ISWAP counters refined Nigerian Army strategy

Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) has kept up the pace of its attacks in Nigeria despite the government unveiling a new military strategy a year ago to defeat the jihadists.  The so-called “super camps” scheme, announced in July 2019, relies on the army withdrawing from vulnerable remote military bases in the restive northeast region, and solely operating from larger camps in garrison towns. Officials said the camps would better protect civilians from jihadist attacks and provide the army with superior “launching pads” from which to hit IS and rival group Boko Haram.

IS has gloated that the larger bases, if anything, has made the army an easier target and has given jihadists new opportunities. Data shows the jihadist group has claimed more attacks since the new super camps strategy was announced compared to the previous 12 months. IS has also increased its rhetoric against Christians, making it a cornerstone of its messaging against the super camps.


What are the ‘super camps’?

Since the start of the new strategy, the Nigerian army has regularly been reporting successes against both IS and Boko Haram in the north east. However, in the first full month of the strategy, Borno State’s governor was reported to have complained that the army withdrawal from smaller bases has made it easier for militants to operate. Months later, two Nigerian politicians called for a state of emergency in the northeast in the aftermath of fresh militant attacks. In another indication of local discontent, a Nigerian newspaper reported on the “superior firepower” of militants, calling for “better arms” for soldiers.


IS attacks undiminished

According to data collected from official IS media outlets, the group’s attacks have not been affected by the super camps strategy announced in July 2019. IS claimed 80 more attacks during the first year of the super camps compared to the preceding 12 months. Almost all attacks took place in the states of Borno and Yobe, according to IS statements. A few others reportedly happened in the nearby Lake Chad area, close to the Niger border. The main targets in these operations were the Nigerian army, “pro-army militia”, police personnel, African coalition forces, alongside an increasing number of Christian civilians.

Typical of IS attacks on military installations, IS launched a deadly night time assault in January on a military barracks in the town of Monguno in Borno. A Nigerian military source told Reuters news agency that militants had entered the town posing as a convoy of troops on the night of 7 January and subsequently attacked soldiers.  The IS attack in Monguno fits with the group’s declared strategy of briefly taking control of areas before withdrawing to avoid confrontation with a more superior force.

In 2019, IS outlined in its flagship newspaper al-Naba its hit-and-run tactics. The strategy is part of a “war of attrition” IS had reverted to after losing its territorial bases In Iraq and Syria. IS reiterated this strategy this year. In a May issue of al-Naba, IS told its militants to avoid trying to capture territory or hold on to it given their small numbers, and instead to focus on guerrilla tactics to wear down their enemies. In the aftermath of its Nigeria attacks, the jihadist group regularly flaunts war booty seized during raids such as tanks, armoured vehicles, guns, rockets and ammunition.

IS has also targeted Christian civilians, churches, and villages in the past 12 months. In one high-profile example, the group released a video in December 2019 showing the killing of 11 Christians. In another similar example, IS used a child to carry out the killing of a Christian man.


IS mocks ‘super camps’

Pero-Islamic State newsletter al-Naba mocking Nigerian Army super camps

IS mocked Nigeria’s super camps strategy in its newspaper

The UN said it was “appalled” by the raid in Monguno and two other attacks in Borno State claimed by IS. The jihadist group later gloated in al-Naba about taking control of Monguno for several hours. IS has also made several claims in the last 12 months for ambushes on army convoys travelling on roads linking to Maiduguri, Borno’s capital. It recently claimed killing 40 soldiers on the road between Maiduguri and Damboa. In its 23-July al-Naba edition, IS offered four main reasons to explain its “successes” despite the super camps strategy. The newspaper said fewer bases resulted in weaker intelligence-gathering capabilities by the army. Another alleged reason is army patrols operating from super camps have become easier to monitor and repeatedly target by IS militants as they have become “slow-moving” and cover greater distances away from their bases. A third factor for the “failure” of the super camps, according to IS, is that the army’s withdrawal from countryside positions has created a “security vacuum”. Finally, IS said, the super camps strategy has given the group “space and freedom” to move and recruit new members. The Nigerian army, however, regularly reports wins against IS and Boko Haram, with the Chief of Army Staff praising troops’ “gallantry”  in June.


Anti-Christian rhetoric

Pro-Islamic State newsletter al-Naba reporting of the killing of aid workers in Borno, Nigeria

IS recently claimed the killing of aid workers in Borno

IS has stepped up its rhetoric against “hostile” or “combatant” Christians in Nigeria, as part of its propaganda over the last year. On several occasions, via its newspaper al-Naba, IS said its attacks on Christians were partly in “revenge” for the “massacre” of Muslims, specifically mentioning communal tensions in Plateau State in central Nigeria.

The jihadist group has previously made it clear that it considers Christians and their places of worship as legitimate targets. The group had vowed on 26 September to carry out “revenge” attacks against Christians in Nigeria , who it claimed were bent on persecuting, killing, robbing and displacing Muslims in the country. IS also regularly justifies its attacks on international aid agencies by accusing them of seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity though missionary work.

In their claim for the June raid on Monguno, the jihadists cited the presence of Western and international organisations as a reason for the attack. On 23 July, IS said it killed five aid workers, accusing them of working for Christian organisations seeking to convert internally displaced people (IDPs) based in the government’s “super camps”.


Future of IS in Nigeria

ISWAP leader Abu Abdallah al-Barnawi giving a televised interview

ISWAP speaker al-Barnawi boasted efforts to break up his group failed

Over the last year, IS has been highlighting its continuing interest and activities in Nigeria. In February, Abu Abdallah al-Barnawi, a key ISWAP speaker, who appeared in a rare propaganda video, boasted his group has not been weakened by efforts to undermine it. More recently, in June, IS’s weekly paper featured an extensive interview with an unnamed IS commander in “West Africa”. The official suggested super camps, aid agencies and Christians would continue to be a focus for the jihadists. He claimed the army is using the camps, which also house IDPs, to keep Muslims away from advancing jihadists as well as to convert them to Christianity under the cover of humanitarian work. Citing the June raid on Monguno in Borno as an example, the IS commander said his group aims to protect the “faith and the creed” of their fellow Muslims.

IS’s Nigeria activities regularly feature on the front pages of the weekly al-Naba. In recent editions, the newspaper led with gruesome IS photos  purportedly showing the bodies of Nigerian soldiers. IS’s propaganda material often shows big numbers of well-armed ISWAP fighters and militant convoys, suggesting that the group’s Nigeria branch is better manned than other IS branches.

In April, another unnamed senior leader of IS in Nigeria claimed that a major anti-jihadist offensive in the Lake Chad area of West Africa had failed to push back the group’s militants. Al-Naba made the same claim in February. IS released in the same month a rare set of photos showing militants openly preaching in the Lake Chad area.

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