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.
“I pointed out to you the stars, and all you saw was the tip of my finger.” This Tanzanian proverb should resonate deeply with anyone who fears the spread of Islamic extremism in Africa. On Tanzania's island paradise of Zanzibar, the killing of a Catholic Priest by Muslim extremists last month points to a series of mounting and long-ignored signals that the continent’s jihadist wave is expanding south.

As witnessed in Somalia and Mali, the failure of the international community to assist Tanzania in tackling the roots of Islamic extremism will likely allow it to grow.

Located in southern Africa on the Indian Ocean, this traditionally tranquil tourism hub has been awash with sectarian strife since October 2012. It began when a dispute between two local school children resulted in the defilement of a Koran, sparking outrage by Tanzania’s large Muslim community. At least four churches across the country were attacked in the aftermath in what may just prove to be a watershed moment in Tanzania’s modern history.

In February 2013, religious tensions in Zanzibar continued to simmer from a dispute over butchering rights, sparking tit-for-tat attacks between Christians and Muslims, ultimately resulting in the beheading of one priest and the fatal shooting of another inside his own church. A self-proclaimed local Al Qaeda branch calling itself “Muslim Renewal” took credit for the shooting as its inaugural attack.

But 14 years before this latest unrest in Zanzibar, Tanzania took center stage, after a deadly bombing attack at the US embassy in Tanzania’s biggest city, Dar es-Salaam, with all fingers pointing to Al Qaeda militants. This event, along with the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, brought names like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri into the public sphere for the first time.

Then-President Clinton responded by launching cruise missiles at Al Qaeda bases in Sudan and Afghanistan. Despite the participation of local East Africans in the attacks, little concrete measures were taken to curb radicalization in the region.

By May 2012, the global jihad network would rear its ugly head in Tanzania once more, after a bombing attack occurred in the Kenyan capital, targeting a prominent shopping district. While blame was placed squarely on Somalia’s Al Shabaab Islamist group, the arrest of a German national in Tanzania in connection to the attack largely went unnoticed. The man, reportedly of Turkish descent, had undergone training in Al Qaeda camps in Pakistan.

While the Tanzanian link in the global-jihad chain failed yet again to ring alarm bells, deteriorating domestic conditions may open the floodgates for a homegrown wave of extremism.

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.



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