PARIS — In a military operation “unprecedented” since its March 2019 defeat, the Islamic State (IS) launched an attack on January 20 against al-Sinaa prison, one of the largest facilities where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hold senior IS leaders and former fighters, in northeastern Syria’s Hasakah city.
On January 31, the SDF announced the end of its military operation against IS, carried out with support from the US-led international coalition. During the fighting, 121 SDF personnel and prison workers were killed, alongside 374 IS members and four civilians.
Apart from the fact that the repercussions of the IS military operation are still being felt, as the SDF continues searching areas it controls for prisoners who escaped from al-Sinaa—also called Ghweiran prison after the neighborhood where it is located—an attack of this scale and organization raises serious questions about the Islamic State’s future strategy in Syria, and to what extent it is able to repeat such operations across Syria and Iraq.
‘The number one operation’
Despite former US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the defeat of IS in 2019, the group has not stopped carrying out attacks on its opponents in Syria and Iraq. Rather, its operations were limited to a war of attrition and guerilla warfare, a strategy referred to in the ideology of jihadist organizations as jihad of the weak, or jihad al-nikaya, the goal of which is to inflict losses on opponents without taking control of geographical areas.
The al-Sinaa prison assault was the strongest attack since IS was defeated. “It succeeded in extracting hundreds of detainees, including senior emirs [commanders],” said Ahmad al-Ramadan, the director of the Euphrates Post, a local media organization covering eastern Syria. He described the al-Sinaa attack as “the number one operation since IS lost its larger battle.”
More importantly, according to opposition Syrian writer Ahmad Abazeid, is that the attack “came after the central organization’s collapse, and the killing of most of its leaders at the hands of the international coalition.” Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordanian expert on Islamist groups, agreed, pointing out that following the defeat of IS and the killing of its former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in November 2019, the group turned to “internal restructuring, establishing new leadership led by Abdullah Qardash, known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi.” On February 3, US President Joe Biden announced al-Hashemi had been killed in an overnight “counterterrorism operation” in northwestern Syria.
Those circumstances drove IS to abandon “the strategy of spatial control, which cost it its political project” and forced it to “switch to a guerrilla and attrition approach,” Abu Haniyeh told Syria Direct. “It economized on the use of force by relying on inexpensive military tactics using IEDs, asssassinations, sniper attacks, and ambushes.” IS was also “economical in using its main military strategy, which relies on suicide bombers, suicide fighters [inghimasiyeen] and storming,” he said.
A new approach
The latest attack in Hasakah city demonstrated the ability of IS to carry out “organized, large-scale military operations without direct communication between cells,” as it relied on informing its forces inside the SDF prison through its video publications talking about ‘breaking walls,’ ” said writer Abazeid. He said this shows “the transformation of IS into a group defending its identity and its members, regardless of direct organizational communication.”
The recent attack also mimicked the approach IS used before its 2019 defeat, “using booby-traps, suicide attacks, storming, and suicide fighters,” said Abu Haniyeh. He pointed to “the organization’s evolution” and its ability to once more carry out “complicated and complex operations, similar to those it carried out before taking control of Mosul and Raqqa in 2012 and 2013, when it adopted the so-called Breaking the Walls campaign” in which IS was able to smuggle its forces out of prisons.
“What is happening today takes us back to that period, which saw the rise of the organization’s strength,” said Abu Haniyeh, as “IS was able at the time to free a large number of its members in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons, among them Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi, who planned the storming of Mosul.”
Abu Haniyeh expressed worry of a repeat of what happened in Afghanistan last March, when IS “was able to free 1,000 members in a Nangarhar prison in Khorasan, then rebuild the organization there.” That means “the return of complex and complicated IS operations in Syria is an indicator of its return, and that it is regaining its strength.”
The SDF has spread IS commanders and fighters between nine prisons in the areas of northeastern Syria it controls. Al-Sinaa prison was the largest and most-important of these, with about 3,000 prisoners, including leaders, as well as 700 children with ties to IS.
The prison is located at a weak flank of Hasakah city’s southern neighborhoods, “providing an opportunity for the IS forces that carried out the attack to infiltrate neighborhoods adjacent to the prison” said Noureddin Omar, a journalist living in Hasakah province. This is “unlike the geographical locations of the other prisons–such as the Qamishlo [Qamishli] and Shadadi prisons, which are difficult for IS to attack,” he said.
The official spokesperson for the SDF-affiliated Northern Democratic Brigade, Mahmoud Habib, said al-Sinaa prison holds particular importance for IS because it is located “in the heart of the area that contains SDF and coalition leadership—this is a major breach.”
The purpose of the attack, in Habib’s estimation, was for IS “to free its leaders and fighters who played a prominent role in its creation and strength from prison before they were transferred elsewhere,” noting that “the IS leaders were scheduled to be moved within a month to a new prison with higher security standards.” The SDF had repeatedly warned that al-Sinaa lacked means of surveillance, which gave prisoners the chance to self-organize.
Hasakah city’s “connection to vast areas of the Badia [desert] facilitate escape and make pursuit more difficult,” said Habib. And in the city itself, “IS being in a densely populated area made it possible to use civilians as human shields, which is what happened.”
While the SDF has announced it thwarted the IS attack and that 3,500 members surrendered, the fate of some IS prisoners remains unknown. IS statements indicate that “hundreds of detainees were able to escape, meaning they will be fuel for the fire in the future,” said Abu Haniyeh.
What comes next?
The IS attack on al-Sinaa was “a test of its adversary, to find out the SDF response,” said Abu Haniyeh. Through it, IS learned that “the SDF was unable to thwart an attack without the participation and support of US forces.” Abu Haniyeh thought it unlikely that “IS will change its current strategy of guerrilla [warfare] and attrition,” but is more likely to attempt “temporary control and then withdrawal,” combining “the inexpensive military tactics it has used in recent years with these complex and complicated attacks.”
Abu Haniyeh warned that “declining interest in IS and cross-border terrorism, in addition to the health and financial repercussions of COVID-19, as well as confronting domestic terrorism and the climate increases the danger of IS and warns that it will continue to be dangerous.” He noted that “the absence of proper governance and a political solution, alongside corruption, poverty, and unemployment are objective reasons for the organization’s possible return. That may not be in a year, but perhaps over the next two years.”
For his part, Ahmad Abazeid expects IS to carry out other operations inside SDF-controlled cities in particular, especially since “in the latest attack it tested the possibility of moving from desert warfare to urban warfare once more.”
Journalist Noureddin Omar agreed, predicting that upcoming IS operations would target “SDF forces, the internal security forces, and the Autonomous Administration, in addition to prisons and detention centers where IS members are held,” but that they would not be on the scale of the al-Sinaa prison attack, “which cost it many of its fighters and cells in the area.”
Responding to that, the Northern Democratic Brigade spokesman Mahmoud Habib said he thought it unlikely that IS would carry out other operations of this scale in the foreseeable future, “after the defeat it suffered.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.