Diaspora

Prison Attack in Syria Is Latest Sign of ISIS Resurgence – The New York Times

ISIS has mounted a series of sophisticated attacks recently in both Syria and Iraq, suggesting the group is re-emerging as a serious threat three years after it was driven out.
Battles over Syrian prison spill into surrounding neighborhoods.
ISIS is holding hundreds of boys hostage. Who are they?
Prison at center of Syria fighting holds 3,500 ISIS militants.
U.S. troops are providing airstrikes and ‘limited ground support’ in fight over prison.
BAGHDAD — An audacious attack on a Syrian prison that houses thousands of Islamic State detainees. A series of strikes against military forces in neighboring Iraq. The dissemination of a video showing the beheading of a kidnapped Iraqi police officer.
The evidence of a resurgence of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is mounting by the day, three years after the militants lost their last territorial foothold in the so-called caliphate, which once stretched across vast parts of the two countries. The fact that ISIS was able to mount multiple, coordinated and sophisticated attacks is evidence that what had been believed to be disparate sleeper cells are re-emerging as a more serious threat.
“It’s a wake-up call for regional players, for national players that ISIS is not over, that the fight is not over,” said Kawa Hassan, Middle East and North Africa director at the Stimson Center, a Washington research institute. “It shows the resilience of ISIS to strike back at the time and place of their choosing.”
On Thursday, Islamic State fighters attacked a prison in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasaka in an attempt to free the 3,500 ISIS prisoners held there and took a group of detained boys hostage to use as human shields. The assault drew the U.S. military into fight in what has become the biggest confrontation between American forces and ISIS in three years.
By Tuesday, the ISIS attackers still controlled part of the prison in Hasaka, even after the U.S. sent in ground troops and air support for the Kurdish-led forces trying to take it back.
In Iraq last week, around the same time as the prison attack began, ISIS fighters stormed an army outpost in Diyala Province, killing 10 soldiers and an officer in the deadliest attack in several years on an Iraqi military base. Gunmen approached the base from three sides late at night while some of the soldiers slept.
The success of the attack raised fears that some of the same conditions in Iraq that allowed for the rise of ISIS in 2014 were once again making room for it to reconstitute.
On Tuesday, ISIS fighters seized a village from the Syrian government, according to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. An S.D.F. spokesman, Farhad Shami, said that ISIS captured the village of Rasafa, about 30 miles from the city of Raqqa.
In December, ISIS kidnapped four Iraqi hunters in a mountainous area of northeast Iraq, including a police colonel. The militants beheaded the police officer, and then released a gruesome video of the kidnapping that was reminiscent of what was once a common practice during the reign of ISIS.
The attacks in Iraq, conducted by ISIS sleeper cells in remote mountain and desert areas, have highlighted a lack of coordination between Iraqi government forces and the Peshmerga, Kurdish forces that answer to the government of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Many of the attacks take place in disputed territory claimed by both the Iraqi Kurdish government and the central government.
Ardian Shajkovci, director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting & Resilience Institute, said many of the ISIS fighters arrested in attacks since the group lost the last of its territory three years ago were younger and came from families with older members who had ties to ISIS.
“If so, this is a new generation of ISIS recruits, changing the calculus and threat landscape in many ways,” he said.
Iraq has struggled to deal with tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens who are relatives of ISIS fighters and have been collectively punished and placed in detention camps, which are now seen as breeding grounds for radicalization.
Corruption in Iraqi security forces has left some bases in the country without proper supplies and allowed soldiers and officers to neglect their duties, contributing to the collapse of entire army divisions which retreated in 2014 rather than face ISIS.

BAGHDAD — Fighting between a Kurdish-led militia backed by the United States and Islamic State militants spread on Tuesday to neighborhoods around an embattled prison in northeastern Syria that is at the center of the biggest confrontation between the American military and ISIS in three years.
The U.S. military joined the fight on Monday to back its allies in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS, days after the militant group attacked a makeshift prison in the city of Hasaka in an attempt to free ISIS fighters held there. The U.S. has conducted airstrikes and provided intelligence and ground troops in Bradley fighting vehicles who helped cordon off the prison.
ISIS now controls about one-quarter of the prison and is holding hostages, including child detainees.
The U.S.-led coalition said the fight has become the biggest battle between American forces and ISIS since the group lost the last piece of territory it controlled in Syria in 2019.
The S.D.F. said on Tuesday that it had conducted sweeps in Hasaka neighborhoods near the Sinaa prison and had killed five ISIS fighters who were wearing suicide belts. The sweeps were an expansion of the fighting to areas beyond the prison.
The S.D.F said it had freed nine prison employees held by ISIS on Monday and that it had killed another nine ISIS militants, including two suicide bomber, in raids around the prison. An S.D.F. spokesman, Farhad Shami, said that so far 550 ISIS detainees have surrendered after participating in the siege.
The S.D.F. has been negotiating with the ISIS leadership within the prison.
There are an estimated 3,500 ISIS prisoners in the overcrowded Sinaa prison and up to 700 minors, including about 150 foreigners, brought to the self-declared caliphate as young children by their parents. At its height in 2014, ISIS controlled about a third of Iraq and large parts of Syria.

The battle over a prison in northeastern Syria has highlighted the plight of thousands of foreign children brought to the Islamic State caliphate in Syria by their parents and who have been detained for three years in camps and prisons in the region, abandoned by their own countries.
The inmates in the embattled Sinaa prison in the city of Hasaka include boys as young as 12, some of them Syrians, Iraqis and about 150 non-Arab foreigners. Some had been transferred to the prison after they were deemed too old to remain in detention camps that held families of suspected Islamic State fighters.
The Syria director for Save the Children, Sonia Khush, said those detaining the children were responsible for their safety. But she also blamed the foreign governments for not repatriating their imprisoned citizens and their children.
“Responsibility for anything that happens to these children also lies at the door of foreign governments who have thought that they can simply abandon their child nationals in Syria,” Ms. Khush said. “Risk of death or injury is directly linked to these governments’ refusal to take them home.”
At its peak, the Islamic State held territory the size of Britain straddling Iraq and Syria. An estimated 40,000 foreigners, including children, made their way to Syria to fight or work for the caliphate. Thousands of them brought their young children. Other children were born there.
When the last piece of territory under the control of ISIS, in Baghuz, Syria, fell three years ago, surviving women and young children were put in detention camps while suspected fighters and boys, some as young as 10, were sent to prison.
The main detention camp for ISIS families, Al Hol, is squalid, overcrowded and dangerous, and lacks sufficient food, medical services, and guards, fostering an increasingly radicalized segment of detainees who terrorize other camp residents.
When the boys at the camps become teenagers, they are usually transferred to Sinaa prison in Hasaka, where they are packed into overcrowded cells without access to sunlight. There is insufficient food and medical care, according to prison guards in the region.
When they reach age 18, the youths are placed with the general prison population, where wounded ISIS fighters sleep three to a bed. None of the non-Syrian detainees have been charged with a crime or gone to trial.

The prison at the center of the fighting in northeast Syria was never meant to be a prison.
Built years ago as a training institute, the complex was taken over by the Kurdish-led militia that partnered with the United States and other nations to fight the Islamic State.
As the jihadists’ so-called caliphate collapsed several years ago and its fighters were captured, that militia, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, fortified the Sinaa prison in the city of Hasaka with higher walls, heavy metal doors and bars and put its captives there.
They have been there, and in other makeshift lockups in the area, ever since because nobody knows what to do with them.
Many of the approximately 3,500 men at the prison were fighters and some have lingering injuries. Reflecting the international draw of the Islamic State, they hail from all over the world, and most of their countries have refused to take them back. A separate part of the compound holds about 700 boys, who are the children of suspected members of ISIS and were also taken captive as the caliphate collapsed.
The Kurdish-led officials who govern the area have said it is not their job to put the men on trial, and since no one else will either, the prisoners have been stuck in limbo — that is until Islamic State fighters attacked the compound on Thursday to try to break them out. They used suicide bombers to blow open the gates and seized control of about a quarter of the facility.
Terrorism experts and U.S. officials have warned of the dangers of keeping so many former ISIS fighters in an unstable region under the control of an ad hoc administration that lacks the resources to keep the place secure.
This week’s fighting only amplified those concerns.
As of Tuesday, at least 30 S.D.F. fighters had been killed in battles in and around the prison along with about 200 ISIS attackers and detainees, said Farhad Shami, an S.D.F. spokesman.
It is unclear how many prisoners have managed to escape. And S.D.F. officials have said the ISIS fighters holed up in part of the prison are using the boys as human shields.
During a visit to the prison in 2019, reporters for The New York Times saw hundreds of men, many of them emaciated and injured, dressed in orange jumpsuits and crammed into crowded cells. Those interviewed either denied they had been with the Islamic State or claimed to have had nonviolent jobs as teachers or cooks.
Human rights organizations have criticized Western governments for not repatriating their citizens from northeastern Syria, comparing their indefinite detention without trial to the plight of men held in the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In addition to the men held in prisons, tens of thousands of others, mostly women and children, who were detained as the caliphate collapsed, are held in camps nearby that aid groups have warned are unsanitary and serve as jihadist recruitment centers.

The U.S. troops in northeast Syria are part of a residual force of the American-led military coalition that was kept in the country to assist in the fight against ISIS and to protect oil installations.
There are currently about 700 American troops in the region, operating mostly from a base in Hasaka, and another 200 near Syria’s border with Jordan.
The Pentagon said that the coalition had moved in armored Bradley fighting vehicles to back the S.D.F. forces, indicating for the first time that U.S. ground forces were involved in the fight. A coalition official said the vehicles had been fired at and had returned fire.
“We have provided limited ground support, strategically positioned to assist security in the area,” John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters in Washington. U.S. military officials said the Bradleys were being used as barricades while the S.D.F. tightened its cordon around the prison.
The United States has also dispatched attack helicopters and carried out airstrikes on the prison to help the Kurdish-led militia, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, reassert control. Some of the prisoners were killed in the strikes, U.S. officials said.
American officials defended the attacks.
“The coalition has taken great measures to ensure the humane treatment of detainees, but when ISIS detainees took up arms, they became an active threat, and were subsequently engaged and killed by the S.D.F. and coalition airstrikes,” said Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan Jr., commander of the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are a U.S. partner in the autonomous Rojava region of northeastern Syria.

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