Tanzania: Islamic Extremism’s Next Beachhead? (part II)

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 8

To what extent can we ascribe realistic veracity to the general Western fear that Tanzania could be emerging as a new hub for transnational Islamic extremism in East Africa? Undoubtedly there are reasons for concern. The country clearly offers a conducive theater in which to operate. Porous borders, rampant corruption, ineffective immigration procedures all feed into exactly the type of environment that al Qaeda and its affiliates are known to have gravitated toward and exploited (as is evidenced by the examples of Afghanistan, western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Indonesia and the Central Asian republics).

Reasons for Concern

In addition, there is a profusion of potential soft targets from which to choose, including air and sea ports (both of which lack concerted terrorist countermeasures), ferries, shopping malls, sports stadiums and a large ex-patriot community (some 70,000 British nationals reside in the country). Furthermore, all Western governments retain diplomatic facilities in Tanzania, which as the events of August 1998 demonstrated, can be readily singled out for attack. While the Americans have since instituted extensive target-hardening measures around their embassy, other missions and high commissions are not as well protected. One particular road, Mirambo Street, plays host to the Canadian, British, Dutch, German and EU consulates along a single strip, all of which could, conceivably, fall within the common blast range of a well-planned and coordinated bombing.

There have also been signs of a slight hardening of indigenous Muslim identity in Tanzania. As noted earlier, armed takeovers of moderate mosques have emerged as a recurrent problem in Dar es Salaam while radicalized students returning from overseas religious study trips are definitely seeking to push Islamic beliefs along a more fundamentalist trajectory. In Zanzibar, two groups are now openly challenging the authority of traditional elders–Imam Majelis (Imam Society) and Daawa Islamiya (Islamic Call). Both organizations have gained a residual popular following in Pemba (the smaller of the two main islands that make up the Zanzibar chain) and even in Stone Town are having an impact on the religious outlook of at least three mosques: Forodhani, Kikwakjuni and Kibweni.

Finally, the relative proportion of Tanzanians studying in Saudi Arabia–the effective ideological source of much of today’s radical Wahabism–is growing. On the push side, this appears to reflect the curtailment of available scholarships from states such as Yemen, Egypt and Algeria. On the pull side, it is indicative of the lucrative financial incentives that continue to be offered by Saudi educational and non-governmental charities. In essence, these dynamics have deflected Tanzanians away from states that the West considers to be relatively “acceptable,” and toward one that is increasingly being called into question for exhorting extremist religious outlooks and interpretations.

Reality Check

These factors notwithstanding, the prospect of Tanzania degenerating into some sort of East African Afghanistan remains a remote possibility. First, although there are radical elements in the country, their influence is marginal and they likely constitute, at most, no more than a few hundred individuals. Just as importantly, the proselytizing influence of these activists remains inherently constrained by a broader Islamic context that is overwhelmingly apolitical, moderate and tolerant in orientation. Currently, there is no indication that Tanzania (or Zanzibar) is moving to institute a fully-fledged Islamic sharia criminal system. Even incrementally, U.S. commentators believe this could take place only within a decade. Much less is Tanzania about to emerge as a major recruiting pool for al Qaeda’s transnational terrorism.

Second, even those groups that do seek a more fundamentalist agenda pursue their objectives through discussion and negotiation. Both Imam Majelis and Daawa Islamiya are legitimate registered entities and neither advocate the type of revolutionary civic action that characterize the radical theorizing of Islamic organizations in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

Third, the various acts of violence that have been taken as an indication of a growing militant undertone can be explained just as readily by reference to communal and political, rather than religious, factors. Certainly this is true of the 2002 tourist bar bombing in Stone Town, which informed sources assert was triggered by the public’s general dissatisfaction with “noise pollution” as opposed to fundamentalist convictions that symbols of morally corrupt Western decadence need to be destroyed. Perhaps more significantly, local Muslims categorically reject that any organized covert Islamist movement exists in Zanzibar, stressing that the province is too small and its population too interconnected for a group such as Simba wa Mungu to escape the attention of religious elders and police authorities.

Finally, Tanzanian Muslims simply exhibit too much of an “even keel” and laid back attitude to take up arms against the “infidel” West. While many may not be particularly happy with current U.S. policies toward Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinians (which is just as true of prominent European states such as France and Germany), very few actively seek to denigrate American society as a principle in its own right. Equally, with the notable exception of certain idiosyncratic cases such as Khalfan Khamis Muhammad and Qaed Sanyan al-Harithi, there have been virtually no instances of individual jihadists signing up for the wider al Qaeda cause.

One cannot (and, indeed, should not) dismiss the possibility of future acts of terrorism being carried out in Tanzania. However, realistic threat contingencies would seem to revolve more around considerations pertaining to the country’s favorable operational environment than to any concerted indigenous support for transnational Islamic extremism. It is toward mitigating the former, rather than the latter, that the thrust of U.S. and Western security policies need to be directed and framed.

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