Sunday, September 5, 2021

What are Mozambique's insurgents called?

This is one of two newly-published supplements to PolGeoNow's Mozambique insurgency control map series. The other provides an update on the question of what links really exist between the insurgents and the so-called "Islamic State" organization (IS; formerly ISIS/ISIL).

Where is ISIS in Mozambique? Full-country map of insurgent control in northern Mozambique, with territorial control, roads, rivers, and terrain. Includes key locations of the insurgency such as Mocímboa da Praia, Palma, Macomia, Mucojo, Quissanga, Meluco, Muidumbe, Mueda, Quiterajo, and Nangade, as well as other important cities such as Pemba, Nampula, and Maputo. Neighboring countries shown, including Comoros, Madagascar, and French territories of Juan de Nova Island, Bassas da India, and Europa Island. Updated to July 29, 2021. Colorblind accessible.
At the height of their control earlier this year, secretive insurgents dominated a small but important corner of Mozambique. (Map from our July 2021 Cabo Delgado update.)
A Nearly-Nameless Insurgency

In our August 2020 Mozambique conflict map article, we discussed confusion over the name of the insurgent group operating in Cabo Delgado province. Now, a year later, we've decided it's time to briefly revisit that question. 

Though the fighters have now been pushed out of their most prized territories, they're still present in the region in large numbers, so questions about their identity remain highly relevant.

Al Shabaab in Mozambique?

At this point there's no longer much question that the group's most commonly-used name in Cabo Delgado - by both its opponents and the insurgents themselves - is "Al-Shabab". This unofficial name, which means "the youth" in Arabic (the international language of the Islamic religion, but not of everyday communication in Mozambique), appears to be a reference to the Al Shabaab insurgent group in Somalia. Though the word is usually spelled "Shabaab" in the Somali context, and international commentary often uses this spelling for the Cabo Delgado insurgents too, local spelling conventions in Mozambique tend to prefer "Shabab" without the double A.

Though northern Mozambique's insurgents aren't thought to have any strong or official ties to Somali Al Shabaab, the name probably stuck because, prior to the outbreak of violence in 2017, the war in Somalia was the only remotely nearby example of masked men roaming the countryside and killing people purportedly in the name of Islam. While there are said to be a few Somalis among the Mozambique insurgents, there's no indication that they're there as representatives of Somali Al Shabaab.

Who controls Somalia? Map (May 2020). With states, regions, and territorial control. Best Somalia control map online, thoroughly researched, detailed but concise. Shows territorial control by Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), Al Shabaab, so-called Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), separatist Somaliland, and autonomous states Puntland and Galmudug, plus boundaries of federal states Jubaland, South West, and Hirshabelle. Now labels state capitals and disputed boundaries between Somaliland and Puntland. Updated to May 20, 2020. Colorblind accessible.
The original Al Shabaab controls large swaths of rural Somalia, three countries to the north of Mozambique, but is affiliated with Al Qaeda instead of the "Islamic State".

Formal Names: ASWJ or Ansar al-Sunnah?

As for the group's official name, the question is surprisingly murky. The fighters don't have much of a media presence: Most attacks in Cabo Delgado aren't publicly claimed by any group, and insurgents don't give interviews to journalists

However, the limited information available continues to suggest that the group's formal name is Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamâ (ASWJ), or some slightly different spelling of those same words, which mean something like "Adherents to the Islamic Way and the Community" in Arabic. This ASWJ shouldn't be confused with the identically-named but completely unrelated militia in Somalia, which is a fierce opponent of religious hardliners in that country. 

Major think-tanks like CSIS, ISS, and the International Crisis Group have also concluded that ASWJ is the correct official name of the Mozambique insurgents. An alternative name, Ansar al-Sunnah (or Ansar al-Sunna), still appears in some media reports, and was cited prominently in a US government press release earlier this year (which also acknowledges the ASWJ name). 

However, it continues to be our understanding that - despite apparently being used by some within Mozambique - "Ansar al-Sunnah" is more properly the name of an older non-violent group that the insurgents splintered off from over a decade ago. For more details on that relationship, see our timeline of the group's early history.

Some Kind of ISIS

Looming over all of this, of course, is the school of thought that Mozambique's insurgents, having apparently thrown in with the so-called "Islamic State" organization (IS; formerly ISIS/ISIL), should be referred to mainly as part of that group. IS headquarters refers to the Cabo Delgado fighters as part of its purported "Islamic State - Central Africa Province", often abbreviated ISCAP, which also includes another insurgent group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

But because most analysts aren't convinced that the Mozambique group and the Congo group have much connection to each other - except maybe a small-scale exchange of skills and information - some have come up with more specific names for the Cabo Delgado insurgents. For example, the US government uses "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Mozambique (ISIS-Mozambique)", a name that it apparently coined itself. 

IS actually dropped "of Iraq and Syria" from its name way back in 2014, but the US has continued using the old name as a deliberate snub against the group's efforts to expand beyond those original two countries. On the other hand, some analysts who feel it's necessary to acknowledge the group's official name - or its very real international reach - have instead stuck with "ISCAP" or used other invented versions like "Islamic State in Mozambique (IS-M)".

This, of course, is all based on the assumption that the Cabo Delgado insurgents really are part of IS - itself a controversial question, though the two groups do, at the very least, choose to publicly associate with each other. Commentators who feel the link to IS is exaggerated, or that it wrongly dominates discussion of the insurgency, instead choose to call the group ASWJ, Ansar al-Sunnah, or Al Shabaab.

In-depth: Are Mozambique's Insurgents Really Part of "ISIS"?

Going Nameless

Meanwhile, some who prefer not to take a strong side - including both PolGeoNow and our biggest source, the Cabo Ligado conflict observatory - tend to avoid naming the group at all in everyday reporting, instead just sticking to the descriptive term "insurgents" (the OMR, a Mozambican think tank, prefers the equivalent local term used in Cabo Delgado: "machababos"). This choice is consistent with most detailed reporting on the insurgency, where attacks and other rebel actions normally don't include any indication of the group's name - with the exception of occasional claims by IS headquarters, which are usually made after-the-fact and tend to feature telephone-game inaccuracies.

A longer list of variations and translations of many of the insurgent group's names can be found in the legal details of the US government's anti-terrorism sanctions declarations against them from earlier this year.