The rout of Islamist insurgents in Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique, by Rwandan forces has set off alarm bells in Kenya and Tanzania, where some of the fighters originate, with intelligence agencies on high alert after reported re-entry of some of the fleeing suspects.
Just this week, Kenya and Tanzania experienced terrorism-linked incidents, which security experts say point to a spillover from Cabo Delgado, a new headache for the region’s security agencies.
On Wednesday, a lone gunman, 29-year-old Hamza Hassan Mohamed, killed four people in Tanzania, including three police officers, before police officers shot him dead. Six other people were injured in the incident.
This happened just two days after Kenyan security personnel in Mombasa arrested two suspected terrorists, one of whom is Tanzanian, and found two AK-47 rifles and explosive-making materials in their car. Police said they were suspected of planning to blow up several installations on the anniversary of the death of radical Muslim cleric Sheikh Aboud Rogo, who was shot dead on August 27, 2012 in Mombasa.
The two incidents, though not directly related, have seen both countries’ security agencies heighten vigilance, fearing that the former violent residents of Cabo Delgado are returning to their home countries in East Africa after losing their five-year stranglehold on the gas-rich region, and their presence is likely to breed a new wave of radicalisation and terror across the region.
Liberatus Sabas, Tanzanian Police Commissioner of Operations and Training, while saying that the motive of the Dar es Salaam attacker remained unknown, did not rule out connections to the military operation in northern Mozambique.
Kenya’s Coast regional coordinator John Elungata said this past week that Muslim clerics must lead the fight against youth radicalisation to stop the flight of young people to Somalia and Mozambique.
“Religious leaders have a big role in preaching against misleading teachings such as radicalisation, terrorism, violent extremism and youth gangsterism,” Mr Elungata said.
National Counter-Terrorism Centre Director Njenga Miiri said that involving local communities in gathering intelligence has enabled Kenya's National Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism to record major gains in the war on terror.
“Preventing and countering violent extremism is a cohesion issue affecting communities and hence the need to collaborate with them to stop their journey to these terror prone regions. You must look at this not from a security angle but a social cohesion perspective, a conflict resolution angle, that does not attract an audit query,” he said.
Mozambique has been battling terrorists calling themselves al Shabaab, whom the US has designated as Islamic State affiliates. Northern Mozambique is seen as the latest haven for terrorists from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
Police in Mombasa told The EastAfrican that accomplices of the two suspects arrested at the Likoni channel crossing, who were still at large at press time, had recently been to Mozambique and the DRC. In March, Kenyan intelligence reports flagged several citizens, especially from the Coast region, as having joined the ranks of the Mozambique insurgents. The reports indicated that several youth who had been radicalised by the late Aboud Rogo were among those who went to northern Mozambique.
A number of the youth were reported to have fled to Mozambique after Sheikh Rogo was killed, through Tanzania’s Kibiti area, where they had built a presence by 2015.
In this week’s arrests, one of the wanted men, 28-year-old Salim Rashid Mohammed alias Chotara, is said to have escaped the police ambush and is suspected of having slipped back into Tanzania through the Lunga Lunga border. Mr Mohammed had, in 2016, been arrested in Mombasa on terror-related allegations and released on bond. He was arrested again in 2017 and charged with terror-related activities. It is said he jumped bail and vanished.
It is also understood that he is linked to Abdulhakim Saggar, a businessman who was arrested by Anti-terrorism Police Unit officers in Mombasa, a fortnight ago. Mr Saggar, it is alleged, was to aid with the foiled Mombasa attack and was to link the terrorists with two other accomplices, who would later conduct the attack planned for August 27.
Mr Saggar was first arrested in 2018 and charged in court with possessing terror-related materials on his phone. His arrest came right after that of one of his employees, putting him on the radar of detectives.
According to Mr Saggar’s family, Alfan Ali Juma was arrested in Mandera in Kenya’s northeast in 2018 and mentioned Mr Saggar to be his employer. Mr Juma was arrested together with another suspect identified as Abdul Satar.
They were later taken to Muthaiga Police Station in Nairobi and presented at a Milimani court and held at Kamiti Prison in Nairobi.
Mr Juma was later transferred to Shimo la Tewa Prison in Mombasa and was released on a free bond on condition that he report to the ATPU offices in the Coast region. But he would later go missing. To date, his kin say they have no information about his whereabouts.
In March, and in a different case featuring another suspected terrorist Richard Lazaro Kivatsi arrested in Mombasa, it emerged in court documents that Mr Juma and Mr Rashid had fled to Mozambique. In the case, Kenyan police claimed that a forensic analysis of Kivatsi's two mobile phones indicated that he had been in close contact with Juma and Rashid, who had fled to the Southern African country to join the IS-linked terror group.
Meanwhile, the Mozambique Islamist group was being headed by, among others, terror suspect Abu Yassir Hassan, who was in 2020 classified among Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) by the US Department of State.
Mr Hassan, a Tanzanian, has been leading the Ahlal-sunnah wa al-Jamaa terror group in Mozambique since October 2017 before it was recently pushed out by Rwandan forces.
Mr Hassan, also known as Abu Qim, led the group that coordinated a series of attacks that led to the seizure of a strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado Province, according to Tanzania media reports.
Two weeks ago, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken added to the list of SDGTs five terrorist leaders operating in Africa: including Bonomade Machude Omar, senior commander of the IS affiliate in Mozambique, and a deputy to Mr Hassan.
“Bonomade Machude Omar, also known as Abu Sulayfa Muhammad and Ibn Omar, leads the Military and External Affairs departments for ISIS-Mozambique. He serves as the senior commander and lead coordinator for all attacks conducted by the group in northern Mozambique, as well as the lead facilitator and communications conduit for the group,” Mr Blinken said, adding that during the March 2021 attack on Palma, Omar led one group of fighters while Mr Hassan, the leader of ISIS-Mozambique, led another group of fighters.
“Omar has been responsible for attacks in Cabo Delgado Province, Mozambique, and Mtwara region in Tanzania,” Mr Blinken said.
The US also expanded its list of designated terrorists to include Ali Mohamed Rage alias Ali Dheere, who is al Shabaab’s spokesman and a senior leader of the group. He replaced Sheikh Mukhtar Robowas al-Shabaab’s top spokesman in May 2009. Rage has been involved in attack planning that has targeted areas in Kenya and Somalia.
Also included on the list was Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, also known as Ikrima, a facilitator and operational planner. As of November 2019, Abdikadir was an al Shabaab senior leader and served as the head of operations and logistics.