Zanzibar. Perhaps no one has received with open arms the directive by President Samia Suluhu Hassan to the Police Force on the need of intensifying security in Zanzibar as parents and relatives who as of this writing are battling sleepless nights as they do not know the fate of their loved ones, who mysteriously went missing at different times.
The Commander-in-Chief gave the directive while officiating a working session for senior police officers on August 30, 2022, at the Tanzania Police School (TPS) in Kilimanjaro. She described Zanzibar as “a small place with big things.” She described the police in the isles as “weak,” pointing out that the only thing the law enforcers protect there “are politicians and other bigwigs in town.”
In short, when it comes to matters of security, Samia said Zanzibar was vulnerable, describing the semi-autonomous archipelago as “porous.”
This assessment of the Police Force in Zanzibar and the general security situation on the island from the Head of State echoes that of families that have seen their loved ones mysteriously disappearing in recent months and who to date don’t know what befalls them and when will they return to join their families.
‘He didn’t even think of the children’
Sabrina Khamis is a mother of three, all girls, and she lives in Michenzani, a town in Unguja. Sabrina makes her living as a henna artist. But instead of spending time thinking about her business, she now spends it crying. You can feel and see the sadness in her eyes. She feels beaten with her legs swelling and her eyes reddish.
Now seven-month pregnant, Sabrina vividly remembers July 26, 2022. This is the day that her husband, Sultan Mussa, disappeared in unexplained circumstances and he has not been seen since. Mussa, 36, used to earn his bread as a barber. He used to be not a religious person, recounts Sabrina, and he even used to take marijuana. But the situation changed during Ramadhan of this year, in April 2022.
“During the whole Ramadhan, he used to listen to Aboud Rogo’s teachings,” Sabrina tells The Chanzo during an interview at her home. “Before he left he used to ask around about businesses in Kenya and he became very so loving to me that I was surprised. He told me that he is leaving for Dar es Salaam to buy some thrift clothes for reselling. I gave him some money. I remember when he was leaving he was on a phone with someone saying I’m getting there now.”
Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed was a famous Kenyan Muslim cleric who allegedly had links with the Al-Shabab terrorist group from Somalia, accused of even coordinating fundraising activities for the group. He was assassinated on August 27, 2012, in Mombasa by unknown assailants but he remains very influential in East Africa, according to the United Nation.
Sabrina told The Chanzo that her husband called her and inform her she has reached Dar es Salaam. Around 1:00 AM, Mussa called Sabrina again, telling her to pray for him and that he would call again in the morning.
“He never called in the morning and I became more suspicious after hearing people are going missing here [in Zanzibar],” Sabrina lamented with great pain. “So I went to look at a place where we store various documents. I found his passport was not there. I knew then my husband has left me and the kids to go to join the Jihad.”
“My husband left me without even thinking about our children,” complained Sabrina as she struggled to hold her tears which at this moment were drenching. “My husband left without even thinking about me?”
We had to stop there as Sabrina could no longer continue talking at this moment.
Cloud of fear
Sabrina’s is not the only story that has engulfed the streets of Zanzibar at the moment as a cloud of fear dominates the archipelago’s atmosphere, leaving families paranoid and fearful.
For those whose loved ones have gone missing their fear originates from their unknowing of when exactly will their loved ones come back to rejoin their families. As for those who are yet to experience such a misfortune, their main fear is if their also going to face a similar fate.
Information about those who have gone missing in recent months is patchy and it is hard to say exactly how many have fallen victim to the recruiters. Police here have so far been unable to provide tangible answers to the families on the whereabouts of their loved ones.
On August 16, 2022, following months of complaints from citizens, Zanzibar’s Police Commissioner, Hamad Khamis Hamad, confirmed cases of people disappearing in unexplained circumstances. But he refused to confirm if the missing persons are joining terrorist groups.
“It’s possible that there are some people who went missing but some of them who are said to have disappeared, it’s probably that they have just left for usual legal businesses,” Hamad told a press conference. “I cannot deny the truth that maybe some of them have joined those [extremist] groups, but we cannot say so until we have the evidence.”
Efforts by The Chanzo to establish if the police have managed to get evidence or not failed to bear any fruit after the law enforcement agency was not able to respond to our questions until the time of writing this article.
While The Chanzo cannot verify without a doubt that these youths are joining terrorist groups, existing evidence suggests that some of them do.
He hated injustice
Like many Zanzibari parents, Mwanamkuu Abdallah Said was a proud mother to her son Abdulkadir Salum Seif who was a typical good child: he loved reading the Quran, he hated injustice and he was not happy with the ‘increase of moral decadency’ in Zanzibar.
Six months before his disappearance on October 2021, Seif, 19, started to show signs which made her mother, Mwanamkuu, a mother of four, with Seif being her firstborn child, heavily worried. She still cannot make sense of all of it.
“He stopped joining his fellow Muslim believers during prayer, choosing to pray alone,” Mwanamkuu tells The Chanzo in great pain. “He used to mention here and there about joining dangerous groups like Al-Shabaab. He used to speak about guns and issues about mujahideen were a lot.”
A mujahideen is a Muslim who fights on behalf of the faith or the Muslim community, ummah, as it is known in Arabic.
The family has framed a family photo on its wall that shows Seif pausing with Mwanamkuu and her husband and other siblings, some of the glimpsing photos that will catch your eyes as you step into Mwanamkuu’s home.
“He usually left the house with his praying mat and on that particular day when he left for Paje, he said goodbyes. He hugged me, asking me to pray for him,” recounted Mwanamkuu. “I did not know that he could leave me and go there. It’s painful. And after distributing leaflets some people called me and said he was seen in Nairobi.”
But Mwanamkuu should not have bothered listening to strangers about her son’s whereabouts and what he was up to. She should have relied on a letter Seif left her before leaving, saying he was going to join Jihad.
While still in an interview with The Chanzo, Mwanamkuu received a call that told her that there were other two youths, one from Kikwajuni and the other from Michenzani, who also had gone missing.
It was later known that Seif had left with his friend 23-year-old Nudrik Mkubwa Salim. The two are known to have left on the same day, at the same time. Salim was living three streets from Seif’s house.
Idle youths targeted
While there might be other sophisticated means, our investigation shows that the majority of these youth are targeted and recruited in places where they hang out idly, places where the majority of young adults hang out for drug use, including marijuana smoking spots.
The Chanzo was able to get hold of one of the youths who was approached by recruiters who said that the recruiters have their offices in Darajani, Unguja’s city centre, and roam the streets of Zanzibar recruiting people who can go and join Jihad.
“They usually come to our hangouts and start to tell us about mujahedeen; they have their office in town,” said the man who preferred anonymity. “You know, I don’t want to go there and leave my mother alone. My mother has no one to look after her and to be honest they’re harassing me.”
You can say the family of this man is a very lucky one. Others, however, are not so lucky.
It’s almost dusk here in Zanzibar, with the first day of Census gone, and I take a Bububu-Fuoni commuter ride. The main purpose of my journey is to visit Fatma Hassan Yussuf, a mother of four and a resident of Michenzani.
On July 27, 2022, Fatma’s second born Hassanali Khalid Ahmed, 21, also went missing in unexplained circumstances.
“First he stopped working and focused only on praying and staying at hang-out areas,” Fatma tells me during our conversation. “He studied sailing but he usually used to talk about things that are happening in Kenya and Nigeria. He once told me about the plan of going to Dar es Salaam to update his sailing certificates. He waited until I was not at home that he left.”
Fatma was not alerted until he was not able to reach his son on his phone. But she was hoping that she would reach him the next day. Until the day of this interview, she has never heard again from him.
When Fatma released a notice for her missing son that is when she realized that Sabrina’s husband, Mussa, who had also gone missing, was a friend to her son.
Sabrina told The Chanzo that she used to see her husband hanging out with Hassanali on several occasions at her place. She thinks they used that time conspiring to disappear.
‘Leave before your father notices’
During his press conference on August 16, 2022, Zanzaibar’s Police Commissioner Hamad Khamis Hamad told the public that the “Police is their institution” as citizens, and encouraged them to co-operate in investigating these incidents.
But Hamad can get the full experience from a fellow officer from the Fire Department for even senior public officials have not been spared in this saga of recruiting youth to unknown networks.
On August 8, 2022, for example, Ibrahim Ali Hassan, who is the Commander in the Fire Department in Zanzibar, faced the same struggles when his son, 19-year-old Ali Ibrahim Ali, went missing
Ali who had just finished form four education, a lower secondary education in Tanzania, in 2022, was expected to be sent to Turkey for further studies by his father. Unfortunately, at 11 AM on the day of the incident, Ali left and disappeared mysteriously.
“He had gone to the local government for a letter that he will use to get a passport,” his father told The Chanzo. “But he left running and until now we don’t know his whereabouts. His sister had taken his phone and saw a message that read make sure you leave before your father notices and the name was saved as Fahad. But when you call it the number is unreachable.”
Sheikh Abdallah Haji is a Muslim scholar based in Mombasa, Zanzibar. Sheikh Haji teaches Fiqh, an Islamic jurisprudence, and told The Chanzo that he was shocked that young people would choose to leave their families behind under the guise of joining a Jihad.
The scholar said there is no Jihad that is going on in the world right now. Jihad is an Arabic word that might have two meanings. The first meaning is a holy war fought on behalf of Islam as a religious duty. The second meaning is a personal struggle in the soul of somebody in adhering to Islamic teachings.
According to Sheik Haji, the possible Jihad, for now, is the second one because for the first one to take place it has to be proclaimed by a higher religious leader in Islam, the proclamation he said now does not exist.
“Therefore, people who convince youth about Jihad are liars and manipulators,” emphasized Sheikh Haji. “What is happening in Zanzibar now had also happened in the past. It is important for the government and religious leaders to join forces to stop this trend. This will not only save our youths but also strengthen our security as a nation.”
Mr Peter Bofin has spent the past twelve years researching violent extremism in Tanzania, Kenya, and Mozambique who told The Chanzo in an interview that there has been increasing competition for recruits in the region between Al Shabaab of Somalia and Islamic State-affiliated groups in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) recently.
“Over this year and last, Al Shabaab issued a number of videos targeting Swahili speakers in the region, looking to recruit,” Mr Bofin said. “Al Shabaab probably has more success in attracting recruits if only because it has more money. From taxation in areas it controls it is thought to actually generate a budget surplus. This will allow it to recruit more smoothly, offer incentives, and at least some basic standards in Somalia.”
Mr Bofin said that there has also been recruitment in Zanzibar for Cabo Delgado but said he has no idea of the extent to which it was conducted. But he said: “One self-styled cleric in Mtwara who radicalised some children (who later moved to Cabo Delgado) was, colleagues were told, radicalised during the time he spent in Zanzibar.”
Zanzibar as a Special Police Zone?
President Samia believes to successfully strengthen the security of the country, it’s important for security organs, including Police Force and the Immigration Department, to look at Zanzibar with a third eye.
“[Zanzibar] is completely porous,” said President Samia while officiating the working session for senior police officers on August 30, 2022, in Kilimanjaro. “There were incidents where heavy weapons were hidden in the isles. If it’s a risk area, Zanzibar is at high risk. It needs to be given special attention.”
President Samia cautioned that it’s easy for people to enter Zanzibar and explained that while there are areas under police protection others are without any protection at all. This comes with great risk, Samia said.
“It’s easy for drugs to get in the country through Zanzibar,” she said. “Illegal human trafficking [can also happen there]. [We must know] who is coming to Zanzibar and who is leaving.”
It is obvious that in the coming few days security organs will be considering the best way to implement the directive from President Samia.
While doing so Sabrina Khamis, Mwanamkuu Abdallah Said, Fatma Hassan Yusuf, Ibrahim Ali Hassan and other parents whose children went missing will be counting on these same institutions to tell them about the whereabouts of their children and if there are any efforts taken to ensure their coming back.
If they do come back, this will lessen the sadness, tears, and frustration that for now linger in these families’ houses and allow them a chance to live their life happily and continue with nation-building!
Najjat Omar is The Chanzo’s journalist based in Zanzibar. She is available at email@example.com.