Islamic State Jihadists in Mozambique Attack Tanzanian Troops
On November 19, Islamic State in Mozambique Province (ISMP), which split from its Congo-based allies in what was formerly Islamic State in Central Africa Province (ISCAP), claimed an attack on a joint patrol of Tanzanian and Mozambican troops (Twitter/@ibnsiqili, November 19). According to the claim, the ISMP fighters burned three vehicles belonging to the Mozambican and Tanzanian troops and seized some of their weapons and forced them to flee. This is not an isolated event, however, as ISMP rhetoric indicates increasing attention will be directed toward targeting Tanzanian troops.
For example, on November 18, in Islamic State (IS)’s flagship newsletter al-Naba, IS discussed engaging in “maritime jihad” in which the coastal areas of Tanzania and Mozambique could be struck (Twitter/@paulybrown, November 18). While that discussion may seem aspirational, it would not be completely unprecedented for IS. The Mozambican jihadists demonstrated the intent and capability to attack liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants when it ransacked them in Afungi, Cabo Delgado in April 2021. This caused the plants to shut down, leading the oil giant Total to withdraw its personnel from the site and declare force majeure on the project (totalenergies.com, April 26, 2021). “Maritime jihad” would have similar objectives. In essence, its goal would be to disrupt offshore energy sites, if not also the shipping industry, through piracy.
IS also has the numbers and new recruits to expand the jihad from Mozambique into Tanzania and elsewhere on the Swahili coast. Not only is one of the group’s leaders from the Swahili Coast of Tanzania, but that coast, including Tanzania as well as Comoros and Mauritius, has proven to be an increasingly fertile terrain for jihadist recruitment, including to IS during the organization’s heyday in 2015 (clubofmozambique.com, March 14, 2021; Terrorism Monitor, December 17, 2020). Thus, IS has the potential to live up to its promises to engage in “maritime jihad” and to continue to target Tanzanian troops.
Tanzanian territory has also been struck by the IS-loyal jihadists in cross-border attacks from Mozambique as well (Terrorism Monitor, December 3, 2020). However, since 2021, the Rwandan military’s 1,000-soldier intervention in Mozambique has placed the jihadists on the back foot and threats to Tanzanian territory have subsided (mod.gov.rw, July 10, 2021). Thus, the latest attack on Tanzanian troops in their joint patrol with Mozambican troops on top of the resurgence in jihadist attacks in Mozambique could suggest that ISMP’s regional threat is increasing once more.
Tanzania itself had initially pledged to support Mozambique’s fight against the jihadists even earlier than Rwanda, with a deal signed in coordination with the Mozambican counterparts as early as November 2020 (aljazeera.com, November 23, 2020). This pledge was reaffirmed again one year later in November 2021 (allafrica.com, November 16, 2021). Shortly afterwards, in January, the Tanzanians and Mozambicans acknowledged the security concerns along their mutual border and the potential for cross-border attacks in their discussions on how their counter-terrorism partnership could continue to “evolve” (channelstv.com, January 28). Finally, just before this latest attack targeting Tanzanian troops, Tanzania signed defense and security agreements with Mozambique in September (africanews.com, September 22). As a result, there is no doubt that ISMP has every incentive to strike Tanzanian troops both in Mozambique and in Tanzanian territory, as the latest attack and the al-Naba newsletter have indicated.
Western Countries Reconsider Repatriation of Islamic State Families in Syria Amid Changing Conflict Dynamics
The conflict dynamics in Syria continue evolving, with the latest development being Turkey’s airstrikes against Kurdish allies of the U.S in Syria in what might become a precursor to broader Turkish military action in northern Syria (alarabiya.net, November 26). These Turkish airstrikes occurred in response to a bombing in Istanbul that killed six people which Turkey attributed to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliates (dailysabah.com, November 17). At the same time, however, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has opened the prospect of diplomacy by expressing a willingness to negotiate with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad ahead of Turkish elections in 2023 because both leaders have a mutual interest in weakening the Kurdish forces (Hurriyetdailynews.com, November 23).
Beyond the Turkish and Syrian leaders, Iran also seems to be taking advantage of the opportunity to weaken the Kurdish forces as well. On November 25, U.S Central Command (CENTCOM) claimed the U.S patrol base in al-Shaddadi was attacked with rocket fire and that the Kurdish forces inspected the site, albeit without the base suffering any significant damage (centcom.mil, November 25). CENTCOM did not name Iran, but Syrian sources suggest the attacks came from “pro-Iranian militias” in Syria (arabnews.com, November 26). Iran, Syria, and Syria’s main foreign backer and increasingly close ally to Iran, Russia, all seek to eliminate the U.S presence in Syria, while Turkey aligns with those three countries on diminishing the influence of the Kurdish forces there.
While Islamic State (IS) remains a factor in the security equation in Syria and the Kurdish forces claim they will halt anti-IS operations in light of the impending Turkish operation, the group is a fragment of its former self (thearabweekly.com, November 27). It conducts ambushes, but no longer controls territory and still has not named a caliph to replace the successor of Abubakar al-Baghdadi (alarabiya.net, June 23). One of lingering humanitarian effects of IS, however, is that its captured fighters remain in Kurdish-run prisons and their families languish in Kurdish-run camps. Ahead of a potential Turkish offensive and Kurdish retreat, although not necessarily because of these dynamics, various Western governments that were previously reluctant to repatriate IS fighters or their family members are now making an about-face.
Kazakhstan was the first country to fully repatriate all of its citizens, including fighters and their families, who were subsequently admitted into rehabilitation programs (astanatimes.com, May 28, 2021). Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries likewise followed suit (ohchr.org, December 7, 2021). Nevertheless, most other countries rejected the opportunity to repatriate their citizens, including Indonesia, which debated the issue but ultimately decided against repatriation (scmp.com, February 11, 2020).
Whether because of the impending Turkish operation in northern Syria, which could lead to IS fighters and IS-sympathetic family members escaping from prison, or because of genuine humanitarian concerns, Western countries are now increasingly repatriating their citizens from Syria. For example:
- On November 22, Spain released plans to repatriate three women and 13 children before the end of 2022, including one wife and two widows of IS fighters who claimed they were “tricked” into traveling to Syria, but they still may face terrorism charges upon their return (es, November 22).
- On November 1, the Netherlands announced that more than ten women and roughly 30 of their children would be repatriated from a Kurdish-run camp after a Dutch court ruled that they must be brought home (com, November 1).
- On October 29, the Australian government repatriated four Australian women and their 13 children from Syria, saying that they would be the first of dozens of others who would be repatriated from Kurdish-controlled camps in northeastern Syria (com, October 29).
In addition, despite the Canadian government claiming it would be “unprecedented and unprincipled” to bring IS fighters or their families back into the country, lawsuits from the families and public pressure could lead Canada to reverse course (globalnews.ca, November 15). Given that these IS fighters and their families have been detained for nearly five years and there is no end in sight to the fragmentation and geopolitical tensions in Syria, other Western countries may assess their national security is better protected by engaging in repatriation. This may prove more effective than risking those IS fighters or their families escaping or even being freed in IS operations. Early indications from Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia, if not also from the “success stories” from Central Asian cases, suggest repatriation may gain momentum in the near future.