Women and De-Radicalization

By: Gregory Niguidula, Reporter

Photo Credit: Georgetown University

On September 15, 2017, over two-dozen people gathered around the Mortara Center conference table for a panel titled “Women and De-Radicalization: Comparing Perspectives”. The panel, hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security (GIWPS), was moderated by Ambassador Melanne Verveer, the Institute’s executive director.

“Women are the perpetrators of violence as well as ameliorators and counterers of violence”, said Amb. Verveer, framing what would be the theme of the discussion. She went on to explain the importance of the topic, calling it the “issue of our times” that will require efforts on the part of governments, academia, and civil society to solve.

Amb. Verveer then introduced the two panelists, Dr. Fatima Akilu and Fauziya Abdi Ali.

Dr. Akilu spoke first, and began by musing that despite living in an age where the first moon landing is a distant memory, the question of why people join terrorist groups is still unanswered. “As I’m finding out, it’s a lot more complicated than I ever thought.” Dr. Akilu’s expertise lies largely in Nigeria, dealing with the extremist group Boko Haram. Her extensive list of credentials includes holding the position of executive director of the NEEM Foundation (an NGO dedicated to addressing Nigerian insecurity), working as a trained psychologist, and pioneering Nigeria’s Countering Violent Extremism Program.

Dr. Akilu traced the development of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the role that women played in its history. The original founders, she explained, were young men, who eventually got married and coopted their wives and children into the movement. Later, they began to kidnap women in retaliation to the Nigerian government detaining the wife of a Boko Haram leader. One such kidnapping is the infamous Chibok girls incident. Despite this, women began to voluntarily join the group, lured by what they viewed as better marriage prospects among the monied, intelligent young men in its ranks. To those women, Akilu explained, these men seemed like cowboys that had rode into town to save them.

Additionally, conditions in Boko Haram’s communities were often substantially better than in their home villages. Boko Haram’s strong organization allowed them to build communities with food, water, and electricity, resources that remain scarce for much of Nigeria’s population. Those that joined voluntarily were more empowered within Boko Haram’s caliphate than they were in Nigerian society at large. Exploiting the lack of choices women had, the group gave them the power to choose their husbands, their roles within the organization, and even slaves (tragically, the slaves were the women kidnapped by Boko Haram).

Dr. Akilu explained that de-radicalizing people is akin to rehabilitating sex offenders in that the way they think has to be changed. Her de-radicalization program tries to do this by addressing the psychological needs of the patients. Critical thinking skills are generally lacking and need to be taught, even among the highly educated patients. Behavioral skills are also taught in order to change their belief system, arts are used to expand their worldview, and life skills classes train them for lives and careers outside the caliphate.

None of this is easy, but the hardest part, according to Dr. Akilu, is family reintegration. After the heinous crimes some of the women had committed against their families and communities, neither they nor their children were welcome to return to their former homes.

The gender divide was very clear in the de-radicalization process. Dr. Akilu stated that she found de-radicalizing men to be easier than women for a variety of reasons. First, men appeared to be more willing to listen to her (she attributes this to her gender) and second, men had an easier time than women reentering society, perhaps because of their greater rights and lesser social attachments.

Fauziya Abdi Ali, a regional terrorism expert who also touts an impressive list of credentials, spoke next. Her work focuses on Kenya and the radical group al-Shabaab. Ms. Ali is the founder and president of Women in International Security Kenya, the Chair of Sisters Without Borders, and has worked extensively with the Kenyan government. Ms. Ali gave a quick overview of al-Shabaab’s history, from its rise in Somalia to its spread throughout the country. She also made sure to mention the conflict between al-Shabaab and local ISIS affiliates, which have become increasingly powerful in recent years. Al-Shabaab’s relationship with its female sympathizers is complicated. The organization has difficulty acknowledging when acts of violence are committed in its name by women and tends to wait to claim credit for such attacks. Women join al-Shabaab voluntarily, often because of their family ties but also of their own volition. The jobs they take include raising funds by asking for donations (usually disguised as a mission to build a mosque).

Ms. Ali went on to explain how her organization, Women in International Security Kenya, came together. It started with the observation that women were engaging in the field of national security across Kenya, but were not communicating with each other. The hope was that by building a network that covers all of Kenya’s key regions, they would be able to learn from each other, link the communities with professionals, and affect policy. The group, Ms. Ali says, has been able to affect great change in recent years. A current example is its work with the Kenyan government to ensure that Kenya’s National Countering Terrorism Strategy is able to address the role of women in violent extremist groups and is consistent with existing legislation surrounding women’s issues.

Her group also runs a de-radicalization program. One of her findings was that the women incarcerated for terrorism were bored because of a lack of programs that took into consideration their interests and skills. The programs that existed consisted of giving vocational training to people who were often uninterested in the subjects being taught. Ms. Ali’s organization also runs community-based support groups for women who have left al-Shabaab. A large part of doing this work successfully involves building trust between the community and security actors, a trust she said has eroded in recent years.

Ms. Ali also stressed the importance and difficulty of changing the role of women within the Islamic faith, the inequality of which has spurred gender based violence. She explained how her group has dedicated itself to training women to be spiritual leaders, something that many men have found to be sacrilegious. To fight these notions, she’s found that her best weapon is, in fact, the Quran. By pointing to specific examples from scripture that demonstrate the value of women, some zealous men can be persuaded to be more tolerant.

Family reintegration is also central to her de-radicalization program, something she says requires a long term intervention and is complicated by family dynamics. She shared a story about a sixteen-year-old who had left al-Shabaab: when the boy was found, his parents were contacted, and, despite expressing joy that their son was alive, insisted that they could not allow him back into the family because they had already disowned him.

After Ms. Ali finished speaking, Amb. Verveer opened the floor to questions which the audience enthusiastically took advantage of. For the rest of the event, both panelists and moderator discussed the different queries and shared anecdotes and insights. In response to a question about the role of women in the Islam, Ms. Ali shared a story about how, in the wake of a mosque raid, a group of Kenyan women appointed a female Imam when the men were too afraid to take the position.

Dr. Akilu raised a question that remained unanswered: what can replace what these radicalized women had when they were part of an extremist group? Dr. Akilu freely admitted that she did not have an answer and neither, it seemed, did Ms. Ali. The solution, they believe, lies in changing society so that joining an extremist group is no longer an attractive option and, echoing the opening comment, in bringing many different people and organizations together.

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