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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Caroline Kimeu and Najjat Omar in Zanzibar

‘He was brainwashed’: young men are disappearing from Zanzibar. Are extremists to blame?

Sabira Hamis, 32, a henna artist, at her home in Michenzani, Zanzibar
‘I wonder every day if he was in his right mind,’ says Sabira Hamis of her missing husband. Photograph: Imani Nsamila/The Guardian

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

Their families have been left to piece together events that may have led to their relatives’ sudden and unexplained departure. Common patterns about the disappearances have emerged. Before they left, they had all grown more solitary, more hardline about their religious beliefs, concerned about increasing “moral indecency” on the island, and keen on 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 of the families now believe the men left to join jihadist groups. One of the families has a letter they believe to be from their 19-year-old son explaining he had gone 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.

Sabira Hamis with her new son.
Sabira Hamis with her new son. Her husband, Sultan Mussa Sadiq, disappeared when she was six months pregnant. Photograph: Imani Nsamila/The Guardian

Khamis says her husband’s behaviour started to change in April, during Ramadan. Sadiq, who had previously been observant but not a practising Muslim, got into the teachings of Rogo. Before, he’d been happy for the children to watch cartoons on television, but he now wanted the family to listen almost exclusively to Rogo’s teachings. Khamis says her husband, not one to travel, suddenly informed her one day in July that he would soon be going to Dar es Salaam for business. Apart from a call to say he’d arrived, she has not seen or heard from her husband since.

At the end of August, under pressure from families to investigate the disappearances, Zanzibar’s 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 can only ascertain that with evidence, otherwise it’s all assumptions.”

That same month, President Samia Suluhu directed the police force to increase security efforts in Zanzibar, saying they were “weak”, the island was “unsafe” and its borders were “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, something the couple had hoped for for years. Khamis believes her husband was radicalised.

“I wonder every day if he was in his right mind,” she says, as her children huddle around her on the sitting-room floor. Even in the worst of times, she never thought her husband would contemplate leaving her or their children. Khamis weeps as she speaks. “I believed him when he said he would come back,” she says.

A Mtendeni street.
The Mtendeni area of Zanzibar, where many of the missing men are from. Photograph: Imani Nsamila/The Guardian

In September, police questioned two suspects over the disappearances. The commissioner revealed that in their initial investigations, police had found documents used in “terrorist trainings”. The documents, he said, were aimed at encouraging young people to join extremist groups. He added, however, that it was not clear if the documents were “being used on the island”, or by whom, or how many people had received the training.

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 outlets identified 15 men who had disappeared suddenly this year and the Guardian has confirmed another five men went missing in October.

Tanzania faces fewer direct terror threats than its east African neighbours, 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 counter-terrorism activities against the militant group. Still, its proximity to these countries places it at risk. In 2020, Islamic State insurgents from Mozambique launched two terror attacks on Tanzania, and some reports suggest that the group poses “the greatest [terror] threat to Tanzania”.

The full extent of the threat is not fully known, however, because of a culture of concealment in the country. Violent extremism remains under the radar in Tanzania, obscured from the public by a reticence from the government and security forces to acknowledge terror attacks when they arise, as well as a level of censorship on media and civil society.

According to Lillian Dang, a justice and security expert who has worked on violent extremism in Tanzania, communities are often hesitant to draw attention to the risk of extremism in their neighbourhoods. “There’s some concern about securitised responses from the police to violent extremism, and an overall lack of trust between community members and the police,” she says.

An alley in the Vikokotoni area.
The Vikokotoni area, known for its political activism. Photograph: Imani Nsamila/The Guardian

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

Some of the men’s families declined 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 a matter of weeks Mohamed went from being a fun-loving 25-year-old who would play football in his free time to a withdrawn and solitary figure, choosing to pray alone, expressing concerns over the island’s morals and making comments about fighting for the faith. She says that in the days before he left, he would repeatedly tell her: “If I die, I’ll see you in heaven.”

“I believe he was brainwashed,” says Yusuf, who still finds it hard to believe that he would leave in 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, a director of planning and research at the Tanzanian police force, says that recruiters use religious or political ideology and economic incentives to draw young men into extremist groups. Poverty, unemployment and a lack of education are breeding grounds for radicalisation and violent extremism in the country, he says, adding that recruiters target people who “feel undermined by the system”.

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

A street in Vikokotoni
Extremist recruiters operate in Vikokotoni, where poverty and unemployment are high, to target people who feel ‘undermined by the system’. Photograph: Imani Nsamila/The Guardian

Silla insists that Tanzania’s community policing helps detect incidents of violent extremism early on, through neighbourhood watch schemes, where intelligence gatherers are integrated into communities.

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

Families say they have received no updates on the status of their relatives and are not optimistic police will do much more. Some are resigned to not seeing their relatives again. Others live in hope. “I believe Sadiq will return one day,” says Khamis. “I’ll be waiting.”

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