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?”
Here is more from Katherine Petrich.