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Defining Militant Groups: Why the Names Matter

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
7 MINS READJul 24, 2018 | 08:00 GMT
Police officers present suspected ISWAP militants, as well as a cache of weapons, in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, on July 18.
(AUDU MARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Police officers present suspected ISWAP militants, as well as a cache of weapons, in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, on July 18. Maintaining as much as accuracy as possible is important when analyzing militant groups.

Highlights
  • Much of the media continues to use outdated names for militant groups, even though the designations have long since changed.
  • Describing violent extremist groups as militants, rather than terrorists, does not whitewash their actions but serves to underline the multi-pronged threat they pose.
  • When militant groups alter their names, it often signifies a change in tactics and targets — and maybe even their degree of brutality.

On July 14, reports from Nigeria's Yobe state emerged regarding an attack on a military base. Media outlets around the world were quick to identify the main culprit, noting how "Boko Haram" — the name that has become synonymous with militancy in the country — had raided a base. Truth be told, while there was certainly an attack, it wasn't conducted by Boko Haram, but the al-Barnawi faction of Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi, or Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).

The attack touched off a conversation between some colleagues and myself last week that centered on one curious question: Why do many media outlets continue to refer to the group as Boko Haram, even though it declared allegiance to the Islamic State and formally changed its name in March 2015?

The Big Picture

The fight against jihadist groups continues around the world. While governments aim to defeat such extremist organizations on the battlefield and delegitimize their ideology, the task of institutions like Stratfor is to provide impartial analysis on the threats and capabilities of such groups. In so doing, it is essential to approach these organizations as accurately as possible — including with the names used for such militants.

Choosing a Name

The insistence on referring to the group as Boko Haram is puzzling, since media outlets have been better about updating their naming policies for other militant groups in the region. For example, nobody refers to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat – the group's name before it formally aligned with al Qaeda – or continues to call Abu Walid al-Sahraoui's Islamic State in the Greater Sahara by one of its former names, al-Mourabitoun or the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

And in the case of Boko Haram, media outlets can hardly suggest they are simply using a previous self-designation for the group, as the name — the catchy Hausa and Arabic phrase for "Western education is sinful" — was never used by the organization itself. Instead, founder Mohammed Yusuf designated the group Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for "Group Committed to Propagating the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad." "Boko Haram" might have been one of the group's key assertions, but it was not what it called itself.

Using an older name to ignore an organization's change in status is a means of waging information warfare against the group by attempting to counter their narrative.

Perhaps some of the name's longevity results from the Nigerian government's consistent denials that its jihadist problem stems from any foreign influence — a policy that has led it to purposely retain the name in an effort to downplay the threat and paint it as a domestic issue. Another factor in the choice of nomenclature lies with those that produce style guides for the media, as institutions like AP have yet to update their usage. Third, many media outlets seeking to maximize search engine optimization might opt for the name Boko Haram, rather than the more obscure ISWAP — to say nothing of Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi.

Words Matter

But as I pondered this incorrect usage of Boko Haram, I realized once more the importance of using the correct terminology when working to analyze and understand something as complex as a militant group — and yes, I did just say "militant group" instead of "terrorist group." In the past, Stratfor has attracted criticism for referring to groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda as militant groups, rather than terrorist groups. Many believe that the choice is part of some political correctness campaign to avoid mention of the "T" word or that we are apologists for the groups' brutality.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, from our perspective, anyone who considers al Qaeda or the Islamic State as a mere "terrorist group" vastly underestimates the threat they pose because they are so much more than simple terrorists. Terrorism is undoubtedly one of the tactics they use to pursue their objectives but these groups — as evidenced by ISWAP's attack in Yobe on July 14 — are also capable of conducting guerrilla warfare. And if provided with the opportunity to grow their strength, such organizations can also conduct hybrid warfare and even conventional military operations. After all, it was highly coordinated, mobile warfare — supplemented by a little terrorism on the side — that allowed the Islamic State to capture large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

And speaking of the Islamic State, we do intentionally call them by the name they've given themselves. Some have said that by doing so, we bow to their desires, thereby granting them some sort of symbolic victory, but I don't buy that argument. Because ideology drives terrorism, understanding the ideology that animates a particular militant group is critical to any effort to assess its status or forecast its trajectory. As the ideology of a militant group evolves over time, the changes are often reflected in new names — as well as new objectives, new tactics and new targets.

Stratfor's mission is to provide unbiased, impartial analysis to empower our readers to confidently understand and navigate a complex global environment marked by continuous change.

When jihadist groups switch allegiance from al Qaeda to the Islamic State, they generally increase the frequency of their sectarian attacks, behead more enemies and distribute more — and grislier — propaganda. Examples of such evolution include Wilayat Barqa's beheadings in Libya and Wilayat Sinai's sectarian attacks against Christians and Sufis in Egypt. Wilayat Sinai's tactics, as well as the targets it selects, differ markedly from those of its predecessor, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. At the other end of Eurasia, Filipino jihadists have also demonstrated a notable change in behavior after adopting the Islamic State name and ideology.

But going back to our Nigeria example, the ideologies of the two competing al-Barnawi and Shekau factions that have declared allegiance to the Islamic State in the country are very different: while the al-Barnawi faction tends to target the government, the Shekau faction tends to focus on softer, civilian targets. Moreover, the doctrines of both groups depart greatly from the ideology held — and preached — by the original founder, Yusuf. While understanding the history of Boko Haram and its successors is important, Yusuf's statements and speeches simply cannot provide an accurate understanding of the varying ISWAP factions' ideologies today.

The Use of ISIS

In much the same way Abuja intentionally refers to ISWAP as Boko Haram for a specific purpose, Washington continues to refer to the Islamic State as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the name the group adopted before it hubristically declared the re-establishment of the caliphate on Earth and anointed the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as Caliph Ibrahim, the ruler of all the world's Muslims. But by insistently referring to the group as ISIS, the U.S. government seeks to emphasize in every official statement that it does not recognize the organization as the caliphate. Similarly, the Barack Obama administration referred to the group as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a variant of ISIS (using the English term Levant instead of the Arabic term al-Sham). In truth, the United States has any number of other former names to choose from, including Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, al Qaeda in the land of the Two Rivers (commonly referred to as al Qaeda in Iraq), the Mujahideen Shura Council and the Islamic State in Iraq.

Using an older name to ignore an organization's change in status is a means of waging information warfare against the group by attempting to counter their narrative, and the U.S. and Nigerian governments certainly have reason to wage information warfare against such brutal militant groups. Stratfor's mission, however, is to provide unbiased, impartial analysis to empower our readers to confidently understand and navigate a complex global environment marked by continuous change. It is not our place to purposefully describe a militant group by an incorrect name in an effort to somehow delegitimize them or counter their narrative. Instead, our job is to analyze such groups and choose our words carefully to explain them to our readers.

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