In September, three people attacked a police station in Mombasa, Kenya. They stabbed one police officer and set fire to the building before being shot dead, according to Kenyan police. The incident drew international attention, not only for the brazenness of the attack, but for the gender of the attackers: all three were women.
Experts say female extremism is on the rise in Kenya and across the continent, as terror groups look for recruits who are less likely to elicit suspicion and can move through cities and checkpoints without being searched by police.
The results are deadly. For instance, in northeast Nigeria and Cameroon between June 2014 and April 2016, officials recorded more than 200 female suicide bombers killed more than 1,000 people.
Phyllis Muema is the executive director of the Kenya Community Support Center based in Mombasa that works with young people and their families at risk of being indoctrinated by violent extremist groups. Muema said she has noticed in the past year that extremist groups are focusing more attention on recruiting women.
"The local culture here is extremely respectful of women and police don't find it ideal to search women because culturally it's very wrong," she said. "And extremists take advantage to say that if they're not searched and nobody pays attention to them, then they are extremely good targets in terms of their use, especially in crowded areas."
Islamic State has deployed female suicide bombers around the world, including 10 would-be suicide bombers arrested in October in Morocco. They were said to be planning attacks on tourist sites. An IS affiliate claimed responsibility for the Mombasa attack, according to media reports.
But the question remains: Why would women join a group whose ideology states they should be subservient to men and tells them they do not deserve equal rights?
Muema said many girls in coastal Kenya have no job opportunities and are desperate. Extremist groups such as IS offer them the ability to have a leadership role.
"Women in our culture are not recognized or given the right place," she said. "Therefore, extremists are giving them the opportunity to be the star in the movie. And that excites the girls a lot."
Muema said the Mombasa attack was particularly stunning because the perpetrators were local students who had graduated with high grades.
"It was like a reawakening of the fact that more attention needs to be given to girls and to women," she said. "Because no one expected that that type of bold girls would conduct that type of an attack."
Fredrick Ogenga, founding director of the Center for Media, Democracy, Peace and Security at Rongo University in Kenya, recently completed a study examining female extremism in Kenya while serving as a Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He found that women who become what he calls "jihadist brides" tend to come from middle-class or upper middle-class families, and have an average to above average education. He found that they come to the ideology willingly.
"I can tell you, in West Africa most women who get involved in violent extremism are women who get coerced," he said. "What you've witnessed in Kenya is a different trend. You are seeing women willingly subscribing to the idea of jihadi bride-ism. … these are women who are romanticizing the fantasy of being involved with a partner who is an al-Shabab terrorist."
Fears of escalation
Ogenga went on to warn that incidents like the one in Mombasa are harbingers of what is yet to emerge in Kenya.
"I think that is why we need to be vigilant, so that we can nip this in the bud so that we know how to address it before it can escalate," he said. "We are seeing women who are determined to come to the front line in order to execute the attacks."
He added that the government should support moderate Muslim clerics, who are sometimes victims of terrorist attacks for their work in "the true teaching of Islam," and who play a vital role in educating youth about the dangers of extremism. He also said the media needs to do a better job of informing the public, while not sensationalizing or glorifying acts of terror.
"They have to report terrorism and radicalization in a special way, in a way that will not advance the interest of terrorism," he said.