When Islamic State gunmen stormed the northeast Nigerian town of
Magumeri on the night of August 21, they had free rein.

Nigerian soldiers had left the town earlier that month under a new
strategy of withdrawing to "super camps" that can be more easily
defended against insurgents the army has been struggling to contain
for a decade.

Unchallenged, the Islamist militants torched a clinic in Magumeri,
ransacked government buildings and looted shops before returning to
another town they had raided that night called Gubio, residents said.

The new military strategy announced by President Muhammadu Buhari in
July to concentrate soldiers in big bases is designed to give troops a
secure platform from which they can respond quickly to threats in the
region and raid militant camps.

People familiar with the military's thinking and security officials,
however, say the new tactic for fighting Islamic State's West Africa
branch and Boko Haram is mainly an attempt to stem casualties.

The military did not respond to requests for more details about its
strategy or the impact it will have on the region.

"We strongly believe the days of BH (Boko Haram) moving freely and
passing in between static defensive locations are over," Major General
Olusegun Adeniyi, who commands the anti-insurgency operation, told
reporters last month.

Boko Haram launched an insurgency in 2009 to overthrow the government
and establish an Islamic caliphate. The group, whose unofficial name
means "Western education is forbidden", held territory the size of
Belgium in 2014 but a multinational offensive recaptured much of it
the following year.

The group split in 2016 and the faction that has been the greater
threat ever since won the recognition of Islamic State.

The decade of war has killed more than 30,000 civilians and spawned
what the United Nations calls one of the world's worst humanitarian
crises, which foreign nations are trying to contain with billions of
dollars of aid.

But the crisis shows no sign of abating.

'IT'S A MESS'

The army's withdrawal into large bases has coincided with a string of
insurgent raids on newly unprotected towns and has left the militants
free to set up checkpoints on roads as they roam more freely across
the countryside, according to three briefing notes from an
international aid and development organisation, two security officials
and residents.

That has left thousands of civilians without access to aid, according
to the briefing notes seen by Reuters.

Soldiers are no longer protecting some 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," one
foreign security official said.

The population of towns being abandoned by the military is a combined
223,000 people, according to one of the aid agency briefing notes.

The military departures so far have cut off more than 100,000 people
from aid and if more soldiers go, as many as 121,000 other civilians
could flee their towns, one aid agency briefing note said.

"The impact will be one of the continued skirmishes - soldiers under
constant strain to deal with the insurgency where Islamic State and
Boko Haram dictate the momentum," said Jasmine Opperman, a terrorism
expert based in South Africa.

It's not yet clear how many "super camps" the army plans to set up,
where they will be nor how many soldiers each will hold.

'HERE TO PROTECT YOU'

The new strategy follows a series of setbacks for the army which has
failed to keep a tight grip on territory it has clawed back since
2015. Last year, insurgents repeatedly overran smaller bases and sent
soldiers and tens of thousands of people fleeing from larger towns.

Security experts put the military death toll since June 2018 at
anywhere from hundreds of soldiers to in excess of 1,000.

The military has not released casualty figures but denies that many
soldiers have been killed.

One security adviser at an international aid organisation said a major
goal of the new large bases was damage control, rather than going on
the offensive.

"It is to consolidate all of the strength in one place to prevent them
from being overrun every week," the adviser said.

He said the areas vacated were being filled by insurgents and that
would make it harder for the military to re-enter, leaving civilians
vulnerable.

Those 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 last month that recent attacks
were the result of a "serious vacuum" following the withdrawal of
soldiers.

Islamic State is also 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.

Before hitting Magumeri last month, the militants had passed through
the town of Gubio, some 40 km (25 miles) to the north.

There, an Islamic State fighter led evening prayers followed by a
sermon, according to six residents.

"We are here to protect you, not to harm anyone of you," the 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, Reuters reports.

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