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Making Sense of the Hype: What we Know about ISIS-Mozambique’s Attacks in Tanzania

September 22, 2021

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By Senior Fraym Advisors, Judd Devermont & Marielle Harris

In October 2020, ISIS-Mozambique—also known as al-Shabaab or Ahlu Sunna wa Jama (ASWJ)—conducted a series of attacks in Mtwara Province in southern Tanzania. Some analysts breathlessly deemed these operations as part of the Islamic State’s strategic expansion northward from the restive Cabo Delgado region in neighboring Mozambique. Others predicted a wave of attacks along the country’s southern coast and along the border with Mozambique

And while there have been unofficial reports of some small-scale attacks in the area, there has not been the proliferation of violence that many analysts expected. If the series of attacks in October 2020 wasn’t a prelude to increased operations, what motivated ISIS-Mozambique to target southern Tanzania, and why did the group select these specific communities? Using Fraym’s human geography data, we can extract new insights about these incidents and develop indicators to assess the group’s foray into southern Tanzania. As important, Fraym’s hyper-local data can help analysts resist the most sensationalist conclusions about the ISIS-Mozambique’s expansion.

Since an attack has not occurred since October 2020, it is essential to understand the timing. ISIS-Mozambique’s operations happened just a few weeks before Tanzania’s contentious elections on October 28, 2020. Where there has been some uncertainty about the elections’ centrality in the attacks, including one video where the militants alleged that “they have nothing to do with the coming elections,” it seems clear that the group saw an opportunity for mischief. In another video, the militants are seen ripping up posters of then-president John Magufuli, who was running for re-election. It is likely that the extremists took advantage of distracted authorities, particularly police, who were focused on the pre-election environment. In a video circled after the attack, a militant alleged the attacks were easy to execute because Tanzanian police are incapable.    

But why did the insurgents go after these specific villages in Mtwara? Here’s where Fraym’s insights are crucial. We first wanted to see what, if anything, distinguishes Mtwara’s population in the attacked villages from the population in other parts of Mtwara. If ISIS-Mozambique wanted to establish a beachhead in southern Tanzania, it stands to reason they would target disenfranchised or marginalized populations. The map below, however, indicates that the attack locations are home to populations with higher socioeconomic status—as well as higher educational, literary, and employment rates—than other locations in Mtwara, scoring comparatively lower on Fraym’s holistic poverty index. The extremists could loot valuables and restock supplies with relative ease during their escape, something they could not do if they had attacked a destitute village. Indeed, press reports indicated that ISIS-Mozambique carted away money and military equipment following the attacks. In other words, the populations that were attacked are not impoverished civilians that an extremist group might target for recruitment or for future safe haven.


Heat map of Tanzania showing ACLED Events and Fraym's holistic poverty index

The next question we asked is whether these specific communities were easily accessible by road or other natural transportation corridors. In the maps below, it is evident these towns and villages are right off the major road or the Ruvuma River which enabled ISIS-Mozambique to swiftly enter and exit the scene of the attack. The group didn’t require a strong network of informants and conspirators with local knowledge to plot the attack. These main-road communities have another attractive feature: they have 3G mobile access, which allows for coordination and dissemination of their message in the aftermath of the operations.

In conclusion, the timing of the attacks ahead of the elections; the relative wealth of these communities; and their proximity to key roads, rivers, and telecommunication services indicate these initial attacks into Tanzania probably were opportunistic rather than strategic move to open up a new front. While the group’s connections to Tanzania are well-documented, Fraym’s human geography data suggests that it is premature to characterize these attacks as signs of an expanding Islamic State province. More conclusive indicators of such a scenario would include attacks in more vulnerable areas, including assassinations of prominent community leaders; recruitment drives to develop informants and fighters; and tailored messages to set the stage for future operations.

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