The Nigerian military has assembled thousands of troops and equipment in preparation for a massive operation to retake Baga and five other towns in the northern part of Borno State from Boko Haram.
The towns were reportedly seized last week by members of the Islamic State in West African Province (ISWAP), the faction of Boko Haram that is affiliated to ISIS.
The Abu Mus'ab Albarnawi-led group reportedly took control of Baga, Doron-Baga, Kross Kawwa, Bunduran, Kekeno and Kukawa, after expelling their military defenders.
The Army has denied reports of the falls of the towns but residents fleeing the areas confirmed the presence of Boko Haram fighters on the streets.
The fresh military buildup is coming days after the Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima convened an extra-ordinary security meeting to come up with measures to halt the resurgence of terrorist attacks in the state.
Daily Trust on Sunday learnt that all the three arms of the nation's armed forces, the army, navy and the air force, would be involved in the major offensive to flush out the insurgents from the areas they have captured.
Credible sources said the Defence Headquarters had gone far in mobilising men and resources ahead of the major onslaught scheduled to take place anytime soon.
"A major operation is on the way but we can't divulge the details to you," a source said.
"More troops including ground troops, airmen and naval personnel are being deployed from different formations. They would join those on ground in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states for the operations," he said.
Another source said many fighting equipment were being put together for onward delivery to the northern part of Borno for the major operation.
"It is going to be a serious operation, I can assure you," he said.
Residents in parts of northern Borno confirmed mass movement of soldiers and military hardware to the area.
The Borno State Hunters Union, Daily Trust on Sunday reliably learnt, has also deployed a reinforcement of its men to the captured communities to lend a helping hand to the military.
Boko Haram insurgents have stepped up attacks on military locations in the North-East recently, with an attack in November at Metele claiming the lives of over 20 soldiers.
The soldiers were killed when the insurgents overran 157 Battalion in northern Borno. Additional 12 soldiers also lost their lives in separate attacks around that period.
Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Yusuf Tukur Buratai last month attributed the setbacks to psychological warfare by the Boko Haram faction, which he said had instilled fears in both troops and civilians.
Daily Trust on Sunday learnt that apart from attacking military bases, ISWAP has been ambushing military convoys and patrols.
The most recent of such attacks happened in Banki, where two soldiers were killed, when troops of 152 Battalion were ambushed by the insurgents. They seized four Hilux vehicles belonging to an unnamed NGO and three drums of diesel.
It was also gathered that the group, after taking Baga, had been making consistent attempts to overrun Monguno (64km from Baga and 171km to Maiduguri). But they have been repeatedly beaten by the Army's Special Forces deployed in the town.
Many of the insurgents have lost their lives in the hands of the elite troops defending the town, sources said. They also said that over 200 of them were killed by Nigerien forces as they moved towards the neighbouring country after they were repelled from Monguno.
ISWAP holds Baga, others
The ISWAP is currently in control of many towns, villages and islands in the Nigerian shores of the Lake Chad, even as thousands of fishermen and farmers who found their ways out of the locations are now taking refuge in Maiduguri.
The insurgents, according to locals, initially converged on Doron Naira and Dogon Chukun, two islands along the Lake Chad not far from Baga town, before launching last week's onslaught on the fishing community.
A fierce battle ensued between ISWAP and Nigerian troops, lasting two days (Wednesday, December 28 to Friday, December 30), leading to the withdrawal of Nigerian soldiers attached to the Multi-National Joint Task Force base in Baga.
Sources said the development led to the fall of major towns and settlements like Baga, Doron-Baga, Kross Kawwa, Bunduran, Kekeno and Kukawa towns.
Sources said at the time of the fight last week, only Nigerian troops were at the base as forces from Chad, Cameroon and Niger had for long withdrawn and were only manning their own sides of the borders.
Besides the MNJTF headquarters, the insurgents also overran a naval fighting base and a marine police base.
A fisherman, Modu Ari, who is now in Maiduguri, told the Daily Trust on Sunday that the departure of troops from many locations in the last few months, including those in Metele, following attacks by Shekau-faction of Boko Haram, left many communities at the mercy of the Abu Mus'ab's faction of the Boko Haram.
According to him, locals in dozens of communities now live under the control of the Abu Mus'ab's faction.
"Some of the communities include Gashigar, Zari, Granda, Gudumbari, Kukawa, Arge, Metele, Alagarnon Arewa, Kangarwa, Jilli, Birmari, Mairari, Mainari, Kuroskauwa, Mil 4, Mil 90," he said.
"But the only difference we are witnessing this time around is that the (Abu Mus'ab's) Boko Haram fighters kill locals only when they show some form of resistance.
"They asked those who want to leave to leave but told those interested in staying behind not to worry," he added.
He said the fighters were armed with Anti-Aircraft guns and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs); and that they were in their thousands.
A farmer, Makinta Aisami, who also spoke to Daily Trust on Sunday confirmed what Ari said, but added that locals living in many communities near the Lake
Chad are living in fear and are being extorted by the group.
"They charge taxes," he said.
He said in communities located far from strong military facilities, Boko Haram fighters were forcing farmers to pay tax before they could be allowed access to their farms while fishermen pay "revenue through their noses" before they were allowed to go with their catch.
He said the only people living in relative peace because of military visibility were those in Monguno, Damasak, Gubio, Gajiram, Kareto and Malumfatori.
Apart from those who fled towards Damasak and Gaidam, thousands escaped to Maiduguri on foot and by road.
They have been thronging the popular Baga Road Market in Maiduguri, sleeping in the open, waiting for the possible arrival of their missing relatives, and partly because they have nowhere to go.
The Borno State Government has been evacuating them since last Monday to the Teachers Village IDP camp.
Daily Trust on Sunday observed, however, that while a substantial number of them would not agree to be evacuated, many were moving back to Baga, banking on a said promise by Boko Haram that they would not be harmed when they return to their captured territory.
"Over the last one week, transport fare to Monguno that used to be N1,000 increased to N5,000 per passenger, and to charter a car will cost between N25,000 and N30,000, instead of the N5,000 it used to be," a commercial car driver, Mohammed Bukar, told Daily Trust on Sunday.
"Initially, you could not find more than 500 residents remaining in Baga, Mile 4 and Doro," a leading member of the Borno State CJTF, working under the Multinational Joint Task Force, (MNJTF), told Daily Trust on Sunday on Friday, explaining, "Soldiers had themselves fled from the communities ... when the boys (Boko Haram) came and invaded Baga. They simply seized a deserted military barracks, 8 Div Headquarters.
"As I am speaking to you now, thousands of our returnees, including my father and mother and many of my own family members and friends are still missing in the bush between the Lake Chad and Maiduguri," Muhammad Bukar from Kangarwa near Baga, said.
ISWAP recruiting youths
A community leader in northern Borno who does not want his name mentioned, said the insurgents were recruiting young people.
"They are seriously working on the psychology of our people," he said.
"They no longer kill our people, especially the youths, instead, they show them they are better in terms of taking care of them, and to me this is very dangerous.
"Of course, they collect taxes from sales of produce and fish but they no longer forcefully collect the goods and with this approach, they are getting some sort of sympathies, tactically winning the love of our children," he said.
"The terrorists have the advantage of knowledge of the environment and they can go to Cameroon, Chad, or Niger if the heat becomes unbearable for them, hence the need for serious cooperation between all the countries in the area of operation to stop the menace," he added.
The forces behind ISWAP
In August, 2016, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi put to an end, the seven years of Abubakar Shekau's leadership in Nigeria and the West African Province.
In his stead, he anointed Abu Mus'ab Al-Barnawi, whose real name is Habib. He is the son of the late Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram.
The Boko Haram under Shekau had earlier in March, 2015 paid allegiance to ISIS's proclaimed caliphate under Al-Baghdadi.
When he was removed as leader, Shekau on August 4, 2016, released an audio in which he described the breakaway leader, Al Barnawi as heretic. Soon after the new development, sporadic fighting broke out between the two factions, one headed by Shekau and the other by Al-Barnawi who has the support of Mamman Nur.
Findings by our reporter at the time revealed that while the ISIS-backed Al-Barnawi had an upper hand in northern part of Borno State, Shekau remained dominant in the central and southern parts of the state, where the large swathe of the Sambisa forest is located.
With the support of Mamman Nur, Albarnawi achieved a lot in consolidating his gains in northern Borno by trailing and killing "Shekau's boys" in places like Monguno, Kukawa, Damasak, Abadam, Marte and Kala-Balge.
On the other hand, Shekau remained "strong" in villages in Gwoza, Damboa and Chibok, which are all not far from the Sambisa forest.
Mamman had been on the wanted list of the United States with ransom placed on his head.
Nur was killed around August, 2018, by forces close to Al Barnawi over alleged "selfish" handling of millions of money in hard currencies allegedly given to him as ransom for the release of captives.
Before his death, Nur was seen as ISIS linkman in Nigeria, but fronting Al-Barnawi as leader, in order to retain the loyalty of the original supporters of Mohammed Yusuf.
With Nur's death, the Albarnawi faction becomes more vicious in attacking military formations and ambitious in capturing more communities.
Beyond northern Borno, Al Barnawi's fighters are now inching towards central and southern part of Borno, launching attacks in places like Mainok, Jakana and other locations along Maiduguri-Damaturu road.