ISIS prison break: is the terror group rebuilding in Syria?

What if a daring raid to try and free thousands of imprisoned fighters had succeeded, is ISIS still a threat?

A bloody six-day battle to catch more than 3,000 ISIS prisoners who escaped the Ghwayran jail in Hassakeh, Syria, was drawing to a close on Tuesday, when Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces forced around 550 surviving terrorists to surrender.

An unknown number of hostages, possibly including children being used as human shields, were still said be held by the group in the surrounding area.

Quote
ISIS knows not to get too excited and lose the momentum. They play the long game, happy to wait out the US
Craig Whiteside, US Naval War College

At least 160 people have been killed — likely many more — while 45,000 civilians fled the town, the UN said.

If various accounts from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local media reports are correct, hundreds of ISIS fighters remain at large, boosting the now depleted group’s ranks.

The prison break, which involved two suicide attacks to breach the jail, was likely planned long in advance, displaying a high level of command and control as a "surge operation," said Craig Whiteside, a retired colonel and Iraq war veteran who now teaches at the US Naval War College.

It represents one of the largest and most sophisticated ISIS operations in Syria or Iraq in recent years.

US F-16 aircraft and Apache helicopters were called on to assist in dislodging ISIS positions from the town, while US forces on the ground used Bradley armoured vehicles.

The crisis has revived memories of the group’s most deadly jailbreak in 2013, when a large ground assault freed about 500 terrorists from Abu Ghraib in Iraq, conducting a similar raid on a prison in Tikrit — one of eight documented ISIS prison break operations — in a campaign by the militants known as Breaking the Walls.

During the Abu Ghraib raid, some of the group’s most skilled and notorious commanders were freed, energising their campaign, including Abu Abdulrahman Al Bilawi, who went on to lead the campaign to take Mosul.

These operations were vital for rebuilding ISIS ranks: the group was recovering in the aftermath of a devastating Sunni tribal revolt, modest improvements in Iraqi government counterterrorism capability and an effective coalition campaign, which ended in 2011.

By 2013, the group was holding sway in many rural areas of Iraq, amid a series of catastrophic mistakes by the Iraqi government.

ISIS carved out a self-styled caliphate in a large area straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border, in 2014. AP

Former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki was accused of allowing security forces to wither through corruption and political patronage, while marginalising Sunni communities. Sunni tribal forces were also left unpaid and many left their posts, signalling a shot in the arm for ISIS recruitment efforts and dividing Sunni communities.

“Prison breaks were significant early in ISIS history,” says Mr Whiteside.

“Badush jailbreak in 2007 was a notable early attempt, as was an attack on Abu Ghraib in 2004. But with coalition consolidation into [detention camps] Cropper and Bucca there was no chance,” he says.

“This changed once Iraqis took it over. ISIS commander Hudaifa Al Battawi led a huge uprising — an inside job — in 2010/11 that killed the prison commandant. Iraq was putting prisoners in very vulnerable places, including Abu Ghraib and Mosul, instead of deep in the south, not unlike current problems."

Syria's overcrowded ISIS camps

Those “current problems” were on full display during the fighting in Hasakkeh, where the SDF ran only one of several prisons holding tens of thousands of local and foreign ISIS fighters.

Experts have repeatedly given warnings that such a high concentration of imprisoned fighters in overcrowded jails is a recipe for disaster, with the SDF being understaffed, undertrained and underfunded to deal with the problem effectively.

Violence and the continued dissemination of ISIS ideology in the camps have been prominent among the many problems, as well as the ordeal faced by young children in the centres, who were born during ISIS' four year-long rule.

Critics accuse foreign governments of absolving themselves of responsibility for ISIS fighters who represent a political problem — and potential security problem at home.

A UN report warned in 2019 that ISIS was planning large-scale prison breaks, calling the situation in Syrian detention centres “precarious.”

“Until now there's been a low-level insurgency in SDF areas and this has been one of the major operations they've done since 2019,” Aymenn Al Tamimi, research fellow at George Washington University’s Programme on Extremism, tells The National.

But Mr Al Tamimi and Mr Whiteside do not believe the group is close to the kind of “force regeneration” seen between 2010 and 2014.

“Depending on how many prisoners managed to get out, I predict there would be more attacks but we’re still a long way off from replicating 2014,” Mr Al Tamimi says.

“Rhetorically they've spoken in their propaganda about freeing their prisoners, there's some significance to it. But at the same time I'd be cautious about saying it's a replay of 2012 and 2014 and there's still a long way off replicating the success they've had before, especially as the international community is more alert against this problem than it was at the beginning of 2014.”

Mr Whiteside, whose recent research has focused on specialised ISIS operations such as the Ghwayran attack, as well as their operations to rebuild before 2014, is also sceptical that the prison break represents the start of an ISIS resurgence.

“Trends don't tell us everything, but compared to 2013, violence is an order of magnitude lower and US presence in Syria and Iraq is still a check on unfettered expansion,” he says. “The question is, how long will they be there?”

In addition to ISIS attacks in Syria and Iraq being low compared to the build up to the fall of Mosul, what experts sometimes call “quality” or “spectacular” attacks like the Ghwayran prison raid are less common.

The 2013 Abu Ghraib raid, for example, involved 12 car bombs and a separate, well-planned attack 130 kilometres away in Tikrit.

“ISIS knows not to get too excited and lose the momentum. They play the long game, happy to wait out the US,” Mr Whiteside says.

Updated: January 28, 2022, 3:31 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS