Key signs that Al Qaeda's Islamic extremism is moving into southern Africa
A surge of sectarian strife and Al Qaeda-linked terrorism in Tanzania signals that Africa's jihadist wave is expanding south. The failure of the international community to assist Tanzania in tackling the roots of Islamic extremism will likely allow it to grow.
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Tanzania’s delicate demographic balance is divided into thirds among Christians, Muslims, and animists. The country maintains a secular charter with careful restrictions against religion in politics since the end of socialist rule in the 1990s.Skip to next paragraph
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Under this system, Tanzanian Muslims have commonly accused the government of discrimination. In 2002, the Tanzanian government instituted the Terrorism Prevention law under pressure from the United States. The law ultimately resembled the US Patriot Act, and served to further increase mistrust of local Muslims toward police and the central government.
These deeply rooted tensions have been compounded by the impact of the global economic recession, with communal violence against Christians just one of the apparent outcomes.
With Western influence in fast retreat along with foreign aid cuts and budget reductions from nongovernmental organizations, wealthy Arabian Gulf donors have helped nurture an Islamist revival across the country. That's been evident in a subtle rise in Swahili-translated Korans on bookshelves, Islamist satellite TV channels, and increasing attendance at Friday sermons. In Zanzibar alone, Saudi Arabia continues to invest more than $1 million per year in Islamic universities, madrasas, and scholarships for young Zanzibari men to study abroad in Mecca.
This rising tide of Islamism has drawn concern from Tanzania’s Christian leaders. In recent months, they have become increasingly vocal in accusing Saudi Arabia and Sudan of sending Islamic preachers to the country with the aim of spreading sharia law from the predominantly-Muslim Zanzibar islands into mixed areas in mainland Tanzania.
Back on Zanzibar, leaflets were distributed in Christian communities in early March that called for retaliation for the recent priest killings, threatening to further exacerbate sectarian violence on the impoverished island. Christian preachers elsewhere in the country have since complained of receiving ominous text messages from the Muslim Renewal group that stated: “We will burn homes and churches. We have not finished: at Easter, be prepared for disaster.”
In an all-too-common trend, it could only be a matter of time before Al Qaeda’s veteran terrorists elsewhere in the world take note of Tanzania’s revitalized extremist potential. The combination of economic strife and religious conflict provides fertile ground for these elements to sow their seeds of instability.
It remains the responsibility of stability-seeking nations to uproot those elements before it’s too late. Religious fundamentalists must no longer be the sole source of funding for Tanzania’s impoverished Muslim communities. Schools that preach extremism must be replaced with those that teach math, science, and tolerance. The Tanzanian government should be given aid conditional to its investments in infrastructure, while its security forces must be given guidance on community policing and other best practices in good governance.
Time is running out. As the West continues to reel from its mistakes in neglecting the developments in Mali and Somalia, Tanzania is emerging as a backdoor for Islamic extremism – one that should be slammed shut before it’s too late.
Jay Radzinski and Daniel Nisman are the Africa and Middle East division intelligence directors at Max Security Solutions, a global geopolitical and security risk consulting firm.