ISIS Siege of Syrian Prison Proves It’s Still a Threat
BEIRUT, Lebanon – A week after Islamic State fighters attacked a prison in northeastern Syria, where they resisted despite a fierce assault by a US-backed Kurdish-led militia , the terrorist organization published its version of what had happened.
In its official magazine, it mocked the number of times in its history that its enemies had declared the Islamic State defeated. His surprise attack on the prison, he sang, had “his enemies screaming in frustration, ‘They’re back!’ »
This description was not entirely wrong.
The prison battle in the city of Hasaka has killed hundreds, drawn in US troops and served as a stark reminder that three years after the collapse of the so-called Islamic State caliphate, the group’s ability to sow chaotic violence persists, experts said. As of Friday, around 60 Islamic State fighters still controlled part of the prison.
In Iraq, ISIS recently killed 10 soldiers and an officer at a military post and beheaded a policeman on camera. In Syria, it has murdered dozens of local leaders and extorts companies to finance its operations. In Afghanistan, the withdrawal of US forces in August left it fighting the Taliban, with often disastrous consequences for civilians caught in the crossfire.
The Islamic State, which once controlled a territory the size of Britain that stretched across the Syrian-Iraqi border, is no longer as powerful as it once was, but experts say it could bide its time until conditions in the unstable countries where it thrives provide it with new opportunities to grow.
“There is no American endgame in Syria or Iraq, and the prison is just one example of this failure to find a long-term solution,” said Craig Whiteside, associate professor at the US Naval War College which studies the group. “It is really only a matter of time for ISIS before another opportunity presents itself. All they have to do is hang on until then.
The Islamic State, whose history dates back to the insurgency that followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, reached the peak of its powers around 2015, when it ruled several cities in Syria and Iraq, drew hordes of foreign fighters from as far away as China and Australia, and ran a sophisticated propaganda machine that inspired or directed foreign attacks from Berlin to San Bernardino, California.
A US-led military coalition teamed up with local forces in Syria and Iraq to push it back, until a Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, pushed it back from its last plot. of territory in early 2019.
Since then, the organization has evolved from a top-down, military-like bureaucracy to a more diffuse and decentralized insurgency, according to terrorism experts and regional security officials.
The consequences of the civil war in Syria
After a decade of fighting, many Syrians wonder if the country can be put back together.
But the prison’s prominence as a target suggested last week’s attack would have been greenlit “by the highest levels”, Mr Whiteside said. The group’s ability to mobilize dozens of fighters and break into a prison that US and SDF officials had long suspected was a target was a feat and a propaganda stunt no matter how the siege turned out.
A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the likely aim of the operation was to free some of the group’s senior and mid-level leaders and fighters with specific skills, such as manufacturing of bombs. The official estimated that perhaps 200 prisoners had escaped.
SDF officials did not confirm that figure and said they were still assessing the effect.
The Islamic State is struggling to rebuild itself. The assassination of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019 deprived it of a unifying figure, and its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, is largely unknown. Tighter border controls have kept foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq and Syria, and persistent raids by US-backed forces in both countries have largely pushed it out of major cities to the outskirts.
In Iraq, the group ramped up attacks in 2019 and 2020, but they have since declined in quantity and quality, according to an in-depth analysis of attack data by Michael Knights and Alex Almeida published this month.
“For now, at the start of 2022, the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq is at an all-time low, with a recorded number of attacks that rivals the lowest on record,” they wrote.
They cite a range of factors: a greater security presence in rural areas, thermal imaging cameras that can detect militants moving at night, frequent security sweeps and a campaign of “decapitation strikes” against the group’s leaders. .
The authors draw no conclusions about the future of the group, but suggest that ISIS could save its resources until circumstances give it the opportunity to break out.
The group has been through periods of weakness before, the authors note, and still managed to bounce back.
Before attacking the Hasaka prison last week, ISIS in Syria operated mainly in the sparsely populated east of the country, where its fighters took refuge in the desert to plan attacks against the Syrian government and forces directed by the Kurds, according to analysts and local residents.
From 2018 to 2021, he escalated a campaign of assassinations of local leaders and tribal figures, killing more than 200, according to research by DeirEzzor24, an activist network.
More recently, he has extorted money from local businesses, distributed leaflets against the US-backed SDF and carried out a series of attacks on isolated checkpoints that have caused some to give up, Dareen said. Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“The reality is that the situation has worsened in 2021, not because there have been so many attacks on checkpoints, but there have been enough attacks that the internal security forces have scared to check the checkpoints,” she said.
Other factors contributed to Islamic State’s persistence, she said, citing the SDF’s struggle to forge trusting relationships with local residents in predominantly Arab areas, porous borders, poverty overwhelming that facilitates the smuggling of arms and people for the jihadists, and the general instability of the region. .
Some sudden disruptions, such as financial problems for the SDF and its affiliated administration, a new military incursion by Turkey similar to that of 2019, or a hasty withdrawal of the 700 American troops based in the region to support the SDF, could give the jihadists a opening, Ms. Khalifa said.
“ISIS is a local insurgency, and may not be an imminent transnational risk,” she said. “But if there’s a kind of vacuum in Syria, that’s where these movements really thrive. This is when he becomes more of an external threat.
What ISIS has not been able to do since 2019 is control significant territory. The splash operation in Hasaka, analysts say, does not change that.
“Contrary to popular opinion, it doesn’t move the needle much, and it doesn’t get them any closer to restoring control over populations,” Mr Whiteside said. This control, he said, is “their raison d’être, the reason why they call themselves ‘the state'”.
The prison attack was still one of ISIS’s most ambitious since 2018, and it shouldn’t have come as a big surprise.
The prison was effectively a converted training institute reinforced with bars and other fortifications, not an ideal confinement for thousands of veterans of a group that has historically relied on prison escapes to replenish its ranks. .
And it was a known target.
Last month, the SDF media office released a video of a man identified as a captured ISIS commander, claiming he was responsible for planning a foiled attack involving two car bombs and a group armed commandos.
Their objective? To storm the Hasaka prison which the Islamic State seized last week.
Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.