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.
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.