Militant Wire: The Islamic State Mozambique Threat to Tanzania's Border Security

    Since the conflict broke out in 2017, the jihadist insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region has caused considerable death, displacement, destruction, and economic disruption. The involved militant network pledged allegiance to then-caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in May 2018 and IS released its first official communiqué claiming a Mozambique operation in June 2019.

    The insurgency has since spread to neighboring provinces and has spilled over into Tanzania at times. Recently, in late June, two cross-border attacks were reportedly carried out by the Islamic State in Mozambique (IS-M). The first incident occurred in Michenjele, Tanzania, on June 19th and resulted in the death of four people and the destruction of several homes. The second incident took place on June 22nd in nearby Chiumo and resulted in additional casualties.

    The initial documented cross-border incident was reported back in 2020 in the village of Kitaya in the Mtwara region. In November of that year, a joint effort by Mozambique and Tanzania was undertaken to address the issue. It remains unclear if this coordinated effort has had any measurable success up to this point.

    One could assess that the prolonged length of time between attacks is indicative of a successful program, as was claimed after the deployment of Rwandan troops. However, the militants may just be strategically shifting their target selection throughout the area and perhaps adapting to the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) foreign intervention.

    Regardless, one pattern is clearly emerging: the insurgency has reduced informal cross-border trade between the two countries. Added border restrictions are intended in part to hinder some of the movements by the militants as they look to exploit poor border controls and weak institutions.

    Notably, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has updated its travel advice for Tanzania, warning that “although Tanzania has not suffered a major terrorist incident since the bombing of the United States Embassy in 1998, there have been a number of smaller scale incidents.”

    The advisory offers a snapshot of the security climate within Tanzania. It further reports that “attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners”.  The advisory urges British citizens to be constantly vigilant, especially in crowded areas and public venues such as houses of worship, transport hubs, hotels, restaurants, and bars. Specific events such as religious festivals and sporting events were singled out as potential locations for attacks.

    Additionally, the advisory mentioned that IS-M was known to operate in the country. Highlighting the insurgency’s transnational dynamics, one 2019 report by Quartz described links between Islamists in Tanzania and Mozambique. Furthermore, an attack in Dar Es Salaam which took place in August 2021 was allegedly carried out by a lone gunman with suspected Islamic State sympathies.

    Likewise, an advisory by the Canadian Foreign Ministry released on July 14th includes a dire warning for Canadian citizens. It recommends that its citizens exercise a high degree of caution when traveling throughout the country due to criminal activity and terrorism. It specifically warns people to stay away from the Mozambique border.

    The Tanzania advisory updated by the US State Department in June 2022 is also noteworthy. The official advisory level (2) from the State Department is set to ‘Exercise Increased Caution’ when traveling to Tanzania and similarly recommends against any travel to the border area with Mozambique. A recent US counterterrorism report goes as far as to say that the greatest terrorist threat to Tanzania is concentrated along the border with Mozambique.

    In 2021, the Commanding General of AFRICOM (United States Africa Command), Stephen Townsend, visited Tanzania. The visit was to highlight the beginning of increased security cooperation between the two countries. Then, earlier this year, the US deployed special forces to the country for an exercise. The Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan also visited the United States this year. Ties between the two countries were previously strained over corruption and human rights concerns when her predecessor John Magufuli ruled. Yet, as instability persists in the region, Washington will be seeking partners to work with.

    The conflict looks set to continue for the foreseeable future, which is in part indicated by the Southern African bloc’s recent decision to extend their Mozambique troop deployment. The threat may also extend to the maritime domain, as signaled by war risk insurers designating a section of the Mozambique-Tanzania coastline as a “Listed Area” in 2021. This portends a medium to long-term threat to Tanzania’s borderlands and potentially its coastline, making it a likely conflict of focus for regional states and international actors that could get burned by hostile militant actors in the area.

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    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

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