ISIS's Campaign to Escape Detention in Iraq and Syria
By John Dunford and Brandon Wallace, ISW 7/10/19
Oct 8, 2019 - 9:49:42 AM

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.[1] 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.[2] In Syria, local civilians levelled similar accusations of bribery against guards employed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in June 2019.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] Separately, smugglers disguised as camp guards allegedly smuggled “dozens” of ISIS female members from Al-Hawl IDP Camp as of October 1.[7]

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.[8]

2. Fort Suse, Iraq: At least twenty-one ISIS fighters escaped the Fort Suse Prison in Iraqi Kurdistan on December 11, 2018.[9]
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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]
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.[13] 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.[14] The closures forced the relocation of more than 2,000 IDPs to locations as far flung as Anbar Province in Western Iraq.[15] 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.[16] 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.

[1] “Following the Defeat of ISIS, Iraq Pursues a Campaign of Revenge,” NPR, December 19, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/12/19/678133967/following-the-defeat-of-isis-iraq-pursues-a-campaign-of-revenge.

[2] Hassan al-Saidi, [“Documents Reveal ISIS’s Relationship with Iraqi Security Officers,”] Al-Arabiya, October 30, 2018, https://www.alarabiya.net/ar/arab-and-world/iraq/2018/10/30/وثائق-تكشف-علاقة-داعش-بضباط-أمن-عراقيين.
[3] Shelly Kittleson, “Distrust of SDF, Unclear Future Divide Syrian Tribal Massacre Area,” Al-Monitor, June 10, 2019, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/syria-deir-ez-zor-shaitat-massacre-islamic-state-kurdish.html.
[4] Robin Wright, “The Dangerous Dregs of ISIS,” The New Yorker, April 16, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/the-dangerous-dregs-of-isis.
[5] John Dunford and Brandon Wallace, “ISIS Prepares for Breakout in Prisons and Camps,” Institute for the Study of War, September 23, 2019, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2019/09/isis-prepares-for-breakout-in-prisons.html.
[6] [“Hawl Military Council Forces Thwart the Smuggling of Russian Women from ISIS Families in Hawl Camp South of Hasaka,”] SOHR, September 26, 2019, http://www.syriahr.com/?p=339290.
[7] Nisan Ahmado and Mutlu Civiroglu, “IS Foreign Women Smuggled Out in Northeastern Syria Camp,” VOA, October 1, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/foreign-women-smuggled-out-northeastern-syria-camp.
[8] Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace, and Jason Zhou, “ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency,” Institute for the Study of War, July 23, 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/isiss-second-comeback-assessing-next-isis-insurgency.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Mutlu Civiroglu, Twitter, April 5, 2019, https://twitter.com/mutludc/status/1114221680149377029; [“Urgent: Preliminary Information on the Reason for the Flight of Military Aircraft Over the Skies of Derik and Some Areas of Rojava,”] Xeber24, April 5, 2019, https://xeber24(.)org/archives/170947; Amberin Zaman, “Inside the Prison Holding IS Detainees in Northeast Syria,” Al-Monitor, March 15, 2019, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/03/syriakurdish-region-isis-prison-sdf.html.
[11] “One ISIS Woman Killed, 7 Injured, 50 Arrested in Hol Camp,” ANHA, September 30, 2019, https://hawarnews.com/en/haber/one-isis-woman-killed-7-injured-50-women-arrested-in-al-hol-camp-h11719.html; “Women Hisba of ISIS Fight ‘Asayish’ with Firearms in Al-Hol ‘Mini-State’,” SOHR, September 30, 2019, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=142271.
[12] “One ISIS Woman Killed, 7 Injured, 50 Arrested in Hol Camp,” ANHA, September 30, 2019, https://hawarnews.com/en/haber/one-isis-woman-killed-7-injured-50-women-arrested-in-al-hol-camp-h11719.html.
[13] “IS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Orders Fighters Redouble Efforts at All Levels, Promotes Religious Activism,” SITE, September 16, 2019, https://ent.siteintelgroup.com/Statements/is-leader-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-orders-fighters-redouble-efforts-at-all-levels-promotes-religious-activism.html.
[14] “Iraq: Camps Expel Over 2,000 People Seen as ISIS-Linked,” Human Rights Watch, September 4, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/09/04/iraq-camps-expel-over-2000-people-seen-isis-linked.
[15] Ibid.; Hiwa Shilani, “Iraq Begins Closure of Displacement Camps in Nineveh Governorate,” Kurdistan24, September 16, 2019, https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/6bf56e41-d6dd-43d4-8915-de4ecf41dbb9; “Iraqi Gov’t Closes 4 Camps for IDPs in Nineveh,” Baghdad Post, September 23, 2019, https://www.thebaghdadpost.com/en/Story/43943/Iraqi-gov-t-closes-4-camps-for-IDPs-in-Nineveh.
[16] “CCCM Cluster Iraq,” UNHCR, January 18, 2018, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/iraq_cccm; Sangar Ali, “Iraq Closes IDP Camp in Kirkuk, After Sending Hundreds Back to Hawija,” Kurdistan24, February 10, 2019, https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/bc3f0766-4536-4d0c-b49f-94fdb88b80f0.

Source: Ocnus.net 2019