Sunday, September 5, 2021

Are Mozambique's insurgents really part of "ISIS"?

This is one of two newly-published supplements to PolGeoNow's Mozambique insurgency control map report series. The other revisits the question of the what the insurgents are actually called, still relevant one year after we first reported on their history and emergence onto the world stage.

Mozambique: Cabo Delgado conflict map - August 2021: Detailed, close-up control map showing areas occupied by so-called ISIS-linked rebels in northern Mozambique (also known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa Jama, ASWJ, Ansar al-Sunnah, or Al Shabaab), plus towns and villages raided by the insurgents over the past eight months. Situation after Rwandan military intervention that took back Mocímboa da Praia and other towns from the rebels. Shows roads, rivers, and terrain, and includes key locations of the insurgency such as Palma, Awasse, Nchinga, Ntotwe, the Total LNG site and natural gas fields, and many more towns and villages. Updated to August 31, 2021. Colorblind accessible.
Mozambique's insurgents have been pushed out of their most prized territories, but are still fighting on in other areas.

PolGeoNow's coverage of the insurgency in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province has, as usual, been largely focused on who controls what territory in the conflict - and though insurgents have recently lost their most prominent territorial holdings, they're still a force to be reckoned with. 

But there's one big question that still hangs over the story, relevant both to how the outside world should view the insurgency and to what the rebels are even called:

Are Mozambique's insurgents part of "ISIS"?

A year after they made international headlines by capturing and holding onto the major town of Mocímboa da Praia, the short answer is still "probably sort of".

The so-called "Islamic State" (IS; formerly ISIS or ISIL), though it started in Iraq and Syria and still is based there, has also established branches and franchises - with varying degrees of connection to IS headquarters - in far-flung countries around Africa and Asia. So the more specific question is: Are the Cabo Delgado insurgents genuinely connected to IS, and if so, how connected?

Limited Ties

At this point the consensus is that there's indeed some kind of two-way relationship between the Cabo Delgado insurgents and IS headquarters. But that relationship seems to be very limited, and it's not just that there's a shortage of proof. Conflict-tracking project Cabo Ligado has documented case after case where, when IS media were claiming credit for attacks in Mozambique, they couldn't even get the dates and locations right, and many of the details they broadcast seemed to be from publicly available news reports. Taking this into account, it seems likely that the insurgents are operating almost completely independently, rather than under specific orders from superiors in IS.

That said, at least some members of the group do seem to consider themselves agents of IS, and IS headquarters for its part has publicly recognized them as a member group. There's some evidence that IS may have provided some training to the insurgents, and that their military power and tactics have benefited from outside help. And the United States government has also endorsed the idea that Cabo Delgado insurgents are a branch of IS, even naming them "ISIS-Mozambique" and formally declaring them "global terrorists". This could imply that the US government has some secret information the rest of us don't - it was also the first government to publicly claim it knows who the insurgents' top leader is - but if it does know more about the details of the insurgents' links to IS headquarters, it hasn't shared that with the public.

In-depth: Nearly Nameless - Mozambique's Insurgents and Their Many Names

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.
Mozambique's insurgency took hold in the farthest corner of the country from the national capital, an area of both rich natural resources and persistent political marginalization. (Map from our July 2021 Cabo Delgado update.)

Local Grievances

Regardless of whether the ASWJ-ISIS relationship is just a loose partnership or a developing fusion of the two groups, it's important to note that there's a strong consensus among academic analysts - even including relatively hawkish anti-terrorism think tanks - that the Mozambique insurgency isn't ultimately rooted in the global IS agenda. The conflict arose long before the insurgents pledged allegiance to IS, and its core motivation still seems to be based on anger at the Mozambican government over issues specific to the area. And its local outreach has been more about local politics than religion, with the insurgents promising to distribute jobs to local people and trying to rally them around the slogan "the land is ours!"

It's definitely true that the insurgents have embraced a hard-line religious ideology similar to the one promoted by IS, and they are thought to have links with a loose network of like-minded people around East Africa. But IS isn't the only name in the game, and being part of a shared ideological community isn't the same as being a part of a specific organization. 

It's also important to note that, though the insurgents have definitely accepted some like-minded foreign fighters into their ranks - in particular, there's evidence that some of their core leadership is Tanzanian - the vast majority of fighters, including high-level leaders, still appear to be locals. And there are accounts from former insiders suggesting that many of the insurgency's participants have joined opportunistically rather than out of any kind of religious devotion.

Unknown Future

The public relationship between Cabo Delgado's insurgents and the so-called "Islamic State" has been anything but steady over the past several years. Signs of the connection emerged only gradually from 2018 to 2020, and IS's own claims of involvement in Mozambique have fluctuated widely, sometimes disappearing from the group's media for months at a time only to return in flurries of new PR. With such a lack of predictability, it's easy to imagine that the two groups' relationship could go in either direction as the conflict drags on - towards increasing integration of Mozambican insurgents into IS's command structure, or towards an eventual split (quiet or otherwise). Whatever the outcome, PolGeoNow will be here to report on it alongside our updates to the map of territorial control.