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 held out despite a heavy onslaught by US-backed Kurdish militias, The terrorist organization has published its version of what happened.

In its official journal, it mocked how many times in its history its enemies had declared the Islamic State defeated. Its surprise attack on the prison, it crowed, caused its enemies to “scream in frustration: ‘They’re back again! “

That description is not entirely wrong.

The battle for the prison, in the city of Hasaka, killed hundreds, attract the US military and give a stark reminder that three years later the fall of the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State, experts say the group’s ability to sow chaotic violence remains. On Friday, about 60 ISIS fighters still control part of the prison.

In Iraq, ISIS recently killed 10 soldiers and an officer at an army post and beheaded a police officer on camera. In Syria, it has assassinated numerous local leaders, and it extorted businesses to finance its operations. In Afghanistan, the withdrawal of US troops in August forced the force to fight the Taliban, often with disastrous consequences for civilians caught in the middle.

The Islamic State, which once controlled territory the size of Britain stretching across the Syria-Iraq border, is no longer as powerful as it once was, but experts say it can wait until its time conditions in unstable countries where it thrives. New opportunities to expand.

“There is no end game for the United States in Syria or Iraq, and prison is just one example of such,” said Craig Whiteside, an associate professor at the US Naval War College who studies the group. this failure to work towards a lasting solution. “ISIS is really just a matter of time before another opportunity presents itself. All they have to do is hang on until then.”

The Islamic State, which has a history of returning to insurgency following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, reached its peak of powers around 2015, when it ruled many cities in Syria and Iraq, attracting mass foreign fighters from afar. such as China and Australia, and operated a sophisticated propaganda machine that inspired or directed foreign attacks from Berlin to San Bernardino, California.

A US-led military coalition worked with local forces in Syria and Iraq to repel them, until the Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, push it out of its last territory in early 2019.

Since then, the organization has moved from a top-down military-style bureaucracy according to counterterrorism experts and regional security officials, according to counterterrorism experts and regional security officials.

But the importance of the prison as a target suggests that last week’s attack will be greenlit “by the highest levels,” Mr. Whiteside said. The group’s ability to mobilize dozens of fighters and break into prisons that US and SDF officials suspect are targets is an achievement and a propaganda coup regardless of how the siege unfolds. any.

A senior US official, who declined to be named, said the likely goal of the operation was to free some senior or mid-level leaders and fighters from the group with specific skills, such as bomb-making. The official estimated that perhaps 200 prisoners escaped.

SDF officials have not confirmed that number and said they are still assessing the effectiveness.

The Islamic State has struggled to rebuild. The killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019 it stripped of a unifying figure and its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was virtually unknown. Tighter border controls have prevented foreign fighters from reaching Iraq and Syria, and persistent attacks by US-backed forces in both countries have pushed it away from major cities and to the periphery.

In Iraq, the group ramped up attacks in 2019 and 2020, but they’ve declined since then in both quantity and quality, according to a report. In-depth analysis of attack data by Michael Knights and Alex Almeida is published this month.

“Currently, in early 2022, the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq is at a very low level, with the lowest number of recorded attacks ever recorded,” they wrote.

They cite a range of factors: a greater security presence in rural areas, thermal cameras that can detect fighters moving at night, frequent security raids and a campaign “beheading” the leaders of the group.

The authors do not draw conclusions about the group’s future, but suggest that ISIS may be conserving its resources until circumstances allow the group to flare up.

The authors note that the team has weathered previous periods of weakness and is still able to recover.

Before the prison attack in Hasaka last week, ISIS in Syria was primarily active in the sparsely populated east of the country, where its fighters sought refuge in the desert to plot major attacks. Syrian government and Kurdish-led forces, according to analysts and locals.

From 2018 to 2021, it stepped up a campaign to assassinate local leaders and tribal figures, killing more than 200 people, according to a study by DeirEzzor24an active network.

More recently, it has been blackmailing local businesses for money, spreading leaflets against the US-backed SDF, said Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group. Attacks on isolated checkpoints left some deserted.

“The reality is that it will get worse in 2021, not because there are too many attacks on checkpoints, but enough attacks to scare internal security forces into checkpoints. ”, she said.

Other factors have contributed to ISIS’s existence, she said, given the SDF’s struggle to forge trusting relationships with local residents in overwhelming Arab areas, porous borders. , eradication of poverty that makes it easier for jihadists to smuggle weapons and people, and the general instability of the region. .

Some sudden disruptions, like financial problems for the SDF and its affiliated administration, a new Turkish military offensive same as 2019 or the withdrawal of 700 US troops stationed in the area to support the SDF, could create opportunities for jihadists, Ms. Khalifa said.

“ISIS is a local insurgency and may not be an imminent transnational threat,” she said. “But if there is a vacuum in Syria, this is where these movements really thrive. That’s when it becomes more of an external threat. “

What ISIS has been unable to do since 2019 is control substantial territory. The complex operation in Hasaka doesn’t change that, analysts say.

“Contrary to popular opinion, that doesn’t do much for the needles and it doesn’t get them any closer to re-establishing control over the population,” Mr Whiteside said. That control, he said, is “their reason for being, why they call themselves ‘State.'”

The prison attack remains one of ISIS’ most ambitious attacks since 2018, and it shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

In reality, the prison, a converted training institute with bars and other fortifications, was not the ideal place to hold thousands of veterans from a group that had formerly relied on prison guards. prison break to replenish the ranks.

And that is a known target.

Last month, the SDF media office released video of a man identified as an ISIS commander being capturedsays he was responsible for planning a surprise attack that involved two car bombs and a group of armed commandos.

Their goals? To storm the Hasaka prison that ISIS took over last week.

Asmaa al-Omar Contribution reports from Beirut, Lebanon, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. ISIS siege of Syrian prison proves it’s still a threat

Fry Electronics Team

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