Non-State Actors

Tanzania Terror Cells: Mtwara Border ‘Hive’

June 5, 2020

Eren Ersozoglu


Network Expansion


Intense fighting predominates the growing battleground in northern Mozambique in the Cabo Delgado region, bordering Tanzania. Al Sunna wa Jummah (ASWJ) and Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) have both been reportedly involved in some form with the terror attacks, with the latter claiming attacks and the former being silent. Propaganda aside, the group carried out over 350 attacks in the region since 2017, with a significant increase being witnessed near Mozambique’s liquified natural gas (LNG) project.


This now threatens to spill over into Tanzania’s own LNG project, considering the potential of terror cells multiplying in the border region of Mtwara. Along the Ruvuma Ravine, radicalisation is finding itself a ‘launchpad’ to neighbouring countries. This Grey Dynamics African Intelligence Article will explore the roots of Mozambique’s terror problem in Tanzania and assess the existing export of the Zanzibar archipelago’s Islamic extremist network.


  • Following a state crackdown on Islamic extremist preachers and militants in Tanzania in 2015, ramping up by 2017, many had found refuge in the Cabo Delgado region.
  • Radicalisation is being fuelled by the narrative of mfumo Kristo ‘Christian dominance’ in Tanzania. With a 99% Muslim population in Zanzibar, this narrative preyed on the vulnerable youth.
  • In the Mtwara district, on the border of Tanzania, over 100 people have been arrested crossing to join the terrorist militants in Mozambique or establish training camps on the border.
  • With October’s 2020 elections on the horizon, President Magufuli’s highly likely victory will encourage radicalisation amid the authoritarian and mfumo Kristo narrative. There is a chance that without action, the Mtwara district will witness similar bloodshed ensuing 243 kilometres away in Cabo Delgado.





Border Hive Mind


By mid-2017, Tanzanian security officials were voicing concerns over the vulnerability for extremist recruitment in Kibiti, Mkuranda, Rufuji districts in the Pwani region. The Ruvuma Ravine which encapsulates Masaguru, Pwani, and Tanga are all hotspots which have faced state counter-terrorism operations, speculating a relocation to the Kibiti region. The shared border with Mozambique provides vast unguarded spaces for cross-border operations. In May 2016, Islamic State’s East Africa branch posted a video of fighters in the Tanga border, indicating terror cells on multiple fronts. This not only limits the effectiveness of Mozambique’s counter-terrorism operations, but a cross border capability facilitates an increase of capacity as militants in Mozambique gather momentum.


Interpol has arrested Tanzanians as part of anti-terror operations, and attacks in Mozambique have led to over 120 arrests of Tanzanian nationals. The Tanzanian gateway has also facilitated exporting fighters to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab, indicating a thriving international network. Harakat Shabaab Mujahideen (HSM) cells already exist in the region which has witnessed many experienced, battle-hardened members join ISCAP. With Islamic State flags waving in the wake of attacks in Cabo Delgado, an IS resurgence is materialising as a previous Grey Dyamics article addressed.



Hate Preachers


In the border region between Mozambique and Tanzania, much of the population share similar ethnic, linguistic, and religious similarities. We can identify another shared development in the LNG projects, which has been met with unrest from the local population. Tanzania’s own LNG project spurred protests aimed at the project because of local grievances, exacerbated by fluctuating cashew yields which is an integral part of the region’s economy. A harsh crackdown of the protests by the Magufuli regime fell into the hands of Islamic extremist propaganda. Extrajudicial killing and detentions fit the narrative pushed by hate preachers of mfumo Kristo, inciting violence against a corrupt state in a region with low unemployment and education.



Hate preacher Ponda Issa Ponda has been one of many voices inciting violence against the state. Many of the preachers had fled to Tanzania from Mombasa, history repeated itself as sections fled to Mozambique, while many remained. Saudi Arabia is alleged to be the world’s largest exporter of Salafist Jihadism, in line with Islamic State and ASJW ideology. The kingdom as of 2015 was spending $1 million a year on Islamic centres in Tanzania, with some inadvertently facilitating a recruitment base for hate preachers.


In 2018, 52 of 470 ASJW members arrested were Tanzanian. A closer look into potential terror cells in Tanzania is an urgent necessity. Growing authoritarianism by the state and disenfranchisement felt by the Muslim population, Tanzania’s border region is gaining potential for a rude awakening. While Tanzania’s only large-scale terror attack was in 1998 (Embassy bombing), a network of terror is gaining momentum.




Image: Screen capture of propaganda video

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