Islamic State claimed fighters from its West Africa Province affiliate killed more than a dozen Nigerian Army personnel and abducted two others when they ambushed a military convoy in Nigeria’s Borno state on Wednesday, September 25.
In an unusually swift release, ISIS propaganda agency Amaq claimed “14 soldiers of the Nigerian Army were killed today and two others captured, as well as others wounded” in the ambush, which it said was on the road between Borno state capital Maiduguri and Gubio, around 80 km (50 miles) north.
ISIS repeated the claim in a later statement, saying that ISWAP fighters ambushed Nigerian Army vehicles and clashed with soldiers “with light, medium and heavy weapons, leading to the death of 14 [of their] elements
Reports on the events are sketchy, and the exact location of the ambush is unclear.
Citing a local vigilante source, Daily Trust on Thursday reported that the ambush happened around 4:15 p.m.
“More than a dozen soldiers were killed in the attack while several others sustain injuries,” the source said, adding that the insurgents seized weapons, ammunition and a utility vehicle.
Citing a military source, Reuters reported that there were clashes following the ambush.
The Nigerian military has not yet commented on the incident.
Update September 27 A senior military officer told AFP on Friday that seven soldiers were killed in Wednesday’s ambush.
“We lost seven soldiers when the pickup conveying the troops was hit by an RPG,” said the officer, asking not to be identified.
The officer insisted “nobody was captured alive” and dismissed the ISIS claims as propaganda.
He said the insurgents “lost a truck and some fighters.”
A second military source did not give a death toll but said the attack was carried out by ISWAP fighters.
Gubio has been at the center of ISWAP attacks in recent months.
On September 12, ISWAP fighters attacked Gubio and three other towns north of Maiduguri, killing at least six soldiers and the leader of Gubio’s Civilian Joint Task Force militia.
A month earlier on August 10, ISWAP fighters attacked a Nigerian Army base at Gubio killing three soldiers and three civilians. Amaq later published a series of images that it said were from an attack in Borno state.
A military base in Gubio was also attacked by ISWAP in May.
The capture of soldiers is significant. Amaq released a video on September 22 showing the execution of two men by ISWAP fighters, claiming they were Nigerian Army soldiers who were captured in an ISWAP attack on a base in the Gajiram area of Borno state on September 5.
In May, Amaq released a 21-minute propaganda video which showed the execution of nine people. A group of eight people were shown being executed by gunshots to the head at point-blank range, while one tank crew member, who said he was captured in Metele in November, was separately killed with a rocket-propelled grenade.
Ambush calls into question ‘Super Camp’ strategy
ISWAP began to intensify attacks on Nigerian military targets in July 2018, killing dozens of soldiers, overrunning bases and capturing towns. The Lake Chad area of Nigeria, Chad and Niger, where it is the dominant insurgent group, has seen particularly fierce fighting, but ISWAP has also claimed or been blamed for attacks in the Maduguri area and further west.
Ambushes of military convoys have become a more frequent ISWAP tactic, perhaps as roadside vegetation has grown during the rainy season, offering cover for attacks on vehicles.
As a recent example, Nigerian soldiers were killed in an ambush on a military convoy near Gudumbali, around 65 km northeast of Gubio on September 9. ISIS claimed ISWAP fighters ambushed the convoy between Damasak and Gudumbali, and struck another military position near the village of Garunda, about 20 km west. Amaq later released a video that it said showed the ambush, and the Nigerian Air Force released video of airstrikes on what it said were ISWAP vehicles near Garunda.
But the “Super Camp” strategy recently adopted by the Nigerian Army could have the unfortunate consequence of giving insurgents greater opportunity to attack convoys.
The controversial strategy has seen military personnel withdrawn from smaller bases in towns and villages, concentrating forces in “Super Camps” which are more-easily defended from ISWAP attacks. The concentration of forces enables mobile counter-insurgency raids, but those military movements themselves present ambush opportunities for ISWAP.
The drawbacks of the “Super Camp” strategy became apparent on August 21, when ISWAP fighters reportedly entered Gubio and Magumeri unopposed, taking control of both towns and burning government buildings. Borno state governor Babagana Zulum later expressed concern about the strategy, warning that “the absence of the Nigerian military in a particular place will create a vacuum” that insurgents could exploit.
A decade of Islamist insurgency
The jihadist group known as Boko Haram began its bloody insurgency in northeastern Nigeria in 2009, but it has since spread into neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, prompting a regional military response.
Boko Haram split into two factions in mid-2016. One, led by long-time leader Abubakar Shekau, is notorious for suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings of civilians. Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in March 2015, but ISIS central only gives formal backing to the other faction, which it calls Islamic State West Africa Province.
The ISWAP faction, which largely focuses on attacking military and government targets, was led by Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi, but in March, audio recordings revealed that ISIS appointed Abu Abdullah Idris bin Umar, also known as Ibn Umar al-Barnawi and Ba Idrisa, as leader. Despite releasing several videos featuring ISWAP since, ISIS has not yet made a public statement confirming the change. On September 10, the United States added Ba Idrisa to its Specially Designated Global Terrorist list, but did not specify which faction he belongs to.
The U.S. assesses that Boko Haram and ISWAP have been responsible for more than 35,000 deaths since 2011. More than two million people have been displaced, sparking a dire humanitarian crisis in the region. Earlier this month, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that early 22,000 people, mostly children, are missing as a result of the insurgency in northeast Nigeria.
In July, a spokesperson for President Muhammadu Buhari again insisted that Boko Haram was defeated, blaming ongoing violence in the northeast on international jihadists exploiting porous borders with Sahel countries.
On September 13, an army press release said that Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusufu Buratai had warned that referring to Boko Haram, JAS or ISWAP by name “could amount to supporting or encouraging terrorism,” and that “giving prominence to the criminal activities of the terrorists group through sensational headlines and fake news in both electronic and print media could also amount to tacit support to terrorism which violates the Terrorism Prevention Act 2011.”