ISWAP’s military successes can be traced in part to some early good fortune but also, more enduringly, to its novel, flexible strategy and improved tactics.
After it struck out on its own, ISWAP enjoyed some breathing room from the Nigerian military. The Nigerian military was focused on Shekau because of his global profile as the Chibok girls’ kidnapper, the organiser of child suicide bombings in Maiduguri and a provocative propagandist.
ISWAP’s early activities got less attention. Some observers even suspected that the Nigerian authorities had cut a deal with ISWAP, though the existence of such a pact seems unlikely given that ISWAP began attacking military targets soon after its formation.
But at the same time that Shekau was drawing attention away from ISWAP, ISWAP was demonstrating that it had also learned from Shekau’s mistakes. Together with JAS, it learned from Shekau’s 2015 failure to defend his capital, Gwoza, and his broader retreat from territory Boko Haram once held, that jihadists could not at present win a conventional war and hold towns against state armies with air support.
Both ISWAP and Shekau’s JAS faction understood that they had to fall back to rural strongholds offering some protection from air power – for ISWAP, the forests of Yobe and Borno states, and the marshes and island of Lake Chad – and resort to guerrilla tactics.
Yet important differences also emerged between the two groups, notably in terms of targeting. Whereas JAS continued to stage raids to capture civilians and plunder their resources, terrorise crowded markets and mosques with suicide bombings, and conduct mass killings and abductions at roadblocks, ISWAP focused primarily on military targets as well as, to a lesser extent, civilian targets associated in one way or another with the state – eg, local officials, chiefs, vigilantes and suspected informers.
While ISWAP, like JAS, would sometimes direct suicide bombers at military targets, unlike JAS, it did not send women or children on these suicide missions, and it does not attack civilian targets. And while there are outliers, by and large ISWAP units seemed to make efforts to spare civilians, and they highlighted these efforts in direct contacts with the local population, as they did when they took the town of Baga in December 2018.ISWAP’s tactics seem to have contributed to a notable drop in civilian casualties in north-eastern Nigeria since 2016, and a rise in military casualties in 2018, particularly after ISWAP launched a major offensive in August that year.
ISWAP’s focus on military targets has produced certain practical benefits. After it split from Shekau, ISWAP likely suffered from weapons shortages, and frequent raids on military sites allowed it to replenish its supply. Following its repeated failed attacks on Kangarwa, a large Nigerian army base in the Lake Chad region, between August 2016 and January 2017, ISWAP adjusted tactics, selecting smaller military targets. This adjustment appears to have won it both arms stockpiles and combat experience. Since June 2018, it used these advantages to attack larger military targets again, meeting with more success.
The faction’s July 2018 raid on a battalion-sized camp (approximately 700 soldiers) in Jilli, Yobe state is a good indicator of ISWAP’s growing capabilities. The choice of target suggested that ISWAP possessed reliable intelligence about the camp’s vulnerability (the battalion was far from the centre of fighting and comprised fresh, inexperienced recruits with new equipment); effective internal coordination (the raiding party reportedly included a few hundred fighters coming from distant locations); and operational sophistication (ISWAP used captured vehicles bearing the latest Nigerian army markings and camouflage).
Since then, ISWAP has waged many more such attacks on significant military sites, many of them successful. On 7 September 2018, it overran the town of Gudumbali – the first time since 2015 that militants had seized a local government area headquarters. Consistent with its guerrilla tactics, rather than trying to hold territory, ISWAP looted the camp and left.
On 26 December 2018, it overran the twin towns of Baga and Doro Gowon, taking over major army and navy bases there. This time, ISWAP was confident enough in its defensive capabilities to maintain a presence there. The Nigerian army was overmatched and had little choice but to regroup. In December 2018, it eventually evacuated all its outposts on the lake, including Kangarwa, which it had defended fiercely in 2016-2017.