Islamic State Demonstrates Resiliency with Major Attacks in Syria and Iraq
On January 20th, the Islamic State (IS) launched significant operations in both Syria and Iraq, demonstrating the organization’s enduring will and continued capacity to project power throughout the region. In fact, the assault on al-Sina’a prison in Syria and ensuing gun battles are said to be the most violent clashes since the last vestiges of caliphate territory were erased in 2019.
Syria Prison Assault
The Islamic State’s raid in Syria kicked off with the detonation of two vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) against the outside walls of al-Sina’a prison — which is the world’s largest detention facility for IS prisoners, estimated to house 3,500 of them. The prison is located in the city of Hasakah in northeastern Syria and is run and defended by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed Kurdish militia.
Following the blast, dozens of IS militants laid siege to the facility as IS prisoners simultaneously rioted inside. The assault sparked a protracted firefight, with gunfire heard almost 24 hours after the attack began. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 39 IS gunmen and 35 SDF personnel were killed in the fighting.
It was reported that a number of imprisoned IS fighters managed to escape and videos were posted online of some being recaptured. The SDF released a statement claiming they caught 89 of the escapees in total.
The Islamic State’s official media organ Amaq News Agency claimed the prison raid on Friday, stating that “Islamic State fighters launched a broad offensive on the Ghweiran prison in al-Hasakah governorate, aiming to free the prisoners inside” also adding that the “clashes have been ongoing”.
It is notable that the Islamic State did not release its weekly al-Naba newsletter as it usually does on Thursdays. However, the attack was not mentioned in the issue that was eventually released.
Prison breaks hold an important place in IS organizational culture, and the group has formally promoted an operational strategy of assaulting prisons and inciting riots called “Breaking the Walls”. These operations serve the practical purposes of freeing prisoners to bolster IS’s ranks, while also providing inspirational propaganda victories. The campaign is global in scope, as IS elements have attempted prison breaks — from outside, inside, or both — in the Sahel, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia.
Iraq Barracks Raid
Elsewhere on Thursday, in Iraq, the Islamic State conducted another successful operation; in this case, it was a clandestine raid against an army barracks located north of Baghdad. IS gunmen reportedly entered the facility around 3 a.m. local time and shot Iraqi soldiers as they slept, killing 11. The death toll makes it one of the most significant IS attacks targeting Iraqi forces in recent months.
The Islamic State officially claimed the attack on Friday and released photos from the incident: