Al-Shabaab’s Mata Hari Network
I recently spent several weeks in the slum districts of Nairobi, researching al-Shabaab’s criminal activities in the Horn of Africa. I expected to learn about the traditional criminal practices of terrorist groups: drugs, arms, money laundering, and perhaps even a regional particularity like sugar smuggling. What I wasn’t expecting to discover was a highly structured, hierarchical network in which sex workers sell information gleaned from their customers — specifically, corrupt police officers — to al-Shabaab. As one interviewee noted, “If you want information here, you use the prostitutes and street kids — they see everything, go everywhere, and nobody notices them.”
The strength and depth of this sex worker-militant network surprised me and many terrorism experts in the West I spoke with, but it’s an open secret among Nairobi residents. My first interview subject didn’t understand why I wanted more details — surely everyone knew about it? Many of my interviewees were neighbors of, or otherwise friendly with, the sex workers involved. They described an arrangement in which al-Shabaab offered money to women who picked up interesting information in the course of their regular sex work — pillow talk from politicians, police officers, and businessmen. One local memorably opined: “Of course! Half the reason these men go to [sex workers] is to complain about their lives. Why not get paid for listening?”
The co-option of sex workers as intelligence officers suggests that al-Shabaab is a rational actor willing to circumvent its highly public ideological stances when there is significant operational benefit to be gained. This calculating, bottom-line mentality runs counter to much of the international narrative about the group. The “Mata Hari” network also shows that al-Shabaab is an innovative organization that looks for unconventional solutions and is actively seeking to survive and expand, despite the long-running efforts by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and its international military partners. Al-Shabaab has increased its resilience to counter-terrorism operations by leveraging the safe haven of neighboring Kenya, a sanctuary of sorts created by porous borders, weak government integrity, and sympathetic communities. Finally, this is a group interested in working “behind the lines” deep in adversarial territory that has learned how to exploit human weakness and failures of integrity in its area of operation.
Inside the Network
In Nairobi, sex workers tend to organize along ethnic lines and often specialize in a particular type of client, likely a result of the profession’s reliance on word of mouth. The women pool money and resources into a “sex worker collective.” To protect themselves from predatory pimps, some collectives organize around an influential or established woman who can offer protections similar to a male pimp’s in exchange for loyalty and a cut of the proceeds. According to my interviews, the core of the group that sells information to al-Shabaab is a number of Tanzanian women living who live in Nairobi slums and work for a local woman. This woman is reportedly the connection to al-Shabaab — a Kenyan-Somali, she maintains a relationship with group operatives and acts as a conduit for the negotiations. The women are primarily immigrants — likely a product both of Kenyan stereotypes about the attractiveness and subservience of Tanzanian women and of economic insecurity. Some interviewees opined that Tanzanian women were more likely to become involved in sex work because they lacked “parents and family to help them.” Notably, however, the fact that these women are not Somali suggests the absence of an ideological link to al-Shabaab. One of the militant group’s greatest strengths seems to be creating relationships and securing support from allies who do not, or only loosely, share their ideology.
That al-Shabaab has identified sex workers as a source of intelligence is not particularly surprising. Sex and information are two of the world’s oldest commodities, and sending spies into the beds of important people has been a historically popular method of spycraft. The network is further proof that al-Shabaab is one of the most tactically innovative militant groups operating today and prioritizes its intelligence capabilities. It has reportedly infiltrated significant portions of the Somali government, dispatched operatives far beyond its territorial area of control, and expanded its operative ranks to include women. In Somalia, the Amniyat — al-Shabaab’s intelligence wing — occupies an almost mythic bogeyman status due to its reach and power. However, unlike Mata Hari or the “Romeos” of the USSR who acted at the explicit direction of the state, these al-Shabaab affiliated sex workers are essentially independent contractors. They trade in sex first and information second, in contrast to more formal intelligence operatives who use sex as one of many tools to elicit information and compromise loyalties.
Insights About a Misunderstood Militant Group
The rational choice to leverage sex workers’ access to powerful government and law enforcement figures offers a window into al-Shabaab’s cost-benefit calculations. The group imposes strict restrictions on female sexuality in Somalia, its primary area of operation: It bans independent sex work, has imposed the death penalty for adultery, considers sexual assault to be adultery (and thus punishable by stoning to death), and utilizes forced marriages and rape as a reward system for its male soldiers. Given this deeply conservative position inside Somalia, its willingness to cooperate with and reward sex work in Nairobi, where the group is more constrained in its activities, suggests al-Shabaab is a limited, rational organization with concrete territorial aims. It is not a maximalist extremist group prioritizing ideological principles over tangible benefits, and because the group has a state-based goal, it is comfortable supporting or at least engaging with activities that contravene sharia law. An informant remarked wryly, “Al-Shabaab likes [that group of sex workers] very much. They are worth many sins.” Other interviewees described how group members publicly banned and beat sex workers in one neighborhood, decrying their “wickedness,” while simultaneously protecting the sex workers involved in the intelligence network. Immorality seems to be a reasonable price to pay for real-time intelligence.
The presence of the network shows how deeply embedded al-Shabaab is in Nairobi, an unsurprising though underreported fact. Since 2011, Kenya has been one of the primary military intervenors in Somalia. The Kenyan Defense Forces are actively deployed along the Kenyan-Somali border, often conducting operations into al-Shabaab-held territory. Analysts and academics generally argue that al-Shabaab has a significant presence in Somalia’s border regions where it regularly stages attacks, in Kenya’s heavily Muslim coastal regions, and in Kenyan refugee camps that house large numbers of displaced Somalis. Nairobi, however, is largely assumed to be stable because it’s removed from the group’s main areas of operations and has robust security measures that can guard against an attack. Because of its perceived safety, Nairobi functions as a “capital in exile” for many foreign diplomats, researchers, and foreign military advisors.
But the sex worker network further indicates that al-Shabaab has recognized Nairobi’s critical status, deeming it worthy of infiltration beyond kinetic operations like the Westgate Mall attack. While the majority of its attacks occur within Somalia, my research and much of the on-the-ground reporting indicate that a significant portion of its support structure is located in Nairobi, in addition to this emerging intelligence operation. The group is also regularly linked to regional fundraising efforts, recruiting campaigns, and more traditional intelligence operations. One major source of funding comes from colluding with the Kenyan Defense Forces to smuggle charcoal in contravention of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2036, which banned such exports from Somalia in 2012.
Obviously, one of the key factors facilitating such activities is corruption. Whether police officer patrons know their pillow talk is being passed along to al-Shabaab is unclear. The law enforcement officers I spoke to (Kenyan as well as American and British) downplayed the group’s reach, expressing surprise at the idea that sex workers could be intelligence conduits for an ideologically conservative Islamist group. The network’s success demonstrates that anti-corruption initiatives aimed at government officials have real, tactical benefits beyond an appeal for moral conduct for its own sake. It’s not unheard of for law enforcement officers to patronize sex workers. What’s notable here is the scale: For such an intelligence gathering operation to work, there must be enough officers involved, who can all offer different pieces of information. Further, despite the official push for “community policing,” police officers still largely view their relationship with community members as adversarial, particularly in the low-income, largely immigrant districts where this intelligence gathering is occurring, deepening the disconnect between law enforcement and the community. Indeed, the academic Chimaraoke Izugbara found in interviews with Nairobi’s sex workers that law enforcement officers regularly “harass and mistreat” these women, demanding sex or domestic services in exchange for avoiding arrest. In defense, the workers have developed information networks like the one exploited by al-Shabaab. The lack of integrity among officials in Nairobi creates and sustains an opportunity for the sex worker intelligence network to flourish.
The strength of Nairobi’s “prostitute spy” network demonstrates al-Shabaab’s organizational innovation, rationality, and broad geographic range. If the militia has learned the effectiveness of co-opting sex work in Nairobi, organizational learning theory argues it will attempt to replicate that success in other areas. Indeed, media reports indicate similar gambits of using “very beautiful women” as intelligence officers have also occurred in Kenya’s Lamu, Tana River, and Garissa counties. This evolution suggests al-Shabaab may be permanently incorporating sex work into its portfolio of intelligence operations.
Al-Shabaab’s rational, cost-benefit calculus means it will continue to innovate, expand, and seek alternative strategies to ensure organizational survival. Expecting the group to be dismantled by conventional tactics like air strikes and limited coalition engagements is short-sighted and will likely only prolong the conflict. What’s more, al-Shabaab’s regional network is larger and more robust than open-source reporting and academic work suggest. Analysts and academics should widen their scope beyond Somalia to the entire Eastern African region when conducting research or crafting policy to counter al-Shabaab. Finally, the sex worker network reaffirms the critical role the broader community plays in supporting and enabling an insurgency. It is not simply the diehard adherents and suicide bombers that allow al-Shabaab to continue its contest, but also corrupt government officials and police officers, poor sex workers, marginalized immigrants, and other “ordinary” people who act as a sea to al-Shabaab’s fish. Those interested in countering the terror group must widen their understanding of the battlefield beyond southern Somalia and consider the critical role that rule of law (or lack thereof) plays in creating opportunities for the group to exploit. To be clear, driving the sex workers from Nairobi is not the solution to eliminating al-Shabaab’s intelligence collection operation in Kenya. However, policing the bedroom habits of law enforcement and government officials may be a reasonable short-term step.
Katharine Petrich is a PhD Candidate at Northeastern University and a Visiting Researcher at Naval Postgraduate School. She specializes in insurgency, terrorism, and transnational organized crime. You can follow her on Twitter @kgpetrich