Tanzania: Al Qaeda’s East African Beachhead?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 5


Western security interests in East Africa have been cast in a new light during the past two years, with policy makers in both Britain and the United States expressing increased concern over the region’s potential to emerge as a new front for jihadist extremism in the post-9/11 era. Sizable Islamic communities transfuse the hinterlands and coasts of a broad band of states extending from Sudan to Tanzania, which in certain cases appear to exhibit greater loyalty to the concept of a global Muslim umma than to the relatively young nation states of which they are citizens. While part of this transnational identity undoubtedly stems from long-established historical, cultural, linguistic and trade ties to the Arab world, intelligence sources believe they also reflect the fundamentalist proselytizing of outside theocratic demagogues who have actively sought to exploit popular dissatisfaction brought about by autocratic governance and rampant corruption, poverty and a general lack of economic development.

Further accentuating Western misgivings are several environmental facets that are generally regarded as ideally suited to the tactical designs of groups such as al Qaeda. Not only is the region characterized by highly porous land and sea borders, it is also beset by largely dysfunctional structures of law and enforcement, endemic organized criminality (involving everything from drugs and people smuggling to weapons trafficking) and relative proximity to known Islamist logistical hubs such as Yemen and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Republic of Tanzania is one state that is beginning to elicit growing attention for many of these concerns. In May 2003, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) specifically warned that an “international terrorist group could be planning an attack on the island of Zanzibar,” while the United States has repeatedly advised its nationals to avoid all non-essential travel to the state as long as the current security situation prevails. Both London and Washington appear to be particularly worried that an imported radical Wahabist undertone has taken hold across the Republic and that this is now acting as a major lightning rod for al Qaeda indoctrination, recruitment and training.

Certainly one cannot dismiss the possibility of Tanzania being brought into the frontline of anti-western terrorism, something that was graphically underscored by the August 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam. However, the notion that the country has begun to degenerate into a new territorial beachhead for transnational Islamic extremism is misplaced, reflecting a poor understanding of the specific sociopolitical and religious makeup that is characteristic of this part of East Africa.

Islam in Tanzania: The general context

Tanzania has a population of 35 million, with a Christian-Islamic divide that is roughly proportionate at 45 percent each(although an official census to determine an accurate breakdown has never been carried out). This means that there are approximately fifteen million Muslims in the country, of whom the vast bulk are spread uniformly across both coastal and hinterland regions. The one exception is Zanzibar, where over 95 percent of the population is Islamic and mostly of Yemeni extraction.

In general, relations between Christians and Muslims are good. The two communities work and live in close proximity to one another and rarely clash. Moreover, both frequently speak with one voice on prominent social issues and often attend mutual religious ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.

These facets reflect a tradition of communal tolerance that has become a marked feature of the Tanzanian political landscape since independence. Equally, they are indicative of a highly moderate interpretation of the Islamic faith that is largely apolitical in its manifestation (sermons at mosques seldom, if ever, address current global events), economically liberal in its orientation and singularly un-revolutionary in terms of upsetting the prevailing religious status quo. Indeed, even in the staunchest Muslim areas of Dar es Salaam and Stone Town (the capital of Zanzibar), few women wear traditional black robes and full face veils, with most preferring colorful African dress and make-up.

Economically, Tanzania is also a western aid donor showcase that has made strenuous efforts to promote long term, sustainable fiscal growth. In the general East African context, the Republic stands as a notable exception to the poverty, macro mismanagement and infrastructural decline that has been so marked in countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Sudan. The Muslim (and Christian) citizenry, on average, while certainly not content across the board, readily endorses the achievements that have been made in the economic realm. This has helped to offset underlying sentiments of dissatisfaction that periodically surface with regard to government nepotism, police corruption and electoral machinations designed to undermine the official opposition (and predominantly Islamic) Civic United Front (CUF).

Fear of growing radicalism

In spite of this seemingly positive religious context, western governments have begun to express fears that a fundamentalist Wahabist interpretation is spreading across Tanzania and that this is being used by al Qaeda to establish a firm territorial foothold in the Horn of Africa. In particular there seems to be a growing concern that extremist outside influences from Sudan and Saudi Arabia have been imported into the country and that these are serving to dangerously radicalize indigenous religious beliefs and moderation.

Most attention has focused on Zanzibar, both on account of its overwhelmingly Islamic population and the fact that the semi-autonomous province has not (relatively speaking) enjoyed the same rate of economic growth and social development as has been evident on the mainland (see Table One). In addition, at least two al Qaeda operatives have been identified as originating from the island: Khalfan Khamis Muhammad, one of those convicted in connection with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam; and Qaed Sanyan al-Harithi, a suspected East African point man for bin Laden who was killed in Yemen last year by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drone.

Table One: Zanzibar Social and Economic Profile

Key Indicators Value

Population: 35 million

Population growth, 3 percent

Life expectancy, 48 years

Poverty Head Count, 51 percent

Maternal mortality, 377/100,000 live births

Infant mortality, 83/1000

Illiteracy, 40 percent

Access to safe water (rural), 46 percent

Houses with no toilets (rural), 51 percent*

Malnutrition among children, 48 percent

* Only about one-fifth of people in urban areas are connected to the sewerage system; the remainder either use pit latrines or have no toilets.

[Source: International Millennium Declaration Development Goals. Zanzibar Report, 18 March, 2002].

The preaching of Sheik Ponda Isi Ponda has evoked particular interest. An outspoken cleric who has been linked to the storming of the Mwembechai Mosque in 1999 (during the liberation of which four Muslims were killed), Ponda is, in the words of one Western diplomat, “the public face of radicalism in Zanzibar,” representing one of the main theological instigators for contemporary militant activism in East Africa (see below). The Sheik has frequently been detained as a threat to Tanzanian national security and is currently on bail pending charges that he has sought to forge pan-regional fundamentalist ties with extremists in Kenya and Burundi.

Feeding Western threat calculations are several geo-strategic, cultural, political and commercial factors that have specific relevance to Tanzania. The Republic’s coastline is extremely porous–something that is particularly evident for the stretch of water between Zanzibar and the mainland–and land-based immigration procedures are antiquated, relying primarily on old style entry/exit cards that have yet to be linked to any electronic system of data storage and cross-reference.

Arabs and Muslims also enjoy largely unrestricted passage throughout the country and are rarely, if ever, subjected to passport checks when entering or leaving Zanzibar (unlike other foreign nonresidents). In addition, widespread corruption besets the governing and police bureaucracy, providing multiple opportunities for illicit activities that are known to form an integral component of al Qaeda’s modus operandi such as weapons trafficking, drug smuggling and money laundering.

Officials in London and Washington further stress the numerous Saudi, Sudanese and Gulf charities and businesses that are active in Tanzania, pointing out that these organizations often play an important role in covertly channeling finances for explicit terrorist purposes. While intelligence sources have yet to definitively establish that this is taking place in the country, “red flags” have been raised against several questionable entities, including:

– Oilcom (a Saudi-based petroleum company)

– The African Muslim Agency (a Kuwaiti organization engaged in the construction of mosques, schools and hospitals)

– The CIFA Development Group (a joint Tanzanian-Saudi investment venture established in 1995).

The activities of Oilcom are attracting especially close scrutiny. One regional commentator claims the Saudi company moves at least US$1 million each year into the country, none of which is taxed. It is suspected that at least some of this money is going towards arms purchases as well as being used to bribe corrupt members of the ruling Chama Cha Mapundzi (CCM) party to turn a blind eye to imported Wahabist proselytizing.

Exacerbating British and Americans concerns has been a spate of violent incidents over the last few years; the incidents include armed takeovers of moderate mosques in Dar es Salaam as well as a 2002 firebombing of a tourist bar in Stone Town that left several people injured. One movement that has been specifically singled out for fomenting much of this unrest is Simba wa Mungu (God’s Lion), an alleged covert organization that supposedly takes its lead from Sheik Ponda and that is accused of actively inciting attacks against foreigners and “morally corrupt” Muslims failing to adhere to a purist Islamic line.

The author is a private sector expert on militant Islam who recently returned from an investigative trip to Tanzania.