustice or anger at their situation at home, where they see their rights and opportunities curtailed by a male-dominated society.
That raises questions about how the government can counter the problem and about how well we have covered the issue in newspaper and television reports up until now.
If programs designed to counter radicalization or to de-radicalize people are entirely focused on material interventions – such as providing work opportunities or training and livelihood skills – then they may not have any impact. The government needs to adopt a similar approach to the jihadist recruiters, building the confidence and trust of women and starting a dialogue that can address some of the grievances they have.
Through an initiative at Rongo University in Kenya called the Center for Media, Democracy, Peace and Security, we have been building a curriculum to train young journalism students on how to report on the issue using African traditions. The philosophy behind the program stems from Hybrid Peace Journalism (HPJ), an idea borrowed from Peace Journalism, the reform movement of reporters and activists aiming to solve conflict through peacebuilding and development. HPJ takes an Africanized approach, using the Swahili concepts of Umoja (unity), Harambee (national cohesion) and Utu (humanity) as news values.
This year, we are running a training workshop for journalists in East Africa and trying to work with them to understand the impact their terrorism reporting can have on the wider public. For example, journalists very rarely mention the word “peace” in their reporting, only talking about winners and losers, which adds to people’s feeling of antipathy and insecurity.
We have heard of fake news becoming part and parcel of the mainstream media and it’s high time we stop distorting the truth. We need some prudent intervention at the journalistic level and the audience’s level to help people understand the issue of jihadi brides in a balanced way, and to build a sense of humanity in the way we look at the problem.