Tanzania Faces Looming Threats from East African Jihadist Turmoil

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 15

IS in Mozambique fighers via Homeland Security Today

On January 25, the US Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania issued a public warning regarding the possibility of a local terrorist attack. It mentioned in particular “large gatherings” as possible targets (tz.usembassy.gov, January 25). The Tanzanian authorities nevertheless reacted with reassurances and denials, with the police spokesperson stating that Tanzania was free from “any kind of terrorism acts,” assuring the public that the country’s security and safety was not in question and any major threats that could be cause for concern were already under control (The Citizen, January 27). Foreign Minister Stergomena Tax in turn asked foreign diplomats to “observe diplomatic communication channels as stipulated by the Vienna Convention … to avoid creating unnecessary tension within and without the country.” She insisted that there was no cause for alarm (AllAfrica.com, January 31).

Nearly half a year later, it remains unclear what specifically motivated the US authorities to issue the public terrorism warning. However, a similar warning was issued for Nigeria and South Africa in October 2022 and for Kenya in February 2023. One possibility relates to Tanzania being surrounded by several East African epicenters of jihadist terrorism, ranging from the eastern Congo in the west to Cabo Delgado, Mozambique in the south. Through Kenya, Tanzania is also connected to jihadist networks in Somalia.

In addition, it seems that Tanzania faces a domestic radicalization problem, especially virtually. In August 2021, a Tanzanian gunman, 33-year-old Hamza Mohammed, killed three police officers and a security guard, wounding six other people during a shootout in Dar-es-Salaam before he was killed. Tanzanian authorities categorized this as a terrorist attack (Club of Mozambique, September 3, 2021). Although he operated alone, Mohammed had been inspired by online material from both Somalia-based al-Shabaab and Islamic State (IS) more broadly (Cabo Ligado Monthly, December 2021). It is likely that all these factors contributed to the US’s decision to release the terrorism warning.

Tanzanian Recruitment Networks

Zanzibar, which is located on the Tanzanian coast, made headlines in September 2022 when an investigative news site reported on the disappearance of several men on the island. They were believed to have been radicalized and recruited to join jihadist groups in the Congo, Mozambique, and Somalia (The Chanzo Initiative, September 2). According to another source, the number of men who had gone missing from the island between August and December 2022 alone was at least 20. (The Guardian, December 15, 2022).

Tanzanian authorities have taken a tough line on suspected terrorist recruiters. On December 16, 2022, the country’s highest court sentenced six men, including three from the same family, to a total of 50 years each for terrorism offences. The prosecution claimed the six men were members of a larger group that had met in the Tunduru district as part of a conspiracy to conduct jihad linked to “al-Shabaab.” The name “al-Shabaab” is used both for the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia and the IS-affiliated insurgents in Cabo Delgado; although it was unstated which of the two groups was meant by the prosecution, it was certainly the group in Mozambique (High Court of Tanzania, December 16, 2022).

According to the prosecution, the accused men had “motivated others to participate in terrorist acts” in their local mosque in Lukumbule village, which is situated not far from the Mozambican border. In addition, they sought to overthrow the Tanzanian government and establish an Islamic state in the country. The court heard from a police officer about some leaders of the movement being arrested in Tanzania and others “opting to go to Mozambique,” where they were to join with the local al-Shabaab fighters there (High Court of Tanzania, December 16, 2022).

Tanzanian Foreign Fighters in Mozambique and the Congo

The court case emphasized the involvement of Tanzanian jihadists in the conflict in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado. Indeed, the importance of Tanzanian foreign fighters in the conflict was highlighted by Mozambican President Felipe Nyusi, who on March 2 stated that the leader of the Cabo Delgado insurgents, “Abu Suraco,”—believed to be the nom de guerre of Bonomade Machude Omar—is assisted by foreign citizens. Specifically, Nyusi claimed that “we have the names of Tanzanians who are with him” (Club of Mozambique, February 3).

Similarly, a report by the “UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team on ISIS and al-Qaida” refers to the prominent role of Tanzanians in the jihadist ranks in Cabo Delgado and elsewhere. In Mozambique, the UN assesses that Abu Yasir Hassan (a Tanzanian national who was sanctioned by the US in 2021) continues to serve as the spiritual leader of the group, while the aforementioned Bonomade Machude Omar is the operations commander of the insurgents. The report states that Sheikh Assane was killed on July 14, 2022 by regional forces; these are the separate military missions on ground in Cabo Delgado, to include troops from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) and the Rwandan counter-terrorism operation conducted jointly with Mozambican forces. Assane was a Tanzanian national who led a training base in the Catuba forest in the Macomia district of Cabo Delgado. Moreover, the report assesses that battle-hardened foreign fighters within IS ranks in Mozambique are composed mainly of militants from Tanzania and Kenya and, to a lesser degree, from Somalia, Uganda, and the Congo (securitycouncil.org, July 15, 2022).

However, Mozambique’s insurgent groups are not the only ones benefitting from an inflow of Tanzanian foreign fighters. According to the UN, the eastern Congo-based Allied Democratic Front (ADF)—which has metamorphosed into Islamic State in Central Africa Province (ISCAP)—also has links to Tanzania. The first ISCAP suicide bombing conducted by the group took place on April 7, 2022, and the suicide bomber was reportedly a female Tanzanian national. She detonated her explosive vest in a bar in the Katido military base, Goma, killing six people. In February 2022, Congolese security forces arrested suspected Tanzanian foreign fighters for the first time in the North Kivu region (aa.com.tr, July 22, 2022).

Tanzanian Military Operations in Mozambique

The involvement of Tanzanians in both the lower ranks and high leadership of al-Shabaab—or as it has been called since May 2022, IS in Mozambique Province—has strained Tanzania’s historically friendly relationship with Mozambique. The countries share an 800-kilometer long border and strong historical, political, and economic ties. Even more acutely, the threat posed by the Tanzanian jihadists has spilled over to Tanzanian territory, most notably when around 300 militants attacked the Tanzanian border village of Kitaya in October 2020. As the country with most at stake, Tanzania has sought to deepen its cooperation with Mozambique bilaterally. The two countries accordingly signed an agreement to strengthen cooperation in the counter-terrorism field in September 2022 (Africanews.com, September 9, 2022).

In parallel, Tanzania has contributed troops from the Tanzanian Peoples Defence Forces (TPLF) to the SAMIM Operation and deployed forces from SAMIM’s elite Field Force Unit (FFU) of the police to Cabo Delgado. Tanzania’s area of responsibility as part of SAMIM is the district of Nangade, which borders Tanzania. In Nangade, Tanzanian security forces have fought against fellow Tanzanians in the service of IS in Mozambique, as revealed by the arrest of three Tanzanian jihadists in December 2022 (Evidencias, December 20, 2022). Possibly to bolster its presence in Nangade, a Tanzanian- Mozambiquan military force has been operating in the district since October 2022. The reason why Tanzania is deploying forces outside the SAMIM framework is unknown, but the strategy seems to be to turn Nangade into a buffer zone against al-Shabaab attacks (Cabo Ligado Weekly, February 13-19).

The strategy of creating a physical buffer against incursions from Mozambique has its merits, considering the cross-border attacks Tanzania has suffered. Besides the October 2020 Kitaya attack, since 2020 insurgents have conducted several smaller incursions into the Mtwara region bordering Mozambique (AFP, October 23, 2020). In light of al-Shabaab’s attacks against Mozambique’s energy and mining industry, the buffer zone helps to protect Tanzania’s own natural gas reserves (estimated at more than 55 trillion cubic feet) and related infrastructure on Mtwara’s coast, which is close to the border to Mozambique.


The presence of Tanzanian foreign fighters abroad, their ongoing recruitment, and evidence from court cases demonstrate how Tanzanian authorities are trying to combat terrorist networks from different theatres, including Mozambique, the Congo, and Somalia. Tanzanian foreign fighters and support networks are a critical challenge to local authorities, national governments, and foreign powers across East Africa. While counter-terrorism has risen in importance for the government of Tanzania and the country is taking an active role in dealing with the threat, the multitude of Tanzanian nationals and networks involved in terrorist groups at home and abroad will keep Tanzanian security and intelligence authorities fully occupied for the foreseeable future.