Breaking the Walls, Again: The Islamic State’s Campaign to Free Jihadist Prisoners
In the evening of 20 January, the Islamic State (IS) carried out its largest attack in Syria since the remnants of its statelet were swept away at Baghuz in March 2019, and early the next morning there were follow-on attacks in Iraq. The attack in Syria—which is still ongoing—is important because it is an attack on a prison with the most, and the most battle-hardened, IS jihadists anywhere in the world, those who stayed right to the end. As best as can be told from the conflicted and confused reports, dozens of these men are now free. Prison-breaks were a crucial way that IS rebuilt itself after the Surge-and-Sahwa setback of 2007-08 to the point that it could seize a territory larger than Britain and proclaim the caliphate restored in 2014.
Writing here a few days ago, I suggested that while IS had, in the face of overwhelming American military superiority and the ongoing drone presence, decided to preserve its forces for a time when conditions were more favourable by retreating from overt control of territory and returning to its insurgency phase, “there are suggestive signs in eastern Syria and northern Iraq that IS is capable of more” should it so choose. Further data points can now be added.
The attack in Iraq around 03:00 on 21 January was in Al-Azim district of the northern Diyala province. To the south of Al-Azim is the provincial capital, Baquba, a long-time IS stronghold. IS managed to enter an army barracks and kill eleven soldiers while they slept. The jihadists were able to withdraw from the base without suffering any casualties.
The IS attack in Syria targeted Al-Sinaa prison in the Ghwayran area of Hasaka city, which holds 3,500 captured IS jihadists, the largest single concentration of IS prisoners on the planet. The prison is controlled by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the U.S.-led anti-IS Coalition’s partner force, which calls itself the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) so we can all avoid getting entangled in our own terrorism laws. In total, the SDF/PKK holds about 10,000 IS jihadists across fourteen detention centres.
The SDF/PKK initially tried to downplay what had happened late on Thursday, saying they had “thwarted” an escape attempt. More than thirty-six hours later, it is obvious the PKK lied.
Exactly what has happened—and is happening—is murky. The PKK account conceded that around 19:00 local time on 20 January there had been a suicide car bombing against the prison perimeter and that IS operatives had tried to storm in where the explosion had breached the fence. Simultaneous with this attack from outside, there had been a prisoner revolt inside the wire. These are the baseline facts.
The PKK claim the IS assault team consisted of 100 men; the PKK has every incentive to make this number as high as possible. There are claims of two more explosions after the car bombing; what or if they were, we just do not know yet.
Around thirty IS jihadists have so far been killed, either attackers from outside or prisoners trying to escape. The PKK says it has recaptured 104 IS jihadists; it might even be true, but it is likely that dozens of others and maybe hundreds have gotten away. Given that Al-Sinaa houses some of the most senior and experienced IS officials—men who have been with the IS movement dating back two decades and made the final stand with the group in 2019—this is a very serious problem.
At least seven PKK operatives were killed in the attack and some accounts say twenty-eight; in either case, it seems likely to rise, since the fighting is not over yet. Mutinous IS prisoners are still in control of the northern part of Al-Sinaa after they tried a second breakout. The attackers from outside retreated to the nearby Al-Zuhur area, where they are holed up, the first overt seizure of territory by IS in Syria in three years. Civilians started fleeing out of the zone yesterday and the U.S. has entered the fray with airstrikes in support of the PKK.
Late last night, however, IS’s attacks in eastern Syria had spread south into Deir Ezzor province. It was reported IS had attacked another PKK prison housing senior IS officials near the Conoco gas plant, and local sources said there had been a spate of guerrilla attacks against PKK checkpoints and outposts—in the towns of Al-Kibar and Diban, in multiple villages, and near the Omar oilfield.
It is worth noting that this is not the first time IS has planned to break in—and indeed break out—of the Ghwayran prison. The PKK claims that on 8 November 2021 its asayish (secret police) “thwarted … a plan by an ISIS sleeper cell” to break into Al-Sinaa, confiscating a vehicle rigged with explosives and a stack of weapons.
Another aspect to keep an eye on is Al-Hawl, about twenty-five miles east of Ghwayran, where there is a camp for the families of IS members that contains over-60,000 people. Al-Hawl is a disaster, run by jihadists, incubating more of them, and helping IS run its insurgency. Al-Hawl is semi-frequently in the news, either because of the extreme violence at the camp—apart from the rioting, around eighty people were killed at Al-Hawl last year, ten of them beheaded—or because a Western foreign fighter has been found there. It will be interesting to see if there is an Al-Hawl dimension to the attack on Al-Sinaa.
BREAKING THE WALLS: THEN AND NOW
In August 2011, IS’s then-new spokesman, Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), made his first speech, where he reassured “the lions lying down behind prison bars” that they had not been forgotten and that it was “an obligation on all Muslims and not only on the mujahideen” to get them out. Nearly a year later, on 21 July 2012, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), later infamous for declaring himself “caliph” at the Nuri Mosque in Mosul, made his first speech as IS emir and announced the beginning of Operation BREAKING THE WALLS to free IS’s members from jail.
IS was gaining momentum by mid-2011 anyway and, after the U.S. withdrawal at the end of that year, an opportunity was seen to attack the institutions of the fragile Iraqi state and replenish the ranks with senior leaders and experienced middle managers. The BREAKING THE WALLS campaign included “at least eight separate jailbreaks in Iraq that freed hundreds of senior- and mid-level ISIS militants”, concluding after exactly one year, on 21 July 2013, with the massive breakout at Abu Ghraib, freeing 500 jihadists at once. Eleven months later, the caliphate was declared.
Notably quickly in its post-caliphate rebuilding process, only just over a year after Baghuz’s collapse and less than a year after Al-Badri’s demise, IS once again proclaimed a BREAKING THE WALLS campaign.
In early August 2020, the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP) carried out a massive attack on a prison in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, an event that received major coverage in IS’s newsletter, Al-Naba, where there was not only a detailed write-up of the attack but an ideological editorial declaring the freeing of jihadist prisoners an utmost priority.
Two months later, on 20 October 2020, the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP) carried out an attack on a prison in Beni, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which freed 1,300 men. When IS claimed the attack, they noted that this was exactly what IS’s spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi, had called for in his fourth speech, which had been published two days earlier.
In that speech, Abu Hamza had cited the Nangarhar attack as the model. The new caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi (real name: Amir Muhammad al-Mawla), “is inviting you to follow the steps of your brothers in Wilayat Khorasan by breaking the walls of prisons and freeing the Muslim prisoners everywhere”, said Abu Hamza. IS then tried to promote this as a campaign, “Answer the Call”, and Abu Hamza returned to the prison-break campaign in his latest audio statement, released in June 2021.
There are two notable aspects to this. First, IS had in effect already begun a new, global BREAKING THE WALLS campaign—just as it had already recommenced insurgency operations—before the caliphate collapsed. Al-Badri, in August 2018 in his second-to-last speech, demanded of Muslims in reference to the women imprisoned at Al-Hawl, “Where is your jealous rage? Where is your manhood?”, and IS undertook prison-break attempts that same year from Indonesia to Tajikistan to Africa. Second, while the messaging of “Answer the Call” was not always as high-profile as it might have been, IS had a major practical success on this front last year.
At around the same time IS withdrew from overt control of territory at the centre in Iraq and Syria in late 2017, it did the same thing in Afghanistan. As one prescient analyst explained months before Pakistan installed its Taliban-Qaeda forces in Kabul in August 2021:
ISKP dissolved its territorial holdings in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces and began “surrendering” to the Afghan government in droves … The purpose of the “surrender” is to proselytise and multiply inside prisons in preparation for ISKP’s “breaking the walls” campaign to free them and quickly re-establish itself following the US withdrawal. … ISKP is also betting on the Taliban quickly overrunning the country and freeing all prisoners, regardless of affiliation[.]
This was exactly what happened. The ISKP suicide bomber at the airport in Kabul, Abd al-Rahman al-Logari, had been freed by the Taliban from Bagram Airbase, and he was just one of thousands; these liberated ISKP operatives have swiftly become the most serious security challenge to the Taliban-Qaeda regime.
For IS, attacks on prisons are “low cost, high reward” operations. Such attacks provide the group with powerful propaganda material, increasing the morale of their own forces by demonstrating that they “leave no man behind”, while discrediting and demoralising the government that is attacked by exposing its weaknesses, not only to the population that the government rules over but the world beyond. In more strictly practical terms, prison breaks restore to IS its charismatic commanders and specialists like bomb-makers—people with the skills to make IS a more effective war machine—plus, of course, the foot-soldiers, and quantity has a quality of its own. Events in Hasaka hit all these points.
IS claimed the Ghwayran attack via Amaq. Notably, the attack did not feature in Al-Naba. The newsletter would normally have been released right around the time the attack commenced on Thursday night; it was assumed the delay with this week’s Al-Naba was to allow IS time to capture decent pictures and write it up. But Al-Naba 322 was released in the early hours of 22 January and the Sinaa prison attack is not mentioned, with the newsletter’s major theme once again being the progress IS is making in Africa.
The probable explanation for this is that the attack at Al-Sinaa is still ongoing and the newsletter is already two days late; better to get this week’s messaging out, and feature the Sinaa story once it has an ending. It has to be assumed that Al-Sinaa will be prominent in the next issue of Al-Naba, and time will tell whether prison breaks become a more consistent and prioritised part of IS’s messaging.
The immediate propaganda victory for IS is against the PKK, which has been shown to be unable to prevent IS infiltrating one of its most well-defended areas with enough men to carry out insurgent operations lasting more than a day, and by extension the U.S., which subordinated everything in Syria to the anti-IS campaign, and is now clearly failing even at that. This has not come from nowhere; there have been warning signs in eastern Syria for months, if not years. A serious rethink about what the U.S. mission is in Syria is rather urgent.
The short-term practical effect depends very much on how many and who IS managed to free. What is less in doubt is that IS, having come through the Coalition’s war against it with its security institutions intact, moved quickly to rebuild its strength and has by now made great strides in the process.
The United Nations estimates that IS still has 10,000 active operatives spread between Iraq and Syria; that is probably an underestimate, but as so often the statistics do not really capture reality. Even if the numbers were correct, they would not reflect IS’s effective reach through its mechanisms of social and economic coercion over populations that do not require people to be card-carrying members of the organisation. And such mechanisms of influence can become particularly important during, say, a prison-break campaign: the ability to bribe or intimidate prison guards and judges is as effective as storming the prison walls.
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 Half of the people at Al-Hawl are Iraqis, 20,000 are Syrians, and the other 10,000 come from fifty different countries.
 A recent report noted that Al-Hawl has become “a mini-caliphate … where female leaders nurture the group’s violent ideology and run money-making schemes that help keep the insurgency alive” Al-Hawl was described by the U.S. Treasury Department not long ago, while sanctioning an IS financial network operating out of the camp, as “one of the largest concentrations of current and former ISIS members”. The Roj camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near Al-Malikiya, one-hundred miles to the north-east, is in a similar state, though less severe, if only because it is so much smaller—about 2,500 people.
 One of those broken from Abu Ghraib in July 2013 was Wissam al-Zubaydi (Abu Nabil al-Anbari), who inter alia later oversaw the genocidal anti-Shi’a atrocities at Camp Speicher as IS swept across central Iraq in the summer of 2014 and set up IS’s division in Libya.
 The Naba 246 editorial was also interesting since it contained an unusual admission that IS will pay bribes and does hostage swaps—sometimes capturing Iraqi and other government officials specifically for this purpose.
By the evening of 22 January, IS’s Amaq News Agency had released three short videos from the prison in Ghwayran and an extended statement of events. The videos showed the scale of the IS assault, the deaths of more than a dozen PKK militiamen, brief interviews with eighteen captured PKK members, and the extent of the damage IS had done inside the prison—setting fires and literally breaking the walls with a truck.
The Amaq statement claims that the Sinaa attack was initiated by two suicide bombers, named as Abu Abd al-Rahman and Abu Faruq al-Muhajireen, thus at least one of them was a foreign jihadist, and after the bombs breached the wall, IS inghimasiyeen flooded into the prison on four axes: capturing the prison tower and burning the oil tanks in the fuel store next to it to obscure the visibility of Coalition aircraft, while the other three detachments cut off supply routes. IS says there was a revolt from the prisoners, and in short order the jihadists had seized the weapons store, demolished parts of the prison, and killed or captured many of the guards.
IS claimed through Amaq that it had killed over-200 PKK militiamen, freed 800 jihadists, and burned twenty-five vehicles.
UPDATE (23 JANUARY)
The U.S.-led Coalition, Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, released a terribly embarrassing statement that admitted the Ghwayran attack was “complex”, before trying to spin it as one where IS had sent its own fighters to their deaths and was “ultimately weaker” as a result. A statement repeating many of the same talking points the next day added that the attack was a “desperate attempt to display relevance” by IS. These OIR statements are not only untrue; they are unconvincing.
UPDATE (24 JANUARY)
IS released a picture claiming their fighters were still in control of areas of the Sinaa prison and its “surroundings”, and it soon became clear that this was true. In this picture release, IS claimed to have killed twelve PKK militiamen; in a short video clip released from Amaq later in the day, further firefighting was showed; and it was claimed in an Amaq notice posted the next day that a PKK operative was assassinated in Ghwayran using a “pistol with a silencer”. There have been celebrations among the female IS members at Al-Hawl, and these women are already using the Sinaa prison attack to solicit further donations from electrified IS supporters around the world.
The Western media coverage of this event has been strangely low-level. One aspect that broke through today was that IS controls the “children’s section” at Sinaa, where there are about 700 (male) minors, including ten British citizens and at least one Australian. These minors are generally the children of IS jihadists; some of them were unarmed when they surrendered to the PKK as the caliphate went down, and some of them were acting as child soldiers when they were arrested. These boys have been something of a cause célèbre for the NGO “community” for quite some time. By some accounts, IS has threatened to kill the boys if the U.S. and PKK continue attacking them; whether or not that is true, IS is certainly using them as human shields, ensuring the boys remain in the areas of the prison they control.
The PKK is admitting to twenty-seven fatalities inflicted on it so far.
UPDATE (25 JANUARY)
For the sixth day, IS continued to hold territory in Ghwayran. A two-minute video clip released by IS (stills from it visible here) showed them walking around the grounds of Sinaa prison, with many broken and mangled bodies strewn about. The speaker was Algerian, it seems, and the corpses look like they were from the children’s section. The scale of the destruction and the still-burning fires suggest that at least some of the damage was from Coalition airstrikes, but they were conspicuously not mentioned; the IS narrator blamed the PKK for the deaths. IS has long relished presenting itself to the Sunni Arabs living under the abusive and discriminatory PKK regime in eastern Syria as the only anti-PKK option available; it is what made the West’s collaboration with the PKK so disastrous.
The PKK released a statement saying it had moved some of its forces to prevent IS taking advantage of actions by the Asad regime. Given that the PKK has been blaming Turkey for this event, the statement was notable. IS-Asad collaboration, after all, is not only plausible but commonplace—and admitted by both sides.
At the U.S. Defense Department press briefing in the evening, it was admitted that the IS attack was ongoing and that jihadists had escaped, though “how many prisoners are still at large” was unknown to the Pentagon.
UPDATE (26 JANUARY)
At about 15:00 local time, the PKK announced that it had retaken control of the Sinaa prison, and put out videos claiming that “over 1,000” jihadists had been recaptured; this is surely an exaggeration, and the attempt by the PKK to avoid admitting that any IS operatives escaped is not credible. IS, for its part, has claimed attacks all over Deir Ezzor today, including the assassination of five PKK militiamen.
UPDATE (27 JANUARY)
Journalists from The New York Times visited Sinaa prison and found that it was not, contrary to PKK claims, over: “[T]he sound of truck-mounted antiaircraft guns rang out as they confronted up to 90 ISIS militants still fighting from inside. An [PKK] official … said most of the holdouts were among those who stormed the prison, but some were prisoners who had joined forces with them. … Fighting on Thursday also raged in areas surrounding the prison complex.”
A U.S.-led Coalition statement acknowledged that there had been dire failings in the running of these prison camps that had made them “a breeding ground for Daesh’s failed ideology” and there was “much work to be done” going forward.
In its newsletter, Al-Naba, IS published its version of events.
UPDATE (28 JANUARY)
The PKK as much as admitted that the claim two days ago it had suppressed the attack at Sinaa prison was false, issuing a “surrender-or-die ultimatum” to the remaining IS jihadists occupying parts of the prison. The PKK explanation for this was that they “discovered on [27 January] that about 60 ISIS fighters had been hiding undetected in a basement in one of the buildings in the prison complex”.
UPDATE (30 JANUARY)
What appears to be the final end of the Sinaa attack: “We announce the end of the sweep campaign in Al-Sinaa Prison in Ghwayran neighborhood in Hasaka and the end of the last pockets in which ISIS mercenaries were holed up,” an “SDF” statement said today. By the “SDF” count, 121 of its own militiamen were killed, plus 374 suspected IS members and four civilians, while 1,100 prisoners were recaptured out of a pre-attack prison population of about 5,000. The “SDF” remained cagey about how many IS operatives had escaped.
UPDATE (7 FEBRUARY)
It was reported by The Wall Street Journal that: “The ongoing hunt for escaped prisoners shows how the prison break may have succeeded to a degree beyond that acknowledged by American officials and their local partners.” The U.S. and the “SDF” continue to be reticent about putting a number on the IS escapees.
The Journal piece also had an interesting and revealing section on the degree of IS’s influence within the PKK areas, an “atmospheric” that is not captured well by looking at the numbers of IS fighters or other quantitative measures:
On the night of Jan. 20, about 20 Islamic State men appeared at the door of Abdel Qader Azayzi, a 29-year-old mechanic living near the [Sinaa] prison. With them was a man wearing a mask, guiding the militants as they hunted for security officers. The man knew him, Mr. Azayzi said. …
[T]he gunmen pushed their way into the house and began searching the men’s phones. On the phone of Mr. Azayzi’s young cousin, Ghassan, they found an image of him in military uniform. The men hauled Ghassan outside and shot him dead.
“We can’t sleep at night,” said Mr. Azayzi.
UPDATE (11 FEBRUARY)
In an interview with The Associated Press, the “SDF” commander “Mazlum Abdi”—the senior PKK official, whose real name is Ferhat Abdi Shahin—forthrightly conceded that the SDF/PKK had dropped the ball over the Sinaa prison attack:
“We didn’t execute our responsibilities well,” Abdi says.
His fighters last year twice got intelligence that IS sleeper cells were planning to attack the prison, located in Hassakeh province, to free their comrades inside. One attack was even thwarted.
“There was intelligence before that they wanted to attack, and we took procedures, but then we failed,” he said.
But he also blamed the international community, which he says should assume responsibility for the thousands of foreign IS fighters held in [SDF] prisons and camps[.]
UPDATE (14 FEBRUARY)
Mohammed Hassan and Samer al-Ahmed at the Middle East Institute reported from local sources that 300 IS jihadists had escaped, including four important leaders, with two of them known by name: Abu Dujana al-Iraqi, an Iraqi “military leader”, and Abu Hamza Sharqiyah, “a Syrian leader from the countryside of Deir Ezzor Province who belongs to the Shaytat clan”, which was responsible for one of the largest Sunni rebellions against IS at its height and which was unmercifully suppressed in late 2014. The authors report that the prison break was led by Abu Miqdad al-Iraqi, “the commander of the [Adiyat Brigade] and an ISIS military general east of the Euphrates.”
UPDATE (20 FEBRUARY)
U.S. officials confirmed to The Washington Post that Al-Mawla—who was killed on 3 February—had been “heavily involved in planning for the attack on the [Sinaa] prison”: the already-busy traffic of couriers to Al-Mawla’s compound in Atma “increased further” after the prison attack began.