Intelligence Analysis: Jihadist influences in Tanzania

“I pointed out to you the stars, and all you saw was the tip of my finger.” Today, this locally revered Tanzanian proverb should resonate deeply within the minds of anyone who fears the spread of Islamic extremism in Africa. On Tanzania’s island paradise of Zanzibar, the killing of a Catholic priest by Muslim extremists on February 23 points to series of mounting and long-ignored signals that the continent’s jihadist wave is expanding south and affecting security. Since October 2012, this traditionally tranquil tourism hub has been awash with sectarian strife. It began when a dispute between two local schoolchildren resulted in the defilement of a Koran, sparking outrage in Tanzania’s large Muslim community.At least four churches across the country were attacked in the aftermath, in what may just prove to be a watershed moment in Tanzania’s modern history.

In February 2013, religious tensions in Zanzibar continued to simmer due to a dispute over butchering rights, sparking titfor- tat attacks between Christians and Muslims, ultimately resulting in the beheading of one priest and the fatal shooting of another inside his own church. A self-proclaimed local al-Qaida branch calling itself “Muslim Renewal,” took credit for the shooting as its inaugural attack.Fourteen years before the Zanzibar unrest, Tanzania took center stage, with all fingers pointing at al-Qaida militants after a deadly bombing attack at the US embassy in Dar es-Salaam. This event, along with the bombing of the United States embassy in Nairobi, brought names like Osama bin-Laden and Ayman al- Zawahiri into the public sphere for the first time. Then-US president Bill Clinton responded by launching cruise missiles at al-Qaida bases in Sudan and Afghanistan. Despite the participation of local East Africans in the attacks, however, few concrete measures were taken to curb radicalization in the region.

Muslim residents of Zanzibar set fire to a Christian church.
Muslim residents of Zanzibar set fire to a Christian church.

By May 2012, the global jihad network would rear its ugly head in Tanzania once more, after a bombing attack occurred in the Kenyan capital, targeting a prominent shopping district. While blame was placed squarely on Somalia’s al-Shabaab, the arrest of a German national in Tanzania in connection to the attack largely went unnoticed. The man, reportedly of Turkish descent, had undergone training in al- Qaida camps in Pakistan.

While the Tanzanian link in the global jihad chain failed yet again to ring alarm bells, deteriorating domestic conditions may open the floodgates for a homegrown wave of extremism. Tanzania’s delicate demographic balance is divided into thirds among Christians, Muslims and Animists, with the country maintaining a secular charter with careful restrictions against religion in politics since the end of socialist rule in the 1990s.

Under this system, Tanzanian Muslims have commonly accused the government of discrimination. In 2002, the Tanzanian government instituted the Terrorism Prevention Law under pressure from the United States, which ultimately resembled the US Patriot Act, and served to further increase mistrust of local Muslims toward police and the central government.

These deeply-rooted tensions have been complemented by the impact of the global economic recession, with communal violence against Christians being just one of the sad outcomes. With Western influence in fast retreat along with foreign aid cuts and NGO budget reductions, wealthy Arabian Gulf donors have helped nurture an Islamist revival across the country, as witnessed by the subtle rise in the numbers of Swahili-translated Korans on bookshelves, Islamist satellite TV channels, and increasing attendance at Friday sermons.

In Zanzibar alone, Saudi Arabia continues to invest over $1 million per year in Islamic universities, madrasas and scholarships for young Zanzibari men to study abroad in Mecca.

This rising tide of Islamism has drawn concern from Tanzania’s Christian leaders. In recent months, they have become increasingly vocal in accusing Saudi Arabia and Sudan of sending Islamic preachers to the country with the aim of spreading Sharia Law from the predominantly-Muslim Zanzibar Archipelago and into majority- Christian areas.

Back on Zanzibar, leaflets were distributed in Christian communities in early March, calling for retaliation for the recent priest killings, threatening to further exacerbate sectarian violence on the impoverished island. Christian preachers elsewhere in the country have since complained of receiving ominous text messages from the Muslim Revival group, which stated “We will burn homes and churches. We have not finished: at Easter, be prepared for disaster,” signed “Muslim Renewal.”

In an all-too-common trend, it is only a matter of time before al-Qaida’s veteran terrorists elsewhere in the world take note of Tanzania’s revitalized extremist potential.

The combination of economic strife and religious conflict provides fertile ground for these elements to sow their seeds of instability, in a similar process to that witnessed in Somalia and Mali. And much like the fate of those embattled nations, the failure of the international community to assist Tanzania in tackling the roots of extremism will ultimately prove to be its most potent enabler.

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