In Summary
  • Studies show that the majority of women who support, join, or are recruited to these groups are actually moderately to well-educated women.
  • Ms Lewthwaite is linked to the slaughter of 148 people, most of them students, by Al-Shabaab gunmen at the Garissa University College in 2015.

They are young, intelligent, beautiful and deadly. Welcome to the world of female jihadists, two of whom are currently being sought by the Kenyan police over Tuesday’s attack at the DusitD2 hotel and office complex in Nairobi, which has so far claimed 21 lives.

The most high-profile of the two is Violet Kemunto Omwoyo, the wife of Ali Salim Gichunge, who is said to be among the five-member team that carried out the attack at the upscale hotel which is popular with Westerners.

So far, her role in the attack is fuzzy; she is a suspect by association to her husband whom the authorities say was the leader of the killer team.

He is believed to have been killed during the rescue mission.

LIBERATION

The other high-profile woman being pursued by detectives is a Miriam Abdi - who is believed to have played a central role in the delivery of the deadly weapons used in the attack.

The hunt for the mystery woman has taken sleuths from the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) to various towns, among them Eldoret and Mombasa, but she has so far proved slippery.

The duo add to a growing number of local and international women who have joined the dark world of global terrorism and, in the process, redefined their roles in modern insurgency groups from victims to active agents.

The media often portray these women as joining jihadi groups through romantic adventurism such as the “jihadi brides”, naivety, or a sense of their own marginal lives lived in their own countries.

However, studies show that the majority of women who support, join, or are recruited to these groups are actually moderately to well-educated women, said security analyst George Musamali.

“Many women who are actually joining these groups see it as a form of empowerment, liberation, and an opportunity to live in a society with a belief system that they subscribe to,” he said.

ARRESTS

For example, Ms Kemunto is a fresh-faced holder of a journalism degree from Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology.

She plaited her hair, wore lipstick and a nose ring to boot, all which had long been banned by the Al-Shabaab as they tried to impose their austere, puritanical form of Islam in Somalia and beyond.

Female jihadis, such as Ms Kemunto, with her beauty and level of education, serve as potent recruiting magnets for Islamist groups, said Mr Musamali, a former General Service Unit officer.

There are a number of local examples of this. In March 2015, four young women from relatively well-off families — Ummulkheir Sadri Abdalla, Khadija Abubakar Abdulkarim, Halima Aden and Maryam Said Aboud — were arrested in Elwak on allegations that they were sneaking into Somalia to join the Al-Shabaab.

They were arraigned before a Mombasa magistrate’s court with 20 charges including being Al-Shabaab members, collecting and holding information on terrorism and organising terror trainings among others.

The State prosecutor based his evidence on the videos found on the suspects’ mobile phones, which he claimed to be showing terror-related activities.

EDUCATION

But many were surprised to learn that Ummulkhayr was a third year medicine student in Sudan while Khadija was studying pharmacy at Mount Kenya University (Thika Campus).

Ummulkhayr was born in 1996 and had been studying at the International University of Africa in Khartoum since 2013, according to the police.

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