Threat of Al-Shabaab and Extremist Attacks Grows in Tanzania

Arusha restaurant blast

In just the span of four days, attackers in separate incidents in Arusha, Tanzania threw IEDs at the house of a local Muslim leader and at a popular Indian restaurant.

Police in Arusha first claimed that the restaurant bombing was “not related to religious faith, tribe or race” but have not mimicked their Kenyan counterparts in blaming “local political networks.”

In a later interview with RFI, the country’s Secretary for Home Affairs Mathias Chikawe offered a much bolder assertion, stating:

We cannot be very sure which group is involved, but we believe these are terrorists, they’re definitely terrorists.

What should worry the country’s authorities is that the incidents appear to be linked and perpetrated mostly by Tanzanian nationals rather than imported attackers. However, as Chikawe pointed out, the availability of external places to train are a driving factor:

The [suspects] we have are from around Arusha, some from Tanga. But what we know is that these people were trained elsewhere and have just come in to operate in this area.

Unclaimed attacks in Tanzania will raise eyebrows like they have in Kenya regarding who the culprits are.

If some do suspect political rivals to Tanzania’s ruling CCM, there are of course grievances. The CCM has been seen as unfavorable to the political opposition by disallowing or interrupting public rallies–especially in Arusha.

One of the strongest opposition parties Chadema has traded allegations with CCM about each party sabotaging the other through violent attacks.

However, it would be surprising if Chadema would sponsor or organize bombings in Arusha–its own stronghold of support–to showcase “insecurity” against its CCM rivals. This would represent a senseless and extreme strategy for a party that is slowly and organically growing in popularity.

The Extremist Threat

A much more likely explanation for rising insecurity is the growing threat of religious extremism.

Tension between Muslims and Christians has reared its ugly head in sporadic incidents in recent years–especially in Zanzibar–and have often taken economic and political undertones.

In addition, sixteen years after al-Qaeda-linked militants (of which some later became aligned with al-Shabaab) bombed the U.S. Embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, a crop of extremists continues to grow in the East African country that is seeking to jump start prosperity by exploiting new discoveries of natural gas.

According to the UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group and other reports, al-Shabaab has long recruited among radical factions of religious groups like Uamsho (who some find as a scapegoat for Zanzibar attacks) and Ansar Muslim Youth Centre (AMYC). The group has also exploited corrupt security forces, local fisherman, and local drug networks to ferry recruits up the coastline to Kenya and Somalia.

More recently, there has been several indications that there is both a growing influence of al-Shabaab and more threats toward moderate Muslim religious figures in Tanzania.

The growth of extremism in both ideological and operational terms is a dangerous trend that could lead to more consistent and damaging small-scale attacks in TZ–even if there does not seem to be a current threat for another incident on the scale of the 1998 embassy bombing.

Though al-Shabaab may not be directly responsible for assaults on moderate clerics or IED attacks in restaurants, it is likely that those with the skills and motivations to do so have connections to the group.

Tanzania’s Challenge

Though Tanzania has claimed to increase security forces around Arusha, other reports claim “a single police officer provides service to 2,000 people [while] the UN recommended police-public ratio is 1:450.” 

On the positive side, Tanzania has largely avoided resorting to the ineffective tactic of mass round-ups which often occurs in Kenya and Somalia. Mass arrests are usually the product of stereotyping and weak evidence gathering and police work; this tactic usually does no more than antagonize local communities from working with the police.

On the negative side, Tanzania’s reluctance to publicly identify the perpetrators of the attacks and their affiliation to specific groups like al-Shabaab may be intended to deflect the perception that extremism is as rising problem in the country–which would certainly hurt tourism (like it has in Kenya) and foreign direct investment as the country gears up to exploit natural gas discoveries.

In failing to publicly acknowledge the potential threat from extremist groups, Tanzania cannot sufficiently tackle the problem by modifying its deployment of security forces adequately in the country or allocating sufficient budgetary resources to implement effective security policies.

Tanzania’s calculation that it can resolve the extremist threat calmly and quietly is a big risk-big reward scenario. Along with deciding the nature of power-sharing in the country’s new constitution, it will be one of the biggest decisions in Tanzania for some time to come.



Categories: al-Shabaab, Tanzania

Tags: , ,

2 replies

  1. While the incidents bear the hallmark of Al Shabaab terrorist tactics, one has to be careful about apportioning blame prematurely to Somali-related communities or even committed Muslim personalities who could wrongly be associated with jihadist tendencies. There is a need for a coming together of Christian and Islamic leaders to publicly denounce random violence as a religious life choice and a parallel measured response from political leaders.

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