- On January 20, 2022, about 200 ISIS operatives broke into the Al-Sina’ah-Ghuwayran Prison in the Al-Sina’ah neighborhood of Al-Hasakah, where over 4,000 ISIS operatives were held by the Kurdish forces (SDF). The attack, which is the largest action carried out by ISIS since its defeat in Al-Baghouz (March 2019), began with the detonation of two car bombs at the checkpoint at the prison gate. Then, dozens of armed operatives stormed the prison. There were heavy exchanges of fire and prisoners started to escape.
The prison during the fighting, as documented by the SDF forces (SDF Press, January 22, 2022)
- Clashes spilled over from the prison compound to the neighborhoods of Al-Hasakah. Hundreds of prisoners, ISIS operatives, escaped to the nearby neighborhoods. Some of them hid in the homes of the residents, using them as human shields (Al-Arabiya and Al-Araby al-Jadeed, January 20-23, 2022; Sky News, January 21, 2022; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 22, 2022). The city of Al-Hasakah was put under curfew and SDF forces were deployed there (North Press Agency, January 26, 2022; SyriaTV, January 25, 2022). Aircraft of the US-led Global Coalition against ISIS flew over the area (Rudaw, January 20, 2022). Press Secretary for the US Department of Defense John Kirby noted that the US had provided the Kurdish forces with real-time surveillance and limited ground support during the fighting (www.militarytimes.com, January 24, 2022). After several days of fighting in the area, the SDF forces announced the end of the fighting and the elimination of all ISIS pockets of resistance (SDF Press, January 30, 2022).
- According to the Kurdish forces, ISIS planned for the escaping prisoners to expand the fighting to neighborhoods adjacent to the prison (Al-Zohour and Ghuwayran) and also attack military and civilian institutions of the Kurdish autonomous administration. According to the Kurdish forces, they managed to thwart that plan after besieging the prison, the buildings of the nearby university where several prisoners had fled, and the neighborhoods near the prison (SDF Press, January 31, 2022).
- Regarding the number of casualties on both sides, there are conflicting reports whose reliability is unclear. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the number of people killed in clashes in the prison area as at January 30, 2022 is 332, including 246 ISIS operatives and 79 members of the SDF forces (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 30, 2022). The SDF forces later announced that the death toll stands at 121 among their fighters, prison guards and civilians, as well as 374 ISIS operatives (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 31, 2022).
- Even before the fighting ended, ISIS took advantage of the incidents to create a myth of heroism and raise the morale of its operatives and supporters. ISIS’s Al-Naba’ weekly published articles and an infographic covering the incidents. The weekly also states that the battle in Al-Hasakah is only “one page out of the book of revenge, and the victories of the Islamic State have not yet come to an end,” and promises that all the prisoners would be liberated (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, January 27, 2022).
- This is not the first time that ISIS operatives have attempted to take over prisons where operatives are incarcerated. Before the fall of ISIS, the culmination of ISIS’s campaign was the liberation of hundreds of operatives from Abu Ghraib Prison (July 21, 2013), the largest and most guarded prison in Iraq, where the Iraqi government had incarcerated hundreds of jihadi operatives. In recent years as well, ISIS carried out several attacks on prisons to liberate its imprisoned operatives.
- ISIS’s leaders encourage its operatives to carry out attacks aimed at liberating operatives incarcerated in prisons. For example, in an audiotape released by ISIS’s Al-Furqan Media Foundation on September 16, 2019, ISIS’s former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi calls on ISIS operatives to liberate ISIS operatives and their wives who are held by Western countries, the Iraqi regime, and the Kurds. He also calls on them to target judges, interrogators and security personnel in prisons where ISIS operatives are incarcerated. In 2019-2020 as well, ISIS issued several calls on its operatives to liberate imprisoned ISIS operatives and their families. ISIS’s spokesman even presented this as the last will and testament of ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
- The Al-Hasakah prison break-in proved that even about three years after the damage to its capabilities and the loss of most of the territories that it had controlled in Syria and Iraq, ISIS has demonstrated high-level operational capability and its ability to carry out a large-scale attack requiring advance planning and high-level capabilities. The attack proves that ISIS is still capable of recruiting hundreds of operatives, training them and equipping them with weapons. According to a senior SDF official, ISIS had most of its sleeper cells take part in the mission. Moreover, it was noted that the preparations took about six months.
- In this context, the Director of the Middle East and North Africa at the Stimson Center, a research institute in Washington DC, noted that the attack on the prison proved that ISIS still has the ability to strike wherever it chooses and that the latest attack must serve as proof to regional and national actors that the fight against ISIS is not over (The New York Times, January 25, 2022).
- It should be borne in mind that the liberation of hundreds of prisoners from prisons represents a significant addition of manpower for ISIS. Moreover, the success of the attack against Al-Hasakah will increase the motivation of ISIS operatives to make further attempts to liberate prisoners in other arenas. In the wake of the events in Al-Hasakah, and following a special order issued by Iraqi President Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s counterterrorism unit launched a large-scale operation to inspect the prisons where ISIS operatives are held in several provinces in Iraq for fear of similar incidents (Al-Sumaria, January 30, 2022).
The unfolding of the attack
- On January 20, 2022, about 200 ISIS operatives broke into the Al-Sina’ah-Ghuwayran Prison in the Al-Sina’ah neighborhood of Al-Hasakah. The SDF-controlled prison is the main prison where ISIS operatives have been jailed, and it is estimated that 4,000-5,000 operatives are held there. The inmates include ISIS commanders and operatives who took part in the battles in Al-Baghouz in March 2019. They also include several hundred boys and teenagers who had been trained to be ISIS’s future generation and undergone indoctrination and paramilitary training.
- The attack started with the detonation of two car bombs close to the prison. Then, dozens of armed ISIS operatives broke into the prison, possibly with the help of an inside collaborator who let them in using a food transportation car (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 20, 2022). The operatives managed to take over about a quarter of the prison compound, also seizing the Kurdish forces’ weapons. They held hundreds of hostages, many of them children who had been detained along with their families when the Islamic State fell in 2019 (The New York Times, January 25, 2022). UNICEF called for evacuating about 850 children held in the compound along with the armed operatives and their families, saying that there was an immediate threat to their security (Reuters, January 25, 2022).
- There were heavy exchanges of fire. Some of the inmates started rioting inside the prison. Dozens of prisoners escaped to nearby neighborhoods. The Kurdish forces said they had killed several dozen ISIS operatives who took part in the attack on the prison and detained others, commandeered a vehicle of the attackers which was loaded with weapons and ammunition, and located several explosive belts (SDF Press, January 21-23, 2022; Al-Arabiya, January 22-23, 2022). The interrogation of ISIS operatives detained by the SDF forces revealed that over 200 ISIS operatives wearing explosive belts had taken part in the fighting. Some of the operatives arrived from the regions of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad on the Syria-Turkey border and from Iraq. Their preparations for breaking into the prison took about six months (SDF Press, January 23, 2022).
- According to ISIS sources, the attack started on the evening of January 20, 2022, when two suicide bombers codenamed Abu Abd al-Rahman and Abu Farouq al-Muhajirin detonated two truck bombs, one near the gate and the other near the prison walls. ISIS operatives, armed and wearing explosive belts, acted at the same time. Some of them took over the watchtowers, others set fire to fuel trucks on the site to make it difficult for the US-led Coalition aircraft to provide support, and others acted to prevent the arrival of support forces into the prison. According to ISIS, about 200 SDF fighters were killed during the attack and over 800 prisoners were freed. They also held the prison staff hostage (Telegram, January 22, 2022). ISIS’s statements were accompanied by videos documenting the fighting, released by Amaq News Agency.
- Clashes spilled over to the neighborhoods of Al-Hasakah, mainly those adjacent to the prison, when some of the operatives and escaping prisoners hid in the homes of the residents, using them as human shields (Al-Arabiya and Al-Araby al-Jadeed, January 20-23, 2022; Sky News, January 21, 2022; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 22, 2022). Aircraft of the US-led Global Coalition against ISIS flew over the area (Rudaw, January 20, 2022). The city of Al-Hasakah was put under curfew and SDF forces were deployed there (North Press Agency, January 26, 2022; SyriaTV, January 25, 2022). Many of the residents reportedly left the neighborhoods (Reuters, January 25, 2022).
Right: Fighting inside the prison: bodies of SDF fighters are visible on the ground (Telegram, January 22, 2022). Left: ISIS operatives inside the prison (Telegram, January 23, 2022)
SDF fighters held prisoner by ISIS operatives (Telegram, January 22, 2022)
Kurdish forces fighting in neighborhoods in the vicinity of the prison (YPG Press, January 23, 2022)
- On the second day of the fighting, the Kurdish forces released photos documenting the situation in the prison area. According to the photos, some of the attackers were killed, and the SDF forces managed to retake the entrances to the prison and surround it. In addition, a video documenting the capture of escaping prisoners was released (SDF Press, January 21, 2022).
The prison, as documented by the Kurdish forces (SDF Press, January 22, 2022)
Prisoners who escaped and were apprehended by the Kurdish forces (SDF Press, January 21, 2022)
- On January 24, 2022, the SDF forces reported that after a day of fierce fighting, they had freed nine staff members held by ISIS operatives. Moreover, they said that even after the surrender, ISIS operatives were barricading themselves inside some of the prison buildings, but they were surrounded (SDF Press, January 24, 2022; ANHA, January 25, 2022). ISIS’s Amaq Agency reported that 12 SDF fighters had been killed and several others had been wounded in the fighting in an area close to the prison (Telegram, January 24, 2022)
Right: Armed ISIS operatives in the prison area. Left: ISIS operative firing at the Kurdish forces (Telegram, January 24, 2022)
Right: Fighting in the area surrounding the prison. Left: Armored vehicle of the Kurdish forces in the fighting area (Telegram, January 24, 2022)
- On January 25, 2022, the Kurdish forces reported that about 600 rebel prisoners and ISIS operatives who took part in the attack against the prison surrendered to the Kurdish forces after the forces threatened to break into the prison. They also reported the killing of five ISIS operatives wearing explosive belts in the Al-Zohour neighborhood, which is adjacent to the prison (SDF Press, January 25, 2022; ANHA, January 25, 2022).
- On January 30, 2022, the SDF forces issued an ultimatum to about 60 ISIS prisoners still barricading themselves in the basement of one of the buildings in the prison compound that if they did not surrender, they would be attacked (The New York Times, January 30, 2022). Al-Hasakah was reportedly still under lockdown. There was no electricity in many neighborhoods and there was a water shortage. It was reported that American forces were also taking part in the fighting in the city and not only in the prison (The New York Times, January 30, 2022). Later, the SDF forces announced the end of the fighting in the prison area and the elimination of all ISIS pockets of resistance in the area (SDF Press, January 30, 2022).
- On January 31, 2022, the SDF forces issued an announcement summing up the investigation of the incidents. The following details appear in the announcement (SDF Press, January 31, 2022):
- The attack on the prison was carried out after lengthy preparations by ISIS.
- It was carried out by several suicide bombers (their exact number was not specified).
- The attack started when a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb at the prison gate. After the explosion, ISIS operatives attacked the prison from three directions. At the same time, inmates began to attack the prison staff.
- At this point, an ISIS truck loaded with weapons and ammunition arrived at the prison gate so that escaping prisoners could equip themselves with weapons and ammunition while fleeing.
- According to the Kurdish forces, ISIS planned for the escaping prisoners to expand the fighting to neighborhoods adjacent to the prison (Al-Zohour and Ghuwayran) and also attack military and civilian institutions of the Kurdish autonomous administration. The Kurdish forces said they had managed to thwart that plan after besieging the prison, the buildings of the nearby university where several prisoners had fled, and the neighborhoods near the prison (SDF Press, January 31, 2022).
Number of prisoners who were freed
- In view of the conflicting reports, it is difficult to determine how many prisoners successfully escaped, how many were caught, and how many surrendered to the Kurdish forces. ISIS’s media reported that it had freed over 800 prisoners. The Kurdish forces claim that about 1000 ISIS operatives turned themselves in to them (North Press Agency, January 25, 26, 2022). It was also reported that some prisoners fighting in the neighborhoods of the city were killed. Some of the detainees who were captured were transported by bus to other detention facilities (North Press Agency, January 26, 2022). On January 27, 2022, the SDF forces reported that 3,500 prisoners inside the prison had surrendered (SDF Press, January 27, 2022).
Right: ISIS operatives surrender close to the prison (SDF Press, January 26, 2022). Left: Some of the detainees being transported by bus to other detention facilities (North Press Agency, January 25, 2022)
Number of casualties
- It is difficult to estimate the number of casualties suffered by each side during the fighting. Various sources estimate that the number is much higher than actually reported (Reuters, January 25, 2022). According to ISIS’s media, during the first two days of the fighting in the prison and its environs (January 20-22, 2022), over 200 SDF fighters were killed. Many fighters were taken prisoner. ISIS operatives set fire to at least 25 vehicles of the Kurdish forces and commandeered four ATVs equipped with heavy machine guns (Telegram, January 22, 2022). Many others were killed or wounded during the fighting on the following days, in the prison area and the nearby neighborhoods. During the days after the break-in at the prison, ISIS released several claims of responsibility for actions in the prison area, in which the Kurdish forces suffered casualties (Telegram).
- According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the number of people killed in the clashes in the prison area as at January 30, 2022, is 332, including 246 ISIS operatives and 79 SDF members (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 30, 2022). Later, the SDF forces reported that the death toll was 121 among their fighters, prison guards and civilians, as well as 374 ISIS operatives (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 31, 2022).
- An infographic published in Al-Naba’, summing up eight days of fighting (January 20-27, 2022), indicates that ISIS operatives killed and wounded 260 fighters of the Kurdish forces and put out of commission or destroyed 27 vehicles (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, January 27, 2022).
Infographic published by ISIS, including a quote by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi calling on ISIS operatives to free prisoners (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, January 27, 2022)
ISIS turns the fighting in the prison and its surroundings into a myth of heroism
- Despite the partial success and the many losses that it incurred, ISIS took advantage of the incidents to create a myth of heroism and raise the morale of its operatives and supporters. The latest issue of ISIS’s Al-Naba’ weekly (before the fighting ended) included articles and an infographic summing up the incidents. A detailed article entitled “Liberation of prisoners and wholesale losses in the ranks of the PKK [i.e., the Kurdish forces]” notes, among other things, that the Islamic State once again surprised everyone by attacking the most heavily guarded areas deep in enemy territory. The article describes the incident as a complex attack in terms of timing, location and planning, prompting the Kurdish forces and media to report versions and stories “approaching Hollywood’s imaginary film scripts.” It also notes that the biggest failure was that of the US forces, which failed to defend the city of Al-Hasakah (“the rear operations room of the US forces in the region” (Al-Naba’, January 27, 2022).
“Liberation of prisoners and wholesale losses in the ranks of the PKK” (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, January 27, 2022)
- Another article, entitled “The Ghuwayran Battle and the Last Pocket [i.e., The Last Pocket of Resistance],” describes the campaign in the prison and its environs. The author creates an analogy between the incidents in Al-Hasakah and the fighting over ISIS’s last pocket of resistance in Al-Baghouz in March 2019. The article notes that in both cases the West claimed to have eliminated the “last pocket of resistance,” while in practice ISIS continues to strike at its enemies and the “heroes of Al-Baghouz are the ones who brought about the “Ghuwayran epic.” According to the author, the Kurdish forces thought that hundreds of operatives had broken into the prison. In practice, however, there were only 12 operatives wearing explosive belts, and the prisoners joined the fighting. The author ends the article by addressing all ISIS prisoners and noting that “the battle in Ghuwayran is only one page out of the book of revenge” and calling on them to be optimistic since ISIS will not forget them and will do everything in its power to liberate them (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, January 27, 2022).
The article describing the incidents (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, January 27, 2022)
ISIS prisoners in Syria
- The Al-Sina’ah-Ghuwayran Prison in the neighborhood of Al-Sina’ah in Al-Hasakah is one of the largest prisons controlled by the SDF forces. About 4,000-5,000 jihadist operatives are held there. According to Human Rights Watch, the SDF forces hold about 12,000 men and boys suspected of affiliation to jihadist organizations, including 2,000-4,000 foreign fighters from over 50 countries.
- ISIS did not hide its intention to free its prisoners from jail. The Kurdish forces controlling the prisons approached the international community on several occasions, warning it of those intentions of ISIS and asking for assistance in solving the problem. Although several solutions have been proposed, such as sending the operatives back to their countries of origin, in practice this has so far been done only partially.
- The prison in Al-Hasakah has seen several serious incidents in the past. On September 21, 2021, it was reported that seven ISIS operatives of various nationalities had escaped from the prison. They were a Tunisian, a Moroccan, two Turks, a Chechen, a Russian and a Dutch national. The report has not been confirmed by any official Kurdish source (Telegram, September 21-22, 2021). On October 27, 2021, the prisoners staged a protest against an attempt to transfer some of them to another prison (Al-Shadadi). On November 7, 2021, riots among the prisoners were also reported.
ISIS leaders’ calls for breaking into prisons to release prisoners
- The liberation of prisoners, ISIS operatives and their families, from prisons in various countries has been perceived as a paramount objective by ISIS. Over the years, ISIS called on its operatives time and again, mainly in Al-Naba’ weekly and also on audiotapes of its leaders, to free ISIS operatives and their families. ISIS also presented it as the last will and testament of former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It should be noted that the liberation of prisoners allows ISIS to bring back experienced, skilled operatives into its ranks.
- In 2012-2013, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi distributed an audiotape among his supporters, in which he outlined his plans for a campaign to release prisoners from jail, which he named “Tearing down the Walls.” During a 12-month period, Al-Baghdadi’s organization carried out 24 combined attacks using car bombs. ISIS operatives broke into nine Iraqi prisons and released dozens of operatives. The culmination of this campaign was the break-in at Abu Ghraib Prison (see below).
Item from ISIS’s Al-Naba’ weekly, listing the names of prisons whose walls were torn down by soldiers of the Islamic State in Iraq. It was titled “We have not forgotten you” (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, January 14, 2021).
- On September 16, 2019, ISIS’s Al-Furqan Media Foundation released an audiotape of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the audiotape, entitled “And Say, Do”, Al-Baghdadi tries to raise his operatives’ morale by mentioning ISIS attacks in the various fighting zones. Among other things, Al-Baghdadi calls on the operatives to use force in order to free ISIS operatives and their wives who are held by Western countries, by the Iraqi regime, and by the Kurds. He also calls for redeeming ISIS operatives with money. He adds that judges, interrogators and security guards in the prisons where ISIS operatives are detained should be targeted.
- On March 19, 2020, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, ISIS’s Al-Naba’ weekly published an article entitled “The Crusaders’ Worst Nightmare” about COVID-19 and its impact on the entire world and Christian countries in particular. The article calls on Muslims to work for the release of the “Muslim prisoners” (i.e., ISIS operatives) incarcerated in prisons and camps (ISIS’s Al-Naba’ weekly, disseminated via Telegram, March 19, 2020).
- The August 6, 2020 issue of Al-Naba’ weekly included an article calling for the release of ISIS operatives from prison. The article was apparently written following the attack carried out by ISIS operatives against the Nangarhar Prison in Afghanistan, which led to the escape of hundreds of prisoners. The article states that ISIS operatives have proved once again that “the correct way to solve the prisoner problem is to release them by force.” The article calls on all Muslims to do everything in their power to release male and female ISIS prisoners held in the prisons of the “infidels” (Telegram, August 6, 2020).
Article calling for the release of ISIS prisoners. Its title: “Prisons […] Prisons […] O Soldiers of the Caliphate!” (Telegram, August 6, 2020)
- The infographic published by ISIS about the attack on the prison in Al-Hasakah states that it was intended to free the prisoners, along with a quotation from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in which he calls on the operatives to free ISIS prisoners (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, January 27, 2022).
Mass release of jihadist operatives from Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq
- The culmination of ISIS’s operations to free its prisoners was the breaking into Abu Ghraib Prison, near Baghdad. This jail, the biggest and most secure in Iraq, notorious as long ago as during Saddam Hussein’s regime, was used to incarcerate the rebels who fought against the US army while it was deployed in Iraq. After the pullout of the US army, the prison was used by the Iraqi government to hold hundreds of jihadist operatives.
- The Abu Ghraib Prison break-in was carried out on July 21, 2013, as planned by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It started with artillery softening-up at the prison. Afterwards, the prison walls were destroyed by two car bombs placed nearby. About 50 ISIS operatives, armed with machine guns and hand grenades, entered the prison, opened the prisoners’ cells and released about 500 jihadist operatives. The operation, which lasted for about an hour, proceeded without significant resistance on the part of the Iraqi guards, who fled the scene upon the beginning of the artillery softening-up phase. The operatives boarded ISIS vehicles awaiting them and escaped (YouTube.com; Lisireport.worldpress.com; alsharqiya.com). The released operatives, who had a substantial terrorist-operational record, represented an addition of major force to ISIS and helped in its successes in the years after their release.