On Jan. 20, 2021, groups affiliated with ISIS attacked al-Sina Prison in the southern part of the city of al-Hasakah, in Syria’s far northeast. The attack, which lasted for nearly nine days, ended with the killing of dozens of ISIS fighters and detainees inside the prison, in addition to approximately 140 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its prison guards.
Ghweiran Prison, or al-Hasakah Central Prison, was built during the period of political union between Syria and Egypt (1958-61) to accommodate 1,500 prisoners. When the Ba’ath Party took power in 1963, the prison was filled with hundreds of anti-government Kurdish activist detainees. It experienced several insurrections and escape attempts over the years, during the most famous of which it was burned down. The prison housed a number of Kurdish activists who were detained in 1992, and later held hundreds of Kurds arrested in connection with the 2004 uprising.
After the launch of the Syrian revolution, ISIS attacked the prison in 2015, capturing it from regime forces. Then in 2016, it was attacked and seized by Kurdish units, who filled it with captured ISIS members until the number of detainees exceeded its capacity. When the number of prisoners topped 2,000, the SDF seized a secondary school for vocational education near the prison, called the Industrial School, and turned it into an additional detention center that housed approximately 3,000 detainees, most of whom surrendered after the battle at al-Baghouz in spring 2019.
Not designed to be a detention center, the vocational training school turned prison experienced about 20 escape attempts or ISIS prisoner revolts. Those efforts, however, always failed thanks to the intervention of forces from the nearby American base, with its helicopters stationed on a playground in al-Hasakah.
Al-Sina Prison houses about 3,500 ISIS detainees, alongside more than 700 minors — the so-called “Cubs of the Caliphate.” It is not the only prison holding ISIS detainees. There are at least 20 others, including Ayed Prison in Tabqa, housing about 1,000 detainees; the Juvenile Prison in Raqqa (1,500); the Alaya Prison in Qamishli (approximately 1,500); the Black Prison or Derek Prison (about 2,000 of the most dangerous prisoners); and al-Shaddadi Prison (around 600), along with other local prisons.
Details of the attack
At 7 pm on Jan. 20, ISIS cells attacked the prison, starting with a car bomb that was detonated when it was stopped by a barrier as it was heading toward the main gate. Soon after, according to the SDF, about 100 ISIS members attacked the prison from several directions, aiming to create chaos. After another suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up at the main gate, ISIS fighters breached it and stormed into the prison.
Concurrent with the attacks, thousands of prisoners began to mutiny inside the prison. In some dormitories prisoners managed to break the locks and take off the doors. In one of the three prison blocks, prisoners got out to the yard. As the guards lost control, many ISIS prisoners made their way out, escaping southward to the adjacent neighborhood of al-Zuhour.
During the early moments of the attack, ISIS fighters blew up and burned Sadcob Company oil tankers near the prison, aiming to create smoke clouds in the area to prevent the international coalition’s aircraft from getting involved in the battle, which prolonged the fighting. ISIS cells were divided into three combat units: the first in and around the prison, the second in the eastern Ghweiran neighborhood adjacent to the prison, and the third in al-Zuhour neighborhood. According to private sources, “The operation was carried out by groups affiliated with the al-Adiyat Brigade. The leader of the operation was Abu Miqdad al-Iraqi, the commander of the battalion and an ISIS military general east of the Euphrates.”
On the first day of the attack, ISIS fighters captured and killed dozens of prison guards and employees, seizing their weapons. The group utilized the captives as bargaining chips during the nine-day-long battle. Many of the prison staff members were released in exchange for food and drink for the ISIS fighters trapped in the prison, in addition to treating the wounded among them. Even so, some of the captives were field executed, especially in the last two days of the battle.
The SDF, while apparently stumbling during the first two days of the attack, soon managed to regain its footing on the third day, as it began to encircle the center of the clash, restricting the battlefield to the prison and its immediate surroundings. It also began its attempts to force ISIS fighters entrenched inside the prison to surrender without fighting, which led to an initial surrender of about 1,000 elderly, injured, and disabled ISIS detainees. Others surrendered on the fourth and fifth days. The last to surrender was a combat group that took a position in the basement of the prison and barricaded itself inside it throughout the attack; it finally surrendered on the Jan. 29, the last day of the operation.
According to the SDF statement on the final outcome of the attack, the death toll reached 117 SDF forces, among them 77 prison guards and 40 fighters, in addition to four civilians, while the number of casualties among the ISIS attackers and prisoners was about 374.
Some ISIS leaders managed to escape
There is conflicting information about the number of ISIS members who managed to escape from the prison as a result of the operation and the chaos that accompanied it. Some say that the number exceeded 100, while others assert that there were no more than 30, among them two important ISIS leaders. Local sources from the Ghweiran neighborhood who we were able to contact during the first day of the attack, as well as sources from the southern countryside of al-Hasakah, confirmed that, “ISIS managed to secure the escape of more than 300 detainees, who were able to flee on the first day of the attack, taking advantage of the chaos.”
According to one source, “ISIS fighters transported the fugitives in civilian vehicles, some owned by ISIS fighters and some seized by them upon entering the Ghweiran neighborhood, in batches from the vicinity of the prison to the Sab’ Sakour area in the southern countryside of al-Hasakah, then through secondary roads between the al-Shaddadi and al-Hol areas, to the Tuwaimin desert in the Deir ez-Zour countryside. From there, they went to the Rawda desert on the Syrian-Iraqi border, where ISIS cells have been active.”
“Four of the fugitives,” the sources added, “are important ISIS leaders, including Abu Dujana al-Iraqi, an ISIS military leader, and Abu Hamza Sharqieh, a Syrian leader from the countryside of Deir ez-Zour Province who belongs to the al-Shaitat clan.” According to this source, some of the fugitives were smuggled across the Euphrates River and the Syrian regime-controlled areas to the Syrian desert between the cities of Homs and Deir ez-Zour, where ISIS is present.
The goals of the attack and the reasons for its failure
The goals of the attack can be split into two categories, those of ISIS leader Saeed al-Mawli al-Hashimi and those of ISIS as a larger organization. In regards to al-Hashimi, he was trying to make a name for himself by orchestrating an effective attack, especially in front of the organization’s leaders detained in the SDF prisons. He was hoping to prove himself a heroic savior. He failed miserably, however, in achieving that goal, after the triumph turned into a massacre.
As for the larger organization, its goals were twofold. The first was to liberate thousands of detained fighters, which would have provided ISIS with many fighters with experience and expertise in various specializations, especially since the group is now suffering from a decline in new recruits in areas where it is present in Syria and Iraq. The second objective of the attack, aimed at the media, was meant to return ISIS to the focus of international attention, after fading from the spotlight. This goal was arguably achieved during the operation.
Despite the implications of the ISIS attack and the audacity of its perpetrators, it represented a catastrophic failure and disappointment for the group’s supporters. That failure was due to a few key reasons. The first is the organization’s lack of realism and strategy, as it was ill-prepared to carry out an operation on such a large scale and targeting the strategic depth of its most important opponents in the region.
As for the second reason, the attackers lacked weapons of sufficient number and quality to engage in such a large battle. Even if ISIS managed to release its detained fighters, it did not have enough weaponry to equip them to fight. It would have been impossible for them to escape in such large numbers within a vast geographical area controlled by the SDF.
The third reason is that the SDF deployed large numbers of its fighters and U.S. special forces intervened with aerial support, which was crucial in thwarting the attack.
The al-Sina Prison operation has exposed the extent of ISIS’s security breaches within the ranks of the SDF. Such breaches helped ISIS move its fighters and weaponry from isolated areas to the vicinity of the prison despite dozens of checkpoints in what was considered the most important military zone for the SDF in al-Hasakah Governorate, known as the “security square.” The operation damaged the work of the SDF security apparatus, which is one of its most important preemptive tools for protecting the SDF’s security as well as that of the areas under its control. This was confirmed by a high-ranking source within the SDF, who refused to disclose his name: “The operation was carried out with the assistance of elements within the SDF, working secretly with ISIS. They played a key role in facilitating the transfer of fighters and their weapons to the vicinity of the prison and providing vital information about the prison garrison and the forces in the attack area.”
These security breaches within the SDF did not begin with the prison operation, but it did reveal new and unconventional ways in which its security has been breached. After the fall of al-Baghouz in spring 2019, ISIS sought to benefit from its former elements who joined the SDF to avoid being pursued by security forces and to protect themselves from local communities resentful of the organization. Thus, they infiltrated the SDF to provide information, including on military movements, to ISIS leaders and cells deployed in areas east of the Euphrates. Such tactics protect ISIS members from being detected and have allowed it to continue its attacks to this day.
The prison operation revealed a change in ISIS’s methods in recruiting collaborators within the SDF, as it has become dependent on new members not associated with the group during the 2014-19 period. These elements represent the second generation of fighters recruited by ISIS after its defeat in Syria. They obtained security training, allowing them to infiltrate the ranks of the SDF and its military councils, which contributed to shifting suspicion away from them and facilitated their inclusion within the ranks of the SDF. They have been given access to operate in critical locations in SDF territory, unreachable by former collaborators. This signifies the degree to which ISIS has penetrated the security apparatus rather than an intelligence failure by the SDF and the international coalition.
The end result
Apart from its human losses, the SDF came out of the battle with significant gains. First, it won another round at ISIS’s expense. Second, it reinvigorated its cooperation with the international coalition and ensured its support. Third, it attracted widespread media attention as a local force fighting terrorism.
Mohammed Hassan is a university student at the Faculty of Law, Department of International Law. His writings focus on the regions of northern and eastern Syria, especially extremist Islamic groups and tribal societies.
Samer al-Ahmed is a Syrian journalist and researcher. The views expressed in this piece are their own.
Photo by AFP via Getty Images
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