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Weaponization of Women in Terrorist Organizations: A Security Risk in Sub-Saharan Africa


The days when we concentrated on the idea that men committed acts of terrorism are long gone. Women are being included as partners in these activities due to shifts in trends. They are frequently presented as being the victims of violence rather than the attackers. But this myth is frequently disproved by terrorist groups. The weaponization of women in terrorist organizations is becoming a growing concern. The Global Terrorism Database define terrorism as ‘the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.’’

Evolution of Terrorism and Women's Involvement

Many terrorist organizations have seen an increase in the number of female members in recent years. Research indicates that the number of female suicide attackers has increased to over 200 in recent years, although this still shocks many. Extremist groups rely on women to gain strategic advantage, recruiting them as facilitators and Martyrs while also benefiting from their subjugation These groups weaponized women to their advantage in their activities. While the case remains, that women are increasing involving in terror activities, it is also wealth noticing that many of these women are been force in joining these groups, serving as shields and weapons for the binding of these terrorist organizations.

Over the years, the world has seen an increase in the way terrorist activities are carried out. The Sub-Saharan African region, specifically the West African sub-region, has seen a tremendous increase in women’s engagement in terrorist activities, ranging from their involvement in suicide bombing, and attacks on personalities to the kidnapping of young girls. Conceptions of gender are overwhelmingly contextual. In this sense, there is no universal definition of masculinity or femininity; rather, it depends on the culture and society. However, there are distinct roles for men and women during violent extremism. It has long been believed that while women are supportive and non-violent, men are associated with militarization. Since the narrative of violent extremism organizations is strongly associated with patriarchy and misogynistic culture, they are frequently not seen as the ones who initiate violence, and this makes its easy in the use of women as weapons for terrorist organizations.

The Case of Sub-Saharan Africa

Even though men have always been at the frontiers in terrorist groups, female terrorist must also be taken into account in the fight against terrorism, given that Sub-Saharan Africa is making great efforts to resist terrorist assaults. In countries such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mali where terrorist activities take place, it is becoming evident that women are not only the ‘wives’ of jihadist but also serve as ‘’radicalizers’’, logistics supporters, and facilitators for terrorist organizations such as DAESH and ISIS. This stems from the subjugation which women in these areas are being faced with. With years of indoctrination and female subjugation these women are subjugated to extreme violence and oppression including a lack of education, freedom of movement and expression.

These terrorist groups find it simpler to take advantage of these women because of their fragility considering the fact that they are sometimes used as shield. This goes to confirm the debate on the subjugation of women in these societies and how they are weaponized by these terrorist organizations. Omitting women from terrorism prevention efforts also forfeits their potential contributions as mitigators of extremism. Women usually have the potential to detect early signs of radicalization. Impoverishment of women in the Sub-Saharan state, leaves them even more vulnerable and susceptible to terror organizations. The precarious situation of the Sahel, increasing desertification and climate stresses have facilitated harsh conditions and impoverishment in which terrorism has flourish and through this the gender divide becomes apparent.

Using the example of Boko Haram, four models can be used to explain women’s involvement in terrorist activities: "coerced women, these women are forced or coerced into participating in Boko Haram’s activities", "revolutionary women, these women actively embrace Boko Haram’s ideology and willingly participate in its operations", "delinquent women, these women engage in criminal activities alongside Boko Haram", and ‘women clientelism, these women maintain relationships with Boko Haram members due to economic or social reasons. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2022, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 48% of all terrorist-related deaths worldwide. The region's deadliest terrorist groups have been identified with an increase in the number of female arrests in terrorist-related incidents. The negative social perception of women has benefited groups such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Women have been deliberately used to propagate propaganda, recruit new members, obtain intelligence, and intimidate existing men into supporting the jihadist cause. Coercion has been used by organizations like Boko Haram in Nigeria to enlist young women as suicide bombers. Also, women’s role in society as lesser and incapable makes them ideal operatives to illicit information/intelligence which is called honey badgering and certain terror organizations in Iran for example employs these tactics. This involve the use of women in a sexual sense, but then also as victims of oppression, women are vulnerable targets to the abuse of terror organizations and to convince them to commit such acts of violence, women are also deemed disposable, thus their use as suicide bombers but also women are perceived socially as more trustworthy thus their use of recruitment.

Why is it a concern?

While climate change plays a factor in these fueling poverty, there is higher correlation between poverty and the encouragement of terrorist activities. The majority of women in places vulnerable to terrorism are experiencing extreme poverty, which is cause for concern in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa. To counter the radicalization of women there is a need to better understand the motivations associated with women who fight for terrorist organizations. Sub-Saharan African countries battling with poor economies, failed states and high corruption make it more susceptible for women to join these groups. While the region is still struggling to battle male dominance in terrorist groups, the involvement of women in these groups will make the fight more difficult considering the rate at which terrorism is spreading in the region. This turns to affect the fulfilment of the Aspiration 4 of Agenda 2063 of the African Union (AU) while considering the gender abuses which comes with these issues.

Way Forward:

Whiles this is a challenging issue and will require stronger measures, we must strive to address some of the pressing causes of these activities. There is the need to prioritize the security of most of the hotspot areas. Considering the fact that the impact of terrorism should be measured not only in casualties and damage to property, but also in the profound effects it can have on a society as a whole. It is no doubt that poverty may not only be the challenging issues in the fight against terrorism but may be a factor in fueling the weaponization of women in the Sub-Saharan Africa for terrorist activities. Adopting stallholder engagements will also help in the fight against terrorism activities.

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