ISIS Siege of Syria Prison Proves It’s Still a Threat

BEIRUT, Lebanon — One week after Islamic State fighters attacked a prison in northeastern Syria, where they have held out despite a heavy assault by a Kurdish-led militia backed by the United States, the terrorist organization published its version of what had gone down.

In its official magazine, it mocked how many times in its history its foes had declared the Islamic State to be defeated. Its surprise attack on the prison, it crowed, had made its enemies “shout in frustration: ‘They have returned again!’”

That description was not entirely wrong.

The battle for the prison, in the city of Hasaka, killed hundreds of people, drew in U.S. troops and offered a stark reminder that three years after the collapse of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, the group’s ability to sow chaotic violence persists, experts said. On Saturday, about 60 ISIS fighters still controlled part of the prison.

In Iraq, ISIS recently killed 10 soldiers and an officer at an army post and beheaded a police officer on camera. In Syria, it has assassinated scores of local leaders, and it extorts businesses to finance its operations. In Afghanistan, the withdrawal of American forces in August has left it to battle the Taliban, with often disastrous consequences for the civilians caught in the middle.

The Islamic State, which once controlled territory the size of Britain that spanned the Syria-Iraq border, is not as powerful as it once was, but experts say it could be biding its time until conditions in the unstable countries where it thrives provide it with new chances to expand.

“There is no U.S. endgame in either Syria or Iraq, and the prison is just one example of this failure to work toward a long-term solution,” said Craig Whiteside, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College who studies the group. “It really is just a matter of time for ISIS before another opportunity presents itself. All they have to do is to hang on until then.”

The Islamic State, whose history goes back to the insurgency following the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, reached the summit of its powers around 2015, when it ruled multiple cities in Syria and Iraq, attracted droves of foreign fighters from as far away as China and Australia, and ran a sophisticated propaganda machine that inspired or directed foreign attacks from Berlin to San Bernardino, Calif.

A military coalition led by the United States partnered with local forces in Syria and Iraq to roll it back, until a Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, pushed it from its last patch of territory in early 2019.

Since then, the organization has morphed from a top-down, military-style bureaucracy to a more diffuse and decentralized insurgency, according to terrorism experts and regional security officials.

But the importance of the prison as a target suggested that last week’s attack would have been green lit “by the highest levels,” Mr. Whiteside said. The group’s ability to mobilize dozens of fighters and break into a prison that American and S.D.F. officials long suspected was a target was an achievement and a propaganda coup no matter how the siege turns out.

A senior American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the probable goal of the operation was to free some of the group’s senior or midlevel leaders and fighters with specific skills, like bomb-making. The official estimated that perhaps 200 prisoners had escaped.

S.D.F. officials have not confirmed that number and said they were still assessing the effect.

The Islamic State has struggled to rebuild. The killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019 deprived it of a unifying figure, and its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, is largely unknown. Tighter border controls have blocked foreign fighters from getting to Iraq and Syria, and persistent raids by U.S.-backed forces in both countries have largely pushed it out of the big cities and into the peripheries.

In Iraq, the group ramped up attacks in 2019 and 2020, but they have declined since then in both quantity and quality, according to an in-depth analysis of attack data by Michael Knights and Alex Almeida published this month.

“For now, at the outset of 2022, the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq is at a very low ebb, with recorded attack numbers that rival the lowest ever recorded,” they wrote.

They cite a range of factors: a greater security presence in rural areas, thermal cameras that can detect militants moving at night, frequent security sweeps and a campaign of “decapitation strikes” against the group’s leaders.

The authors do not draw conclusions about the group’s future, but suggest that ISIS may be saving its resources until circumstances give it an opportunity to break out.

The group has passed through weak stretches before, the authors note, and has still managed to rebound.

Before it attacked the prison in Hasaka last week, ISIS in Syria was primarily operating in the country’s sparsely populated east, where its fighters sought refuge in the desert to plot attacks on Syrian government and Kurdish-led forces, according to analysts and local residents.

From 2018 to 2021, it stepped up a campaign of assassinations of local leaders and tribal figures, killing more than 200, according to a study by DeirEzzor24, an activist network.

More recently, it has extorted local businesses for cash, spread fliers against the U.S.-backed S.D.F. and carried out a string of attacks on isolated checkpoints that has caused some to be abandoned, said Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“The reality is that it got worse in 2021, not because there were so many attacks on checkpoints, but there were enough attacks to make the internal security forces scared to man checkpoints,” she said.

Other factors have contributed to ISIS’ persistence, she said, citing the S.D.F.’s struggle to forge trusted relations with local residents in overwhelmingly Arab areas, porous borders, crushing poverty that makes it easier for the jihadists to smuggle weapons and people, and the area’s overall instability.

Some sudden disruption, like financial problems for the S.D.F. and its affiliated administration, a new military incursion by Turkey similar to the one in 2019 or a precipitous withdrawal of the 700 U.S. troops based in the area to support the S.D.F., could give the jihadists an opening, Ms. Khalifa said.

“ISIS is a local insurgency, and might not be an imminent transnational risk,” she said. “But if there is a vacuum of some sort in Syria, this is where these movements really thrive. That is when it becomes more of an external threat.”

What ISIS has not been able to do since 2019 is control significant territory. The splashy operation in Hasaka, analysts said, does not change that.

“Contrary to popular opinion, that doesn’t move the needle much, and it doesn’t get them closer to re-establishing control over populations,” Mr. Whiteside said. That control, he said, is “their reason for being, why they call themselves ‘the State.’”

In neighborhoods around the prison on Saturday, American forces in armored fighting vehicles helped Kurdish special forces who were searching houses for ISIS fighters. Residents waiting to return home said Islamic State fighters had made their way through the neighborhood, jumping from rooftop to rooftop.

The prison attack was still one of ISIS’ most ambitious since 2018, and it should not have come as a great surprise.

The prison was in fact a converted training institute beefed up with bars and other fortifications, not an ideal lockup for thousands of former fighters from a group that has historically relied on prison breaks to replenish its ranks.

And it was a known target.

Last month, the S.D.F. media office released a video of a man identified as a captured ISIS commander, saying he had been responsible for planning a foiled attack involving two car bombs and a bunch of armed commandos.

Their goal? To storm the prison in Hasaka that ISIS seized last week.

Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, Eric Schmitt from Washington and Jane Arraf from Hasaka, Syria.