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International Arrests Show Women Are Playing an Active Role in Al Shabaab

The FBI has announced the arrest of three women on charges of running a conspiracy to funnel money to the al Qaeda-linked group.
Image via Reuters

Members of the Somali terrorist group al Shabaab might be ruthless, oppressive killers. But, at least when it suits them, they aren’t chauvinists.

On Wednesday, the FBI announced the arrests of three women — one in Washington State, a second in Northern Virginia, and a third in the Netherlands — on charges of running a conspiracy to funnel money to al Shabaab. Two other women who were allegedly part of the ring are now fugitives in Kenya and Somalia, an FBI press release said.


It might seem odd that an al Qaeda-affiliate espousing an extreme version of Islam that severely curtails women’s rights would arrange for women to help pay their bills. In fact, it’s more common than many Americans would expect, said Mia Bloom, a security studies professor at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, speaking to VICE News.

“We associate women’s involvement with women’s liberation,” said Bloom, author of Bombshell: Women and Terror. “That’s precisely not the case. We are seeing women involved in terror in places that are the most conservative, the least progressive when it comes to women.”

Al Shabaab fighters might speak a good game about segregating and protecting women in accordance with their twisted religious views, Bloom said. But ultimately they’re users who’ll compromise their so-called values to hurt people.

“These groups are very instrumental,” she said. “They will bend the rules and find a justification somewhere if at the end of the day it’s expedient.”

The FBI didn’t explain how or why the women sent money to al-Shabaab. The details they provided, however, conformed to previous cases in which immigrant women make handicrafts and raise funds for nefarious ends back home.

The FBI claims the women sent $50 to $100 at a time to al Shabaab members using code words like “living expenses” on their illicit wire transfers so as not to raise suspicions among authorities who track untold numbers of cash transfers between immigrants and their native lands. “Orphans” and “brothers in the mountains” referred to fighters. “Orphans” and “brothers in the mountains” referred to fighters. “Camels” referred to trucks.


Bloom also noted that, increasingly, women are being used as suicide bombers — in Iraq, male terrorists rape women in order to shame them into believing they have nothing to live for and can redeem themselves as martyrs. Women are particularly suited to attacking civilian targets like malls, restaurants, and hotels because male security forces tend to overlook them, she said.

History tells us that women are perfectly good murderers, however. Women were active in the Irish Republican Army, Italy’s Red Brigade, and Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Group, for example. Chechen rebels and even the Taliban have deployed female terrorists.

“There’s a perception that women are weaker, women are the gentler sex, even though we’ve seen time and time again women at the frontline of activities,” she said. “A lot of these terror groups are using this stereotype to their advantage. The women are an ideal kind of stealth weapon.”

Bloom sees al Shabaab’s use of women to finance their operations as a sign of weakness. Since 2012, when the group lost control of the lucrative port of Kismayo, and a year later, when a group of African nations joined forces to oppose them, al-Shabaab has been on the ropes.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in Washington, D.C. wasn’t so sure. In addition to sporadic attacks in Somalia, last year al Shabaab gunmen (not women) staged a high-profile attack in the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya that killed and injured more than 200 people. They’re still a force to be reckoned with, he said.

“These are actually very difficult organizations to kill,” Gartenstein-Ross told VICE News. “They have their weaknesses, but delivering a killing blow is really, really hard. Al Shabaab has been consistently carrying out attacks. And they’ve gotten somewhat better at doing so, compared to where they were in 2012.”

Al-Shabaab Is Confiscating Camera-Equipped 'Spy' Phones. Read more here.

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr