young men are disappearing from Zanzibar. Are the extremists guilty?

At 10 a.m. on August 16, Zanzibar Police received a missing person report for a man who had left his home on the island for an “unknown destination”. It was the first of seven reports police would receive that month of men aged between 19 and 36 who had mysteriously disappeared from the Tanzanian archipelago.

Their families had to reconstruct events that may have led to the sudden and unexplained departure of their loved ones. Common patterns regarding disappearances emerged. Before they left, they had all become more solitary, tougher about their religious beliefs, concerned about the rise of “moral indecency” on the island, and enamored of the teachings of Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a radical Islamist cleric. from Kenya. Rogo, who was killed in 2012, had wide influence across East Africa and had been linked by the UN to the Somali militant group al-Shabaab.

Some families now believe the men left to join jihadist groups. One of the families has a letter they believe is from their 19-year-old son explaining that he went “to fight for the faith”.

Sabrina Khamis, 32, a henna artist from Michenzani in Zanzibar, says her husband, Sultan Mussa Sadiq, 36, disappeared when she was six months pregnant.

Khamis says her husband’s behavior began to change in April, during Ramadan. Sadiq, who was previously observant but not a practicing Muslim, entered into Rogo’s teachings. He used to be happy for the kids to watch cartoons on TV, but now he wanted the family to listen almost exclusively to Rogo’s teachings. Khamis says her husband, who is not one to travel, suddenly informed her one day in July that he would soon be visiting Dar es Salaam on business. Other than a call to say he had arrived, she has not seen or heard from her husband since.

In late August, under pressure from families to investigate the disappearances, Zanzibar Police Commissioner Hamad Khamis Hamad said: “I don’t want to completely rule out the possibility that some have gone to join terrorist groups, but we cannot. what to note that with proofs, otherwise they are only hypotheses.

In the same month, President Samia Suluhu ordered police forces to step up security efforts in Zanzibar, saying they were “weak”, the island was “dangerous” and its borders “porous”.

Khamis says her husband’s disappearance came as a shock. They were on good terms and doing well financially. She would later give birth to a boy, which the couple had been hoping for for years. Khamis thinks her husband has become radicalized.

“I wonder every day if he was in his right mind,” she says, as her children huddle around her on the living room floor. Even in the worst of times, she would never have thought that her husband would consider leaving her or their children. Khamis cries while speaking. “I believed him when he said he was coming back,” she says.

In September, police questioned two suspects about the disappearances. The commissioner revealed that during their initial investigations, the police found documents used in “terrorist training”. The materials, he said, were aimed at encouraging young people to join extremist groups. He added, however, that it was unclear if the materials were “used on the island”, or by whom, or how many people received the training.

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Zanzibar police authorities did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

Although seven disappearances have been officially reported to the police, the actual number of missing men is believed to be higher. Investigations by local media identified 15 men who disappeared suddenly this year and the Guardian confirmed five more men disappeared in October.

Tanzania faces fewer direct terrorist threats than its East African neighbors, such as Kenya and Mozambique. The country does not border Somalia, where al-Shabaab is based, and does not contribute troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), which supports the Somali government’s counterterrorism activities against the militant group. . However, its proximity to these countries puts it in danger. In 2020, insurgents from the Islamic State of Mozambique launched two terrorist attacks against Tanzania, and some reports suggest that the group represents “the largest [terror] threat to Tanzania”.

The true extent of the threat is however not fully known due to a culture of concealment in the country. Violent extremism remains under the radar in Tanzania, hidden from the public by a reluctance by government and security forces to acknowledge terrorist attacks when they occur, as well as a level of censorship of the media and civil society.

According to Lillian Dang, a justice and security expert who has worked on violent extremism in Tanzania, communities are often reluctant to draw attention to the risk of extremism in their neighborhoods. “There is some concern about secure police responses to violent extremism, and a general lack of trust between community members and the police,” she says.

Most of the missing men lived in the Vikokotoni and Mtendeni areas of Zanzibar, known for their political activism. Local media suggest that recruiters are active in the Darajani market in Stone Town.

Some of the men’s families refused interviews for fear of reprisals against them or the missing relative.

Maulidi Mohammed Yusuf’s nephew, Suleiman Mohamed, was one of five young men who disappeared from Mtendeni in October. Yusuf says that within weeks, Mohamed went from a fun-loving 25-year-old who played football in his spare time to a withdrawn and lonely figure, choosing to pray alone, expressing concerns over morals of the island and making comments. on the fight for the faith. She says that in the days before he left, he repeatedly told her, “If I die, I’ll see you in heaven.”

“I believe he was brainwashed,” says Yusuf, who still finds it hard to believe he would leave the way he did. She says one of the mothers of the other missing men “rarely leaves the house and has really isolated herself since the boys left”.

Beatus Said Silla, director of planning and research at the Tanzanian police, says recruiters use religious or political ideology and economic incentives to lure young men into extremist groups. Poverty, unemployment and lack of education are breeding grounds for radicalization and violent extremism in the country, he said, adding that recruiters target people who “feel undermined by the system”.

“That’s when they’re most vulnerable,” Silla says. “They are driven by finding a means of survival.”

Silla insists that community policing in Tanzania helps detect incidents of violent extremism early on, through neighborhood watch programs, where intelligence gatherers are embedded in communities.

But Dang says this approach can be ineffective because authorities place too much emphasis on gathering information rather than establishing a dialogue between the community and the police.

The families say they have not received any updates on the status of their loved ones and are not optimistic that the police will do much more. Some resign themselves to never seeing their loved ones again. Others live in hope. “I believe Sadiq will come back one day,” Khamis says. “I’ll wait.”

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