Key Takeaway: ISIS has mounted low-level efforts to replenish its ranks from members held in detention facilities and displacement camps across Syria and Iraq since late 2018. Some ISIS members have paid bribes to guards in order to buy their freedom. Others have rioted or mounted small-scale escapes attempts from at least four detention facilities in Syria and Iraq since September 2018. ISIS is likely preparing more coordinated and sophisticated operations to free its detained members in Iraq and Syria. The largest risk likely faces the network of makeshift and undermanned detention facilities spread across Northern Syria.
ISIS has mounted low-level efforts to replenish its ranks from members held in detention facilities and displacement camps across Syria and Iraq since at least September 2018. ISIS is reportedly bribing guards to release small numbers of its fighters in Iraq and Syria. Anonymous Iraqi officials confirmed in December 2018 that wealthy members of the group could buy their way out of detention facilities. ISIS has also dedicated funds to release imprisoned fighters held in Iraqi Kurdistan and Southern Iraq, according to alleged internal documents released by a local analyst in late 2018. In Syria, local civilians levelled similar accusations of bribery against guards employed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in June 2019. SDF General Commander Mazloum Kobane acknowledged in April 2019 that the SDF had cut the salaries of its fighters due in part to the burden of maintaining detention facilities and displacement camps in Syria. This strain creates a situation vulnerable to bribes and smuggling networks operated by ISIS.
ISIS also began a fundraising campaign in June 2019 to raise money for the stated purpose of smuggling women out of displacement camps (such as the Al-Hawl IDP Camp) in Northern Syria. Activists have reported at least two instances of smugglers successfully extracting foreign (i.e. non-Syrian or Iraqi) ISIS female members from a secure annex of the Al-Hawl IDP Camp. The SDF arrested four smugglers and two foreign ISIS female members who had successfully escaped to a village near Al-Hawl IDP Camp on September 26, 2019. Separately, smugglers disguised as camp guards allegedly smuggled “dozens” of ISIS female members from Al-Hawl IDP Camp as of October 1.
Detained ISIS fighters have also organized riots or small-scale escape attempts from four detention facilities in Syria and Iraq since September 2018. The incidents thus far likely reflect the personal initiative of detainees within these facilities rather than a coordinated external campaign by ISIS.
1. Al-Bab, Syria: At least ten ISIS fighters escaped a detention facility guarded by opposition groups backed by Turkey in Al-Bab in Northern Syria on September 29, 2018.
2. Fort Suse, Iraq: At least twenty-one ISIS fighters escaped the Fort Suse Prison in Iraqi Kurdistan on December 11, 2018.
3. Malikiyah, Syria: An unknown number of ISIS fighters rioted in a detention facility operated by the SDF in Malikiyah in Northern Syria on April 5, 2019. The facility houses roughly 400 ISIS foreign fighters. Kurdish Anti-Terror Units (YAT) successfully suppressed the riot.
4. Al-Hawl IDP Camp, Syria: ISIS female members have led multiple violent incidents in the foreign annex of Al-Hawl IDP Camp. ISIS female members most recently used firearms to resist camp guards who attempted to raid the annex on September 30, 2019, killing at least one individual. Camp guards detained fifty women during the raid, which was prompted by reports that ISIS female members had beaten two women for not attending religious classes.
ISIS is likely preparing more coordinated and sophisticated operations to free its detained members in Iraq and Syria. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instructed his followers to accelerate efforts to free detainees from the “camps of diaspora and prisons of humiliation” in a rare speech on September 16. The largest risk likely faces the makeshift and undermanned detention facilities operated by the SDF in Syria. ISIS has expanded its support networks in Hasaka Province since September 2018, developing new rear areas that it could use to enable future attacks on detention facilities in Northern Syria. ISIS could nonetheless also attempt similar operations in Iraq, replicating the success of its 2012 - 2013 ‘Breaking the Walls’ Campaign.
ISIS may also be able to exploit intercommunal tensions driven by the recent closing of numerous displacement camps by the Government of Iraq. The Iraqi Government closed at least six displacement camps in Ninewa Province in Northern Iraq in early September 2019. The closures forced the relocation of more than 2,000 IDPs to locations as far flung as Anbar Province in Western Iraq. The Iraqi Government also previously closed a limited number of camps in Northern Iraq, including the Hardaniyah Camp near Samarra in 2018 and the Nazrawa Camp in Kirkuk Province in February 2019. These forcible expulsions increase the risk of persecution and violence by host communities against individuals and families with perceived ties to ISIS. ISIS could also exploit these relocations to disperse its own members alongside displaced civilians and inject new capabilities into its nascent insurgency in Iraq.
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, September 26, 2019, http://www.syriahr.com/?p=339290
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; [“Urgent: Preliminary Information on the Reason for the Flight of Military Aircraft Over the Skies of Derik and Some Areas of Rojava,”] Xeber24
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