STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT. Islamic State claimed its first ever attack in Tanzania in the name of Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP). This ‘province’ previously referred to Islamic State-loyal fighters in Mozambique and Congo, but now Tanzania is also included in its remit. Moreover, ISIS affirmed its commitment to future attacks in Tanzania by including Tanzania along with Mozambique and Congo on its attack map in its al-Naba weekly newsletter.
ISIS claimed responsibility for orchestrating a prison break in the DRC which resulted in 1,300 prisoners escaping. With its caliphate in Iraq and Syria still in tatters—although working to regroup—ISIS has begun focusing more attention on its growing presence throughout Africa, an area of significant growth for jihadists over the course of 2020.
As Islamic State still has imperfect media links with its fighters in Mozambique and now Tanzania, it did not immediately release any videos from the attack in Tanzania. This was despite Islamic State-style videos and photos from the fighters in Tanzania surfacing and then spreading on social media. Islamic State only featured one photograph of a Tanzanian soldier’s identity card alongside its formal claim of the attack in its propaganda.
The release of this photograph, which was presumably taken from a slain Tanzanian soldier, nevertheless provides some corroboration that Islamic State’s centralized media is indeed in contact with its fighters throughout the region of East Africa.
There have been foreign fighters in Mozambique, but there are few indications they include Arabs from Islamic State’s Middle Eastern heartlands. Rather, the group’s foreign fighters are primarily Swahili-speakers from throughout East Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania, and possibly also Uganda and the island nation of Comoros. Thus, at least to date, it does not appear that Islamic State is willing or able to send fighters from Syria and/or Iraq to Mozambique and/or Tanzania. This would also be logistically difficult due not only to surveillance by international intelligence agencies and state security forces, but also reduced transportation links as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. ISCAP’s attack occurred in Kitaya, which is located just across the Mozambican border in Tanzanian territory. It was not a surprising location for attacks because in 2019 six farmers were killed near that area by militants suspected to have crossed the border from Mozambique. However, that attack and other attacks on the Mozambican side of the border were unclaimed, unlike this most recent attack last week. While this attack is bound to send some shockwaves throughout Tanzania because at least three soldiers and other civilians were killed, it remains unclear whether or not it will be a one-off attack or a harbinger of a more sustained, low-level insurgency.
If the latter, Tanzanian security forces may not be equipped to handle a prolonged campaign by jihadists in that country, especially if these militants are operating as part of a broader, regional network of terrorists and insurgents.
Tanzania has done little to provoke ISCAP. It has not, for example, intervened in Mozambican territory to contain the group. Strategically, therefore, the attack implies ISCAP’s confidence in expanding its offensive. If ISCAP moves eastward and threatens the Tanzanian coastal town of Mtwara, home to roughly 100,000 people, then it would undoubtedly force Tanzania to take more serious action.
ISCAP may, however, benefit from some local support because in previous years Tanzania’s government has cracked down on Islamists and jihadist sympathizers in the south of the country. Some of them have dispersed throughout Tanzania and the region and it would not be surprising if others have established more formal links with ISCAP.
The success of ISCAP’s fighters in Mozambique and Congo, meanwhile, has caught the attention of the Islamic State leadership. Both countries, as well as Kenya, were highlighted by the group’s spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, in his October 17, 2020 audio statement.
If ISCAP is able to conduct more attacks in Tanzania, it is certain that al-Muhajir or his boss, the ‘caliph’ Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi, will mention Tanzania in subsequent statements (TSC).