The nearly two-week siege in January of the Ghuwayran prison and parts of the town of Hasaka by fighters of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in northeastern Syria vividly demonstrated that the organization still has the capacity to inflict significant violence and chaos in parts of Syria and Iraq. Although the death of the IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi during a US special forces raid shortly thereafter, on February 3rd, was a setback to the organization, IS has been operating in a decentralized mode since losing its territorial base several years ago, and so its raids against various targets are likely to continue. The Hasaka incident should be a wake-up call to the international community to do more to address the underlying causes of IS recruitment in Syria and Iraq. These include poor conditions of detention facilities in northeastern Syria, ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and the reticence among foreign governments to repatriate thousands of imprisoned IS fighters and family members.
Losing Territory but Not Operational Capacity
After a broad regional and international coalition destroyed the so-called territorial caliphate of IS several years ago, there was a sense among the victors that their campaign had indeed worked. This effort included troops of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurdish forces, and US and coalition airpower plus special forces from the United States, Britain, and France. No longer was IS a threat to the people it had dominated for years, during which it committed numerous atrocities. However, perhaps as many as 10,000 IS fighters, according to the United Nations, were able to escape from the coalition’s dragnet and either blended in with local populations or found refuge in remote areas in Syria and Iraq.
IS was able to take advantage of ethnic and sectarian divisions in Syria and Iraq to recruit new members and mount attacks that would exacerbate these tensions
These IS remnants regrouped and staged numerous attacks in the two countries over the past few years. The assaults included suicide bombings in Baghdad (one, in the environ of Sadr City in 2021, killed scores of people) and hit-and-run attacks in other parts of Iraq as well as a series of attacks and assassinations in northeastern Syria. IS was also able to take advantage of ethnic and sectarian divisions in both countries to recruit new members and mount attacks that would exacerbate these tensions. For example, it has been active in Nineveh province in northern Iraq, which is populated by Sunni Arabs, Turkomans, Kurds, Christians, and Yezidis. It has also been active in northeastern Syria where the SDF controls territory populated by various Arab tribes, in addition to Kurds and Christians. Although most rank-and-file SDF fighters today are ethnic Arabs, the fact that the leadership of the force remains largely Kurdish (like the administration of the area) has fostered resentment among segments of the local Arab population.
Prison Attack Showed Extensive Planning and Coordination
Prior to the January 20-30 Ghuwayran prison attack, the IS raids, while inflicting some casualties, were viewed largely as a manageable problem. This assessment was partly the reason the prison attack took so many people by surprise as it raised the recent assaults to a new level. Reportedly, captured IS fighters told SDF interrogators that the operation had been in preparation “for a long time.” The attack began on January 20 by a suicide car bombing near the prison gate, followed by coordinated strikes on the prison by about 100 IS fighters. Another suicide bombing at the main gate then allowed the IS fighters to storm the prison. There they freed many IS prisoners then killed and held captive a number of guards, using them to bargain for food and medical needs. SDF troops soon rushed to the prison area and engaged in firefights with the militants. They were supported by US and coalition aircraft which conducted over 20 strikes during a week’s time. US and British ground forces later joined the SDF in the prison fight. Although Ghuwayran was retaken after a little over a week, some IS fighters managed to slip into the town of Hasaka and nearby areas and engaged in sniper fire with the SDF. It was only several days later that the last of these IS positions were captured or destroyed, although some IS leaders managed to escape. Altogether, the attack cost the lives of about 120 SDF fighters and prison guards, and 374 IS fighters and prisoners.
IS undoubtedly wanted to spring these prisoners to help fill its operational ranks and possibly to take control of Hasaka and gain a territorial foothold
It appears that Ghuwayran prison was chosen because it contained about 4,000 IS prisoners. Among them were about 700 young male teenagers, brought to the so-called caliphate as boys by their parents. They were dubbed the “Cubs of the Caliphate.” IS undoubtedly wanted to spring these prisoners to help fill its operational ranks and possibly to take control of Hasaka, with the aim of embarrassing the SDF and gaining a territorial foothold. The SDF commander Mazlum Kobane Abdi told the press after the attack that the SDF found a truck near the prison that was full of suicide vests and other weapons; he claimed this was proof that IS had been intending to escalate the campaign as soon as it freed the IS prisoners. Captured IS fighters reportedly told SDF interrogators that Hasaka was only one of several sites that IS was planning to attack.
In addition, as the prison attack was unfolding, IS’s social media operation was in full swing, giving upbeat assessments about the militants’ operation and reaching major newspapers. Most certainly, this was done as a recruiting tool.
It is unlikely that death of IS leader al-Qurashi will set back the organization because many IS cells have operated on their own for years
The death of IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi on the morning of February 3—while US special forces raided his house in Syria near the Turkish border, he reportedly blew himself up, killing family members and children in the process—has led to speculation whether IS has been weakened by this blow to the leadership. While Qurashi was believed to have supported the raid on Ghuwayran and other prisons, it is unlikely that his demise will set back the organization because many IS cells have operated on their own for years. For example, on January 21, 2022, an IS cell attacked an Iraqi military post in Diyala governorate, killing 11 Iraqi soldiers. Given the distance between this area and Qurashi’s holdout in northwestern Syria, and the fact that IS militants have avoided using apps on smartphones because of the fear they could be monitored by the intelligence agencies of the anti-IS coalition, it is hard to imagine that Qurashi was directing that operation from afar.
It appears that IS has been able to bolster its ranks from previous prison escapes in northeastern Syria as well as from disaffected local populations who bristle under Kurdish rule, although the SDF has pushed back against the notion that it is responsible for IS recruitment. IS has also relied on recruits from porous border regions, as some analysts have laid the blame on Turkey because of its antipathy toward Kurdish fighters in the SDF and their link to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Turkey’s haphazard and inconsistent policies toward IS, motivated by its fight against Syrian Kurdish groups, may have helped facilitate IS activities in northern Syria. In addition, IS operatives are believed to operate in the central Badia region of the Syrian desert, an area under the control of the Assad government. IS fighters have reportedly trained dozens of recruits in mobile training camps there and have infiltrated them into SDF-controlled areas by bribing Syrian government soldiers. The Assad government may believe that as long as these IS operations are directed at the SDF (as opposed to Damascus), it will tolerate them; this is because it remains opposed to any territorial autonomy for the Kurds.
IS has been able to bolster its ranks from previous prison escapes in northeastern Syria as well as from disaffected local populations who bristle under Kurdish rule
In Iraq, IS has used Anbar province, which is adjacent to eastern Syria, to smuggle goods, money, and drugs as well as personnel in both directions. The Iraqi government, which has been the target of IS militants, has attempted to stop this illicit traffic; however, some corrupt local officials and tribal leaders see the traffic as a way to supplement their incomes. They solicit bribes from IS militants by facilitating the smuggling networks or not interfering in them. Clearly, more needs to be done to stop such activities.
The Unresolved Prison Issue
The Ghuwayran prison attack has brought to light the poor and crowded conditions of detention facilities in northeastern Syria that are run by the SDF. As one journalist reported, Ghuwayran “had once been a technical school and was retrofitted with metal doors. The inmates, many of them foreigners, were packed so tightly into some of the old classrooms that their limbs touched when they lay down to sleep.” The foreigners in this prison represented 20 countries. The most notorious prison facility, however, is al-Hol detention camp, which houses about 60,000 Syrians and foreigners, some of whom are family members of IS fighters and IS adherents. It is reportedly controlled by militants who enforce adherence to their own draconian version of Islam, one that was practiced when IS held territory. Violence in the camp became so commonplace that the SDF raided the camp in 2021 to try to round up the perpetrators.
Although the SDF shares part of the blame for such poor and unsafe prison conditions, the international community is equally and perhaps even more to blame because many countries have refused to take back their nationals
Although the SDF shares part of the blame for such poor and unsafe prison conditions (it says it lacks the funds to build better facilities), the international community is equally and perhaps even more to blame because many countries have refused to take back their nationals. The Biden Administration has implored a number of countries to repatriate IS fighters and their families but only a few countries have obliged; most are afraid of possible retaliation by IS. One anonymous British diplomat told the press: “Our priority is to ensure the safety and security of the U.K. Those who remain in Syria… support a group that committed atrocious crimes including butchering and beheading innocent civilians.” Even Iraq, which has repatriated about 400 IS fighters and 1,700 of their family members from Syria as of last year, has mostly blocked the repatriation of other fighters out of security concerns.
One problem in keeping IS family members detained in these facilities in Syria is that it breeds radicalization
One problem in keeping IS family members detained in these facilities in Syria is that it breeds radicalization. In 2021, US CENTCOM Commander General Frank McKenzie stated that this situation “will manifest itself in five to 10 years as a military problem unless we solve it now, because the children are going to grow up radicalized and we’re going to see them on the battlefields fighting us.” The participation of the “Cubs of the Caliphate” in the recent prison attack underscores McKenzie’s warning.
Recommendations for US Policy
Although the Islamic State is not as strong as it was when it conquered large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and is unlikely to hold territory in these two countries in the near future, it has shown that it can both mount significant operations and recruit new members to sustain the organization. These operations have the deleterious effect of producing instability in northeastern Syria as well as in parts of Iraq, which makes the recovery from many years of strife all the more difficult.
Military means alone are unlikely to defeat IS and the present policy of holding these detainees in Syria indefinitely in overcrowded, poor, and unsafe conditions is unsustainable
In the face of IS’s ongoing operations, the US military partnership with the SDF and the military training mission with the Iraqi military should continue. If US airpower and ground troops were not employed in the recent prison attack, for example, it would have taken the SDF much longer to retake the prison, with many more casualties. Given this ongoing IS threat, it made sense for the Biden Administration to say recently it has no plans to withdraw the 900 US troops from eastern Syria anytime soon.
The international community must provide funds to build more secure and humane prisons, hold competent trials of IS fighters, enact de-radicalization programs, and persuade the SDF and the Iraqi government to make governance more inclusive
However, military means alone are unlikely to defeat IS. There has to be a stepped-up effort by the international community to deal with the IS detainees. Persuading foreign governments to take back their nationals, even in an incarcerated state, is not working despite US entreaties and pressure. At the same time, the present policy of holding these detainees in Syria indefinitely in overcrowded, poor, and unsafe conditions is unsustainable. The international community, led by the United Nations and backed by the United States, must provide funds to build more secure and humane prisons, hold competent trials of IS fighters who committed atrocities, and enact de-radicalization programs aimed at steering young detainees away from IS ideology. If such programs succeed, it is likely that more governments would be amenable to taking back their nationals.
Without addressing the root causes that feed resentment and contribute to IS recruitment, it is likely that there will be more violence in Syria and Iraq
In addition, US officials must persuade the SDF as well as the Iraqi government to do more to make governance more inclusive. Bringing more ethnic Arabs into the top echelons (and not just the lower ranks) of the SDF should be a goal supported by the United States, one that would lessen ethnic tensions in northeastern Syria. In parts of Iraq that are home to different ethnic groups, the United States should press Iraqi officials to ensure that troops in these regions do not pursue sectarian agendas and that funds for rebuilding areas damaged by IS are provided equitably. Without addressing the root causes that feed resentment and contribute to IS recruitment, it is likely that there will be more violence in Syria and Iraq.