When Islamic State gunmen stormed the Nigerian town Magumeri on of August 21 they had free rein.
Nigerian soldiers left the town earlier under a new strategy of withdrawing to “super camps” that can be better defended against insurgents the army struggles to contain.
Unchallenged, the Islamist militants torched a clinic in Magumeri, ransacked government buildings and looted shops before going to Gubio, another town they raided, residents said.
The new military strategy announced by President Muhammadu Buhari in July to concentrate soldiers in large bases is designed to give troops a secure platform from which they can respond quickly to threats and raid militant camps.
People familiar with the military’s thinking and security officials say the new tactic for fighting Islamic State’s West Africa branch and Boko Haram is an attempt to stem casualties.
The military did not respond to requests for more details or the impact it will have on the region.
“We strongly believe the days of BH (Boko Haram) moving freely and passing between static defensive locations are over,” Major General Olusegun Adeniyi, who commands the anti-insurgency operation, told reporters.
Boko Haram launched an insurgency in 2009 to overthrow government and establish an Islamic caliphate. The group, whose unofficial name means “Western education is forbidden”, held territory as big as Belgium in 2014 but a multinational offensive recaptured much of it the following year.
The group split in 2016 and the faction that is the greater threat won the recognition of Islamic State.
The decade of war killed more than 30 000 civilians and spawned what the United Nations calls one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, which foreign nations try to contain with billions of dollars of aid.
The crisis shows no sign of abating.
‘IT’S A MESS’
The army’s withdrawal into large bases coincides with a string of insurgent raids on newly unprotected towns and left militants free to set up checkpoints on roads as they roam the countryside, according to briefing notes from an international aid and development organisation, security officials and residents.
That left thousands of civilians without access to aid, according to the briefing notes seen by Reuters.
Soldiers no longer protect key roads, cutting off access for humanitarians workers as more of the region falls under the sway of the insurgents, aid and security sources said.
“It’s a mess, militarily and a disaster for humanitarian actors,” a foreign security official said.
The population of towns abandoned by the military is a combined 223 000 people, according to aid agency briefing notes.
The military departures so far have cut off more than 100000 people from aid and if more soldiers go, as many as another 121 000 civilians could flee their, a briefing note said.
“The impact will be one of continued skirmishes – soldiers under constant strain to deal with insurgency where Islamic State and Boko Haram dictate momentum,” said Jasmine Opperman, a terrorism expert in South Africa.
It’s not yet clear how many “super camps” the army plans to set up, where they will be or how many soldiers each will hold.
‘HERE TO PROTECT YOU’
The new strategy follows setbacks for the army which failed to keep a grip on territory it clawed back since 2015. Last year, insurgents repeatedly overran smaller bases and sent soldiers and thousands of people fleeing larger towns.
The military has not released casualty figures but denies many soldiers were killed.
A security adviser at an international aid organisation said a major goal of the new large bases was damage control, rather than the offensive.
“It is to consolidate strength in one place to prevent them being overrun every week,” the adviser said.
He said areas vacated were filled by insurgents and that would make it harder for the military to return, leaving civilians vulnerable.
The concerns were echoed by the governor of Borno – the birthplace of Boko Haram and the state worst hit by the insurgency. Governor Babagana Umara Zulum told reporters recent attacks were the result of a “serious vacuum” following the withdrawal of soldiers.
Islamic State is using its newfound freedom to woo locals. Drained by the decade-long conflict, some are open to moving into areas controlled by the insurgents where life can be more stable, residents said.
“We are here to protect you, not to harm any one of you,” an IS fighter told residents. “Those with uniforms are your enemies and we are here to deal with them and their supporters. You should feel free.”
Rather than flee to a government-controlled city such as Borno state’s capital Maiduguri, many Gubio residents stayed.