Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Tanzania and the Political Containment of Terror

Research Consultant
Tanzanite bridge in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on March 24, 2022. (Photo by Herman Emmanuel/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Tanzanite bridge in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on March 24, 2022. (Photo by Herman Emmanuel/Xinhua via Getty Images)

In the 23 years since the al-Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s authorities have successfully prevented sustained terrorist activity within their territory. This is a notable achievement, given that Islamist non-state armed groups (NSAGs) in Somalia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Mozambique have, to varying extents, relied on networks that are based in or run through Tanzania for financing, recruitment, logistics, as well as ideological reproduction. Tanzania’s government has succeeded through a combination of security-related, political, and administrative measures that are, for the most part, determined within the state security apparatus and rarely subject to public debate or scrutiny.

The state’s policies are only one side of the equation, however. Politically active Muslim organisations in Tanzania, many associated with reform movements along the lines of Salafism or Wahabism, and some of which have at times accused of ties to terrorism, have sought a political arrangement that allows them to operate within the constraints of the nation-state and its institutions. This is not an easy arrangement. The state continues to focus on religious leaders and institutions in its fight against Islamist extremism. For their part, Muslim leaders and institutions that have never been wholly aligned with the state seek to distance themselves from the regional Islamist terror threat while simultaneously advancing a domestic agenda of promoting Islam in society.

While these political arrangements have restricted the space afforded such elements to organize against the Tanzanian state, they remain an important factor in supporting jihadist NSAGs in the region, most notably in Cabo Delgado province across the border in Mozambique.1 Tanzania has suffered only two major attacks from and a number of smaller raids for provisions from Cabo Delgado,2 but extensive support networks in Tanzania’s Mtwara region, which borders Cabo Delgado, present a real security threat. These support networks have been targeted by extensive security operations over the past three years, while the Tanzania People’s Defence Force (TPDF) has been deployed in Cabo Delgado as part of the Southern African Development Community’s Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM). Tanzania’s domestic settlement between the government and Islamists is thus facing its greatest threat as the state engages more kinetically with regional extremist groups.

Independence, Islamic Reform, and Foundations of Resilience

Islamic thought, practice, and political disposition have been re-shaped by Wahhabist-influenced, reformist Islam worldwide over the past half-century, shaping how Muslim communities engage with the state and reshaping Muslim institutions.3 In East Africa, as elsewhere, this has been understood through a historical focus on the relationships between individual states and Muslim communities.4

With up to half of Tanzania’s population being Muslim, the place of Islam, its institutions, and leaders has been central to the country’s politics in both the colonial and post-colonial periods. The dominant Qadriyya and Shadiliyya Sufi brotherhoods were critical to the development of Muslim institutions in the pre-colonial era5 and also sought to shape the independence movement and the emergent state of Tanganyika. Some leaders, such as Sheikh Hassan Bin Ameir of the Qadriyya, participated actively in the independence movement through mobilising nationwide affiliates in the 1950s and early 1960s. As a leading Qadriyya cleric, effective Mufti of Tanganyika, and leader of the East African Muslim Welfare Society (EAMWS), he had particular influence through the 1960s. Yet even at this stage, East Africa’s religious cleavages were apparent. Sheikh Hassan Bin Ameir’s considerable efforts at strengthening Islam across East Africa from 1940 onwards were in conscious opposition to the spread of Christianity that had been central to the colonial project.6 The independence movement could accommodate such figures as Sheikh Hassan, but for an independent state inheriting a colonial administration, such accommodation was more problematic. By 1964, three years after independence, the then ruling Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) had taken a socialist path and was avowedly secular but led by a devout Catholic, Julius Nyerere, and had inherited an education system built out of the missionary movement.

A turning point in relations between this young state and Islam came in 1968 with the dissolution of EAMWS, which has shaped relations between the state and Islam ever since. EAMWS’s perceived capitalist orientation in an increasingly socialist state, its strength in Muslim communities through leaders such as Sheikh Hassan Bin Ameir, and its access to foreign ideas and finance through its transnational structure were seen as a threat to TANU’s rule. TANU, the forerunner of the current ruling party (Chama Cha Mapinduzi or CCM), finessed EAMWS’s dissolution, replacing it with the more compliant Baraza Kuu la Waislam Tanzania (“National Muslim Council of Tanzania,” known by its Swahili acronym, Bakwata) and deporting Sheikh Hassan to Zanzibar. Bakwata remains to this day the favoured representative body of Tanzanian Muslims, enjoying material support from the government and providing political support to the ruling party in return.

The dissolution of EAMWS has been characterized as the end point of a “de-Islamization” of TANU, and as an effort to “contain Muslims as a political force.” This did not involve a purge of Muslims from TANU as the phrase suggests, but rather an effort to curb a potential political threat in the form of an independent and organized Islamic political movement. Bakwata was the means of doing so. Bakwata was (and continues to be) a nominally independent organisation whose compliance could be assured through funding, access to property (it inherited EAMWS assets in a questionable manner), and access to rents through, for example, having a monopoly on hajj travel business.7 Through undermining EAMWS, Bakwata would satisfy TANU’s desire that, as Vice President Abeid Karume, later president of Zanzibar, put it at the time, “the leadership of the Muslim religion must be in the hands of the people themselves, without any attachment to pretenders from the outside.”8

Karume’s ambition would not be met. Bakwata proved to be both incompetent and corrupt, unable to address the serious educational challenges the Muslim community faced.9 Coupled with the collapse of Tanzania’s socialist experiment in the 1980s, opportunities emerged for organisations from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and elsewhere to establish themselves in Tanzania, supporting new generations of religious leaders and institutions. These “pretenders from outside”10 were still regarded as a security threat, but the wider political upheaval from the 1980s onwards helped enable compromise.

The career of the cleric Abas Mustafa Maqbul illustrates this. Maqbul, originally from Sudan, was funded by Saudi Arabian religious authorities to strengthen Islam in Tanzania in the 1970s and 1980s. He established scholarship programmes that continue to this day for Tanzanians to study in Sudan and Saudi Arabia and helped grow a new generation of Muslim clerics that would become internationally connected through funding from Arab governments and institutions. In doing so, Maqbul had to contend with a state suspicious of “Muslims as a political force” to use Mohamed Said’s words.11 “At that time [the late 1970s], Muslim organisations and activities were under close surveillance by state security,” Maqbul later recalled.12

Crucial to establishing scholarship programmes was the support of then President of Zanzibar, Aboud Jumbe, successor as President of Zanzibar to Abeid Karume. As well as being supportive to Maqbul, he also granted permission in the early 1980s (he served until 1982) to Munadhamat Al-Da’awah Al-Islamia to establish itself in Zanzibar. The organization funds scholarships for religious studies in Khartoum and elsewhere. Under President Ali Hassan Mwinyi, who succeeded Julius Nyerere as president of Tanzania in 1985, Munadhamat’s established an additional branch in Dar es Salaam. African Muslims Agency from Kuwait, active across the continent, also established operations under President Mwinyi. It remains a significant funder of Muslim institutions and now operates the Muslim University of Morogoro.13

Some of the new generation of Muslim clerics generated by the transnational networks planted by Maqbul and others would go on to shape how Muslim leaders who were not aligned with both the state and Bakwata would confront longstanding issues about the place of Islam in the Tanzanian state. They would also have to confront this ecosystem of international funding agencies, while an emerging generation of Salafist clerics could address violent threats against the Tanzanian state and society.

By the time that al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in August 1998, relations between the Tanzanian state and ruling party on the one hand and non-aligned Muslim leaders and organisations on the other were at an all-time low. In February of that year, a police assault on Dar es Salaam’s Mwembechai Mosque had sparked rioting at the mosque and across surrounding neighbourhoods that targeted police, government, and ruling party property and led to the arrest of leaders associated with the mosque.14 Contemporaneous framing of the dispute as being between youth radicalized by “Arab states” pushing an “extremist” agenda and their moderate elders conflated two quite different and intertwined processes.15

The network of international organizations willing to support da’wa (Islamic proselytization) and education through individual and institutional support was well established in Tanzania by 1998. Funding since at least the 1980s from organisations such as African Muslims Agency, originally based in Kuwait, and al-Haramain Foundation, a network of organisations originating in Pakistan before moving to Saudi Arabia, had supported Tanzanian mosques, schools, organizations and individual activists. Al-Haramain Foundation also, allegedly, supported al-Qaeda in planning the August 1998 attack.16

These international organizations operated in a space in which a clearly defined historical view and political agenda was pursued through new organizations established in opposition to Bakwata. Anti-establishment scholars constructed the evidence base for the domestic political agenda while individual cleric-leaders, through loose organizational networks and media outlets, pressed it. At the heart of this political agenda were grievances regarding the perceived lack of educational opportunities for Muslims, the favouring of Christians in the post-colonial state, and, later, the use of the “war on terror” as a means of suppressing Muslim demands.

The 1990s saw Muslim activists reinterpreting historical debates that were particularly salient given Tanzanian politics of the time. The side-lining of Muslim activists in TANU’s liberation campaign in the 1950s and 1960s was first presented in detail by Mohamed Said in his 1998 work The Life and Times of Abdulwahid Sykes.17 Based in Dar es Salaam after a career in the public service in Tanga Region, Said operates outside the academy. Through essays distributed in print and social media and conference papers, he remains a hugely influential figure amongst public intellectuals and the Muslim community more broadly. Other figures outside the academy such as Hussein Bashir Abdallah sought to reclaim the history of the 1905-07 Maji Maji Revolt as a jihad against colonialism by a predominantly Muslim population.18 Academic Hamza Mustafa Njozi of the Muslim University of Morogoro is another figure of influence whose analyses have focused on the regulation of worship, discrimination in education and employment, and the framing of Muslim political activism in the context of the U.S. push against terrorism since 2001.19

In public campaigning, clerics such as Sheikh Ilunga Hassan Kapungu encapsulated these grievances in the idea of mfumo kristo, or Christian hegemony, as underpinning the Tanzanian state. These anti-state messages were disseminated in mass meetings, weekly khutba (sermons), and mass media such as Tanzania Islamic Foundation’s Radio Imaan and the weekly newspaper An Nuur.20 Indeed, Radio Imaan was suspended for six months in 2013 for inciting a boycott of the previous year’s census.21 The conception of Mfumo kristo expressed in these various channels was encapsulated well by the Sheikh Ilunga of coastal Kibiti district in 2011:

There is nowhere you can go in this country and not find the Christian system. The Christians in this country have dominated decision-making positions and Rufiji and the entire coastal religion is made up of 99 percent by Muslims. But who is an agricultural officer or OCD [Officer Commanding District] here? All the government officials are Christians even though 80% of the population here is made up of Muslims. Head teachers in Rufiji are Christians, all students are Muslims. What is eating Rufiji is the Christian system.22

While Kibiti district would become the site of Tanzania’s most intense jihadist violence, the wider Salafist/reformist movement of Muslim activists would row back from mass mobilization around such issues in the coming years in the face of state actions.

A failure to disentangle international networks supporting Islamic reform and a politically active Muslim civil society from elements of those networks that supported violent extremism has meant that the effective marginalization of the latter within Tanzania has not been acknowledged. Relatedly, the importance of domestic political agendas has been marginalized in discourses surrounding violent extremism in Tanzania. An examination of patterns of violence, the political trajectory of Muslim individuals and organisations of influence, and the response of the state to Muslim activism allows for a shift in perspective and a clearer understanding of how states and community leaders have contributed to Tanzania’s resilience to violent extremism.

Patterns of Violence

The drama of the August 1998 attacks notwithstanding, the following decade was not marked by any significant acts of terrorism linked to Islamist extremism. The ACLED database for the years 1997 to 2012 records just one such instance, the August 1998 attack. From 2012 to 2017, ACLED records a significant spike in such incidents, with 32 reported. The author’s own records indicate 47 such incidents for the same period.23 The author’s database includes actions such as police raids on mosques, madrasas, and training camps where radicalization and paramilitary training were being undertaken; assassinations of local government officials and ruling party leaders by NSAGs; and robberies of banks, shops and mobile money agents. Most incidents have been minor, involving small groups of violent jihadists, rather than sustained campaigns by NSAGs.

The period 2012 to 2017 saw three distinct theaters of violence. These were focused on the coastal Tanga Region in the north and neighbouring Kilimanjaro and Morogoro Regions; Mwanza and other regions in the north-west bordering the Great Lakes; and Pwani and Mtwara Regions in the south. Since 2017, there has been a significant decrease in the number of incidents related to Islamist NSAGs with the one exception being in Mtwara Region adjacent to Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado.

In the period between 2012 and 2017, Tanga saw the greatest concentration of incidents, though there have only been two sustained encounters between security forces and armed groups in the region (in 2015 and 2016, respectively). In May 2015, seven soldiers of the TPDF were killed over several days in a sustained engagement with an armed group in the Amboni Caves complex near Tanga town.24 The following year, a three-day firefight occurred between an armed group and police in plains inland from the caves.25 Publicly, authorities described the caves complex as a hub for illegal migrants from the Horn of Africa making their way south.26 Later, and less publicly, authorities connected the base to gangs of “religious radicals” in other parts of Tanga Region.27 Beyond the Amboni Caves there is evidence of a number of smaller armed groups operating in Tanga Region in the years up to 2017,28 but none of these groups were involved in sustained actions against state targets. These groups do appear, however, to have been well embedded in the region, with established supply chains extending into Tanga town.29 These cells may have had deep roots in Tanga. In November 2013, a mosque in Tanga’s Kilindi District was raided by police, who uncovered a significant cache of arms and an alleged children’s training camp. According to authorities, the mosque was connected to two settlements of “extremist Muslims” who had sought to live reclusively while rejecting state authority.30

Events in Tanga have been inextricably linked to the conflict in Somalia and neighboring Kenya. Tanga has primarily served as a site of recruitment into al-Shabaab or its Kenyan affiliates such as al-Hijra and Jaysh al-Ayman, which drew on a network of supporters of the Kenyan cleric Sheikh Aboud Rogo (who was assassinated in 2012, many suspect by Kenyan police).31 In 2012, the United Nations Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group alleged that al-Shabaab collaborated with the Ansaar Muslim Youth Centre (AMYC) in Tanga and a Zanzibar based criminal gang.32 Tanzania remains a significant source of recruits for al-Shabaab to this day, with some reports suggesting that they constitute the second largest cohort of foreign fighters after Kenya.33

In Mwanza in northwest Tanzania, a group of attackers that included at least one child killed three worshippers at a mosque in May 2016. The attackers came from a neighbouring mosque—perceived in the community as Salafist—that had been established after its founder failed to take control of another mosque in the area. The founder claimed to have received his religious education overseas but had no clear institutional affiliation or network. As recalled by areas residents, his teachings were divisive at an intimate household level. For example, he urged denial of rent to Muslim landlords and said that a Christian’s property can be taken freely.34

Another distinct phase of violent activity, centred in Pwani Region along Tanzania’s coast, exhibited a different set of connections. Unlike Tanga’s connections to Kenya and Somalia, the cells in Pwani were clearly networked most strongly into Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique and to DR Congo and Burundi via the Tanzanian border city of Kigoma. Between 2015 and 2017, over forty police officers, local officials, and local leaders of CCM were assassinated in Pwani, particularly in the districts of Kibiti, Mkuranga, and Rufiji. This took the form of intimate assassinations of individuals, often at their homes, and the killing of police on duty. Only once was a statement of purpose issued in the form of a leaflet left after an attack on a security checkpoint monitoring movement of forest produce in Kibiti District. The note stated that the imposition of levies on locally produced charcoal constitutes an oppression of local people.35 The group responsible never identified itself, but it was clearly associated with “unorthodox Islamic theological doctrines” also seen in Tanga and Mwanza.36

These dynamics in Pwani manifested in ways familiar to people in Mwanza and Cabo Delgado. Young clerics attempted to take over a mosque and were defeated as early as 2012. New mosques and religious schools were established, encouraging the rejection of secular education and of basic inter-generational social norms. These attitudes and practices were reflective of elements of Salafist political theology in Tanzania.37 The “flurry of crimes”38 that these elements committed was suppressed by a sustained security operation in 2017 in which hundreds were allegedly disappeared.39 Fugitive fighters made their way south to Mozambique to join the emerging insurgency in Cabo Delgado and northwest to join the Allied Democratic Forces or ADF (which later pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, joining the Cabo Delgado insurgents in forming the “Central Africa Province”) in eastern DR Congo.40 By October 2017, the insurgency in Mozambique had begun with an attack on Mocímboa da Praia town. The insurgency has been a persistent threat to Tanzania ever since given the involvement of Tanzanians and multiple armed incidents along the border. These incidents have mostly been low-level attacks with the exception of the October 14, 2021 attack on the small border town of Kitaya, which saw the town and a nearby detachment of the TPDF overwhelmed by a force of hundreds of fighters for one night.41

In From the Cold: Examining the AMYC

Ansaar Muslim Youth Center (AMYC), identified by UN investigators in 2012 as supporting al-Shabaab and originally known as Tanzanian Muslim Youth Union (known by its Kiswahili acronym UKIVITA), was established in the 1970s and has since been led by Sheikh Salim Barahiyan. At first glance, the Sheikh’s biography fits the template of the young Muslim benefiting from scholarships overseas and returning with a reformist religious agenda and rejection of state authority. There was some truth in this. In 2000 in Mwanza, Sheikh Barahiyan was reported to have called on Muslims to boycott presidential elections, claiming that elections would just underwrite a godless administration. He marginalised himself from many of his fellow Muslim activists pursuing more domestic agendas by accusing some of them of using the issue of the authorities’ storming of Dar es Salaam’s Mwembechai Mosque to get elected.42 Given Sheikh Barahiyan’s background, and given the support that AMYC received from charities based in Saudi Arabia, the U.K., and Kuwait, AMYC fit the template of foreign-funded fronts that provide an environment for Islamist extremism to grow. This perception of AMYC has informed much mainstream analysis of extremism in East Africa.43 Yet the trajectory of two of the organisation’s key figures, Sheikh Barahiyan himself and Sheikh Kassim Mafuta, indicate that the political positions of these key figures have changed considerably over the years. In these two individuals’ trajectories we can see three interlinked processes. First, there was a reorientation of domestic and international civil society associated with Salafism from confrontation with the state towards settlement. Second, domestic Salafist groups focused more on social service provision, particularly education, than politics per se. AMYC now has over 20 schools offering the state curriculum. Finally, the state’s response to AMYC involved questionable security and judicial measures against Salafist clerics perceived as having an agenda sympathetic to Islamist NSAGs.

In July 2017, Sheikh Barahiyan spoke at a public rally organised by the Tanzania Islamic Foundation (TIF). Founded in the late 1990s, it is now one of the country’s most prominent independent Salafist organisations. TIF’s media outlets had been critical in popularizing the mfumo kristo narrative some years earlier. Sheikh Barahiyan’s speech was given in Muleba District, Kagera Region, in the north west of the country, close to routes that connect Cabo Delgado, Tanzania, and Eastern DR Congo. The public meeting drew Muslim leaders from Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and Kenya.44

The theme of Sheikh Barahiyan’s talk was Ni Upi Usalafi wa Ukweli? (What is Real Salafism?). His hour-long address was given as a controversial, heavy-handed security operation was being undertaken to flush out the killers in Pwani Region and their supporters.45

But Sheikh Barahiyan did not condemn the actions of the state. Rather, he addressed the issue with reference to religious texts. His concern was the presence of Muslim groups that declared takfir against fellow believers and challenge the state violently—and illegitimately:

We have been infiltrated by a group that identifies itself as Salafi, and declares that only its interpretation is valid… They go by different names [such as] Jamaat takfiir, Jamaatul Jihaad, Salafiyya Jihadiya. … these groups have entered our country, and are dividing it. The country has lost its peace because of this group, fighting with the administration illegitimately.46

Research conducted by the author in Tanga Region in 2017 revealed a litany of splinter groups from AMYC. Respondents noted more extreme offshoots emerging, often with strong cross-border links to Kenya. Such groups and individuals were effectively identified as “extremist.”47

Also mentioned by the UN’s Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group in 2012 was Sheikh Kassim Mafuta, then of AMYC but who has since established his own institution, Markaz Pongwe, also based in Tanga. Sheikh Mafuta has a low public profile but remains influential along the coast, including in Cabo Delgado.48 If true that he was a recruiter for al-Shabaab in Tanga as alleged by the Monitoring Group, he has hidden it well. In a document dated 2006, he condemned a statement “put out by some of the khawariji49 youth led by an ignorant youth called Aboud Rogo” that accused Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, a noted quietist, of not being a genuine Salafi.50 Sheikh Mafuta is now a regular target of propaganda from violent jihadist groups online. In an undated video from Ashabul Kahfi Media, associated with the Islamic State’s “Central Africa Province” in DR Congo, Sheikh Mafuta is threatened with death along with the head of Bakwata. Markaz Pongwe maintains an active online presence, with channels on all major social media platforms. A series of recorded lectures distributed on Telegram in late 2020 saw him return to the “khawariji,” again refuting the teachings of Aboud Rogo (the late Kenyan cleric linked to al-Shabaab) regarding takfir and the killing of Muslims.51

More mainstream conservative Muslim activists also mellowed after spending the years prior to 2012 focusing on mass organization against the state. Central to their analysis of Mfumo Kristo was that education systems, employment, and influence systematically disadvantaged Muslims and were rooted in Tanzania’s colonial past and sustained by post-colonial administrations.52 This narrative persists widely today. As one AMYC leader noted in 2017, “Muslims are behind in education, particularly in secular education. This stretches back to the time of the British. They only educated Christians….so Muslims are in difficulty.”53

From the 1990s to the 2010s, these grievances consistently put such organisations in conflict with the state. Sometimes this led to violence, most notably the rioting in Dar es Salaam at the Mwembechai mosque in 1998. Street violence also flared in 2012 and 2013 in the capital in the context of a well-organized national campaign against the Mfumo Kristo. Central to this was a nationwide speaking tour by Sheikh Hassan Ilunga Kapungu and others, covered by media outlets such as the Tanzania Islamic Foundation’s Imaan FM and weekly newspaper, An Nuur. In 2011, his tour stopped at Ikwiriri in what is now Kibiti District, which was later to become infamous as the epicentre of the 2016-17 violence. He spoke of how Mfumo Kristo affected every office in the land from the State House to village offices. “The smell of Christianity” is in every government office, he told his primarily Muslim audience.54 He was aware of the prospect of violence and declared that progress towards a later mass rally in Dar es Salaam could only be stopped if lives were taken. The rally went ahead in October 2011 in Dar es Salaam’s Diamond Jubilee Hall, attracting thousands of attendees. This was followed the subsequent year with a campaign to have religious affiliation included in that year’s census (and a boycott of the census when that was rejected). Imaan FM was suspended for six months for encouraging such a boycott.55 While these rallies did not themselves devolve into violence, the tense atmosphere they created likely contributed to the street clashes Dar es Salaam experienced in 2011 and 2012.

Yet in subsequent years, the mainstream and public challenge to Mfumo Kristo faded away. The rally in Dar es Salaam in October 2011 was the last of its kind. Just six years later, many of the same leaders who had challenged the state then were back in the same hall in a commercially sponsored event regarding spiritual values in Islam. Running every year since, the conference, called Misk ya Roho (“fragrance of the soul”), is a professionally run event promoted by the Tanzania Islamic Foundation and sponsored by one of the ruling party’s most important funders. Politics are carefully avoided at these events. The Tanzania Islamic Foundation, meanwhile, has moved from diligently reporting on the arrests of Muslim leaders and broken government promises in 2015 to sinking wells in the president’s home district in 2019.56 Such a shift allows Muslim institutions to maintain access to overseas and domestic funding while compelling them to assert greater control over the local mosques and madrasas under their control. There has also been a return to the broader reformist agenda with a focus on education. AMYC now operates approximately 20 schools, while the Tanzania Islamic Foundation has a similarly ambitious education programme.

The State Response

In June 2017, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa spoke at length about the killings in Pwani and ongoing security operations at the annual Baraza la Idd-el Fitr, a gathering of Muslim leaders held annually to mark the Idd al-Fitr holiday. In speaking about the killings, Majaliwa referred to the armed group as “criminals,” denying them any political orientation or framework. But his remarks on a connection to religious education also demonstrated awareness of radicalization processes. In his remarks, he called on his hosts, Bakwata, to identify who is teaching in religious schools and questioned how they are selected and if they have the right qualifications. He went on to ask if Bakwata was aware of the ideological position of the colleges training these teachers.57 By speaking at the Baraza la Idd, he recognized Bakwata’s critical role as Tanzania’s “official” Muslim representative body in addressing a key dynamic in the development of violent extremism in Tanzania and, by extension, the role of Muslim institutions more generally.

This statement, along with that of Sheikh Barahiyan the following month that challenged jihadist notions of takfir, and the parallel security operations taking place at the time give some clue as to how such a notable shift occurred vis-à-vis state-civil society relations and how prominent religious leaders with sulphurous pasts could be brought into the country’s political settlement. The first, and obvious, strategy that the government employed was security-based. Security operations in Kibiti represented the most concerted effort, though not the first such operations. The incidents in Amboni Caves elicited similarly tough measures across Tanga Region between 2015 and 2017.58 Security forces have also been central to the Tanzanian response to the insurgency in Cabo Delgado. The heavy security presence on the border with Mozambique, described as a joint operation between the Tanzania Police Force and TPDF, is to be expected. This has been matched with clear public messaging from the police to local communities that are believed to be collaborating with the insurgency, messaging that has hardened as the conflict has developed. In 2018, police messaging was soft, with the offer of an amnesty if arms were handed in to the authorities and a call for those in Mtwara Region involved in “extremism” in Mozambique to turn themselves in.59 Two years later, in April 2020, the police were taking a tougher line. Inspector General of Police Simon Sirro is seen speaking on the street to gathered youths in a clip distributed that month that is reminiscent of the propaganda videos of the Cabo Delgado insurgents. Sirro says:

So, this news you hear from Mozambique, there are some going around misleading people saying ‘do you want and go and fight for..’, ah, I don’t want to mention it. Us Tanzanians we are accustomed to unity, so being misled into thinking you want some sort of state, states are chosen by voting, not waging war.60

There was no offer of an amnesty this time. “Did you see what happened in Kibiti?” Sirro asks rhetorically in the video, referring to the security operations.61

Of greater resonance in the Muslim community has been the continuing arrests of Muslim activists and clerics since at least 2012 and their being charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2002. The most high-profile of these arrests were those of the leaders of Zanzibar’s Jumuiya ya Uamsho na Mihadhara ya Kiislam (popularly known as Uamsho), who were initially detained in 2012. This cleric-led organization helped catalyze a movement seeking greater autonomy for Zanzibar. The leaders were arrested in 2012 and detained until charges were dropped in 2021. The state implicated Uamsho in certain acts of political violence in Zanzibar and beyond. A leaked document from 2014 from the Director of Public Prosecutions linked Uamsho with the upsurge in terrorism across Tanzania in 2013 and 2014. Hundreds of others have been arrested since then and most of them are still awaiting trial, according to Uamsho officials. 62 Uamsho leaders have agreed to not engage in public activism, which, along with the lobbying of Muslim activists, likely contributed to the release of over 100 prisoners in February and March 2021 mainland Tanzania.63

That the Tanzanian authorities ratcheted up security operations in response to increasing disturbances is easily understood. Less so is the shift of the country’s Muslim institutions and leaders towards a modus vivendi with the state. The process of coming in from the cold has taken place in a context of political outreach by Bakwata under the current Mufti; mixed political, administrative, and judicial measures undertaken by the state; and a recognition by religious leaders that Islamic sites were being used to radicalize youth and support terrorist networks.

Sheikh Abubakar Zubeir bin Ally Mbwana became the third leader of Bakwata in 2015, assuming the position of Mufti. One of his first priorities was improving relations between the country’s Muslim institutions through activating Article 103 of Bakwata’s constitution which allows for the establishment of a Majlis Tansiq, known as the Baraza la Mahusiano in Kiswahili or Coordination Council in English. The body’s exact membership and purpose is not made public, but members include the chairman of the Tanzania Islamic Foundation, Aref Nahdi, and Sheikh Mussa Kundecha, Amir of Baraza Kuu la Taasisi na Jumuiya za Kiislamu.64 (Tanzania Islamic Foundation provided an important media outlet for the 2011 and 2012 campaigns against Mfumo Kristo, 65 while the Baraza Kuu was established in 1992 in opposition to Bakwata.) 66

Against a background of increased jihadist violence, these institutions explicitly sought to marginalize violent jihadists while at the same time responding to the impact of security operations on their members. The former was seen clearly in Sheikh Barahiyan’s speech of 2017 noted above, but it was also explicitly stated back in 2015 in an An Nuur editorial which called for effective regulation of mosques and madrasas and their relevant curriculums. The editorial spoke of the growth of extremist groups in Mwanza, Lindi, and Songea regions, drawing comparison with Nigeria’s Mohammed Mar’wa’s Yan Tatsine movement of the 1970s. It stated that “with strong authentically Muslim leadership, even if the likes of Abu Mar’wa emerge, they will be identified early, and steps taken.”67 Yet the same newspaper hasn’t shied away from addressing the issue of religious leaders detained on terrorism charges, and indeed it is the only media outlet to consistently cover the issue.68/sup> That these institutions speak out against the state’s heavy-handedness against Muslims likely contributes to their legitimacy in the eyes of Muslim communities and, by extension, their ability to effectively discourage radical thinking.

The hard security approach has, for its part, likely contributed to more radical religious figures and institutions keeping extremist elements at arm’s length. This political positioning figuratively shrinks the space available for extremists. More tangibly, it restricts access to funds from religious charities and incentivizes Muslim institutions to control mosques and madrasas where radicalization, recruitment, and training can take place. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this could be seen in Ikwiriri town in Kibiti District prior to the surge in jihadist violence there in 2015-17. Early attempts by extremists to take over existing mosques were successfully resisted, denying the extremists physical space. The name of the mosque that the young radicals eventually established, Masjid Mabanzi, reflected their limited access to funds as Mabanzi refers to residual, cast off timber.69

Administrative measures have also played a role in restricting the spaces where armed groups have been known to organize. These measures, in place for at least five years, include mandatory registration of visiting clerics and those engaged in tabligh (a form of missionary activity wherein Muslim men strengthen other Muslims in their faith) with local Bakwata officials. In border regions such as Tanga, as well as in Zanzibar, tabligh had been identified as a significant vector of extremism, facilitating radicalization and recruitment. Practitioners of tabligh in Tanzania come from across the country and East Africa region, as well as from Asia, particularly Pakistan. These measures to regulate tabligh are generally perceived as successful.70

A Way Forward

If the domestic terror threat has been contained over the years, it has also changed considerably. The strength of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado has prompted intervention by regional powers, including Tanzania. This has necessitated considerably greater international engagement by Tanzania. Meanwhile, the increase in online pro-Islamic State propaganda materials aimed at East African audiences has heightened the risk of individuals becoming radicalized and active with minimal need for supportive networks.

Prior to the conflict in Cabo Delgado, Tanzania had limited its counter-terrorism engagement to working through regional structures while limiting engagement with bilateral donors.71 This is in contrast to neighbours such as Kenya and Uganda which have received significant Western assistance and taken on roles in the “war on terror” enthusiastically. Tanzania has been confident in its ability to deal with domestic threats through a combination of coercion and its broad-church politics while reluctant to open its security sector to significant levels of cooperation. This was most acute under President John Pombe Magufuli (2015-2021). The multilateral response to the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province that has taken shape over the past year reflects a change in that position under Magufuli’s successor, Samia Suluhu Hassan.

Tanzania has deployed troops both along its border as well as in Cabo Delgado as part of SAMIM. At the start of the mission in August 2021, Tanzania had contributed the largest deployment of forces (277 out of 738 personnel) to SAMIM. It also has the second largest representation within SAMIM’s coordination mechanism with three of 19 places—one more than all countries except Mozambique itself.72 SAMIM operates parallel to the military intervention of Rwanda in Cabo Delgado. In this respect, Tanzania has had to engage proactively with Rwanda on counterterror efforts across the region, while acting on intelligence provided by SAMIM and Rwandan units in Cabo Delgado.73

An emergent threat that the region will have to deal with is the impact of the apparent increase in online propaganda targeting East Africa, particularly since 2019. Tanzania may already be feeling this impact. On August 25, 2021, Hamza Mohammed killed four people, three of them police, in Dar es Salaam in a shootout that ended with police killing him outside the French embassy (just a few metres from the site of the U.S. embassy that had been bombed in 1998). He seemed to be acting alone, armed with just his own pistol. Police later announced that while he was in touch with people overseas, he had radicalized alone, and online, by viewing materials associated with both the Islamic State and al-Shabaab.74 Reports that Hamza, whose family had roots in Somalia, had travelled to Somalia and had al-Shabaab connections were never confirmed.75

Jihadist propaganda in Kiswahili is disseminated openly on social media platforms, particularly Facebook. Much of it is produced by Islamic State sympathizers and builds on mainstream and Islamic media reports of incidents. Of greater concern are steps by the Islamic State itself to target East Africa with versions of radio shows from al-Bayan, the Islamic State’s audio channel, which are currently disseminated across closed and open platforms.

Hamza’s funeral four days after the August 2021 shooting was attended by one of Bakwata’s most senior officials. The chairperson of the body’s executive committee spoke to mourners of how death is God’s will. A representative from Baraza Kuu la Taasisi na Jumuiya za Kiislamu (originally set up in opposition to Bakwata in 1992) also spoke. He questioned why Hamza needed to be killed and suggested that we will now never know what drove him.76 The first act of violent extremism in Tanzania’s capital since August 2017 being undertaken by a lone individual illustrates how freedom to operate has been denied to armed groups. The two aforementioned figures speaking together at his funeral embodies the political progress that has been made in marginalizing extremism in Tanzania. Whether such progress can be sustained with Tanzanian troops involved in a potentially protracted conflict in Mozambique, alongside the active targeting of East Africa by the Islamic State, remains to be seen.