A closer look at the ISIS attack on Syria’s al-Sina Prison

On Jan. 20, 2021, al-Sina Prison in the southern region of al-Hasakah, located in Syria’s far northeast, was targeted by ISIS-affiliated factions. The assault, lasting close to nine days, resulted in the deaths of numerous ISIS combatants and captives, alongside around 140 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their prison custodians.

Al-Sina Prison.

The Central Prison al-Hasakah, also known as Prison Ghweiran, was built during the political union period between Egypt and Syria to accommodate 1,500 prisoners. When the Ba’ath Party took power in 1963, the prison was filled with hundreds of Kurdish anti-government activists. Over the years, it experienced several attempts to escape and insurrections, making it the most famous prison where Kurdish activists were detained. In 1992, a number of Kurdish activists were arrested and later held in connection with the 2004 uprising, during which the prison was burned down.

During the spring of 2019, a majority of individuals who had surrendered following the battle at al-Baghouz were apprehended by the SDF. A vocational education secondary school, known as the Industrial School, was taken over by the SDF and converted into an additional detention facility. This facility accommodated around 3,000 prisoners when the number of detainees surpassed 2,000. In 2016, Kurdish units launched an assault and successfully gained control of the school, using it to house captured ISIS members until the number of detainees exceeded its capacity. In 2015, ISIS launched an attack on the prison, seizing it from government forces following the start of the Syrian revolution.

The Al-Hasakah playground, located near the American base, has consistently been a site of intervention by forces using their stationed helicopters. Despite the continuous efforts, these attempts have always been unsuccessful in quelling revolts or preventing about 20 escape attempts by ISIS prisoners. It is important to note that the detention center was not originally intended to serve as a vocational training school.

Amongst other local correctional facilities, al-Shaddadi Prison (approximately 600) and the Black Prison or Derek Prison (around 2,000 of the most perilous inmates) are encompassed. The Alaya Prison in Qamishli (about 1,500) and the Juvenile Prison in Raqqa (1,500) are also incorporated. Ayed Prison in Tabqa detains approximately 1,000 individuals, and there are at least 20 others, including Al-Sina Prison which accommodates roughly 3,500 ISIS detainees, alongside over 700 minors — the so-called “Cubs of the Caliphate.”

Specifics of the assault.

Around 7 pm on January 20th, approximately 100 ISIS members, aiming to create chaos, stormed into the prison and breached the main gate. After that, another suicide bomber blew himself up on a motorcycle, following multiple directions, to further intensify the chaos. Soon after, the prison was attacked by the SDF, and it all began with a car bomb detonating at the main gate, targeting around 20 ISIS cells.

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Many prisoners of ISIS escaped from the prison in the Al-Zuhour neighborhood by overpowering the guards. They managed to break the doors and locks in some of the dormitories. Thousands of prisoners launched simultaneous attacks inside the prison, sparking a mutiny.

The leader of the operation was Iraqi al-Miqdad Abu, who commanded the battalion and the general military of ISIS in the east of the Euphrates.

During the last two days of the battle, some of the captured individuals were executed, particularly in the battlefield. Additionally, many members of the prison staff released the trapped ISIS fighters in exchange for providing drink and food to treat the wounded among them. Throughout the nine-day long battle, the captives utilized chips as a bargaining tool. On the first day of the battle, the ISIS fighters seized their weapons and killed and captured dozens of prison employees and guards.

The operation concluded on Jan. 29, the final day of the assault, with the capitulation of a combat unit that had occupied a position in the basement of the penitentiary and barricaded itself within it throughout the attack. Others surrendered on the fourth and fifth days, including approximately 1,000 elderly, wounded, and incapacitated ISIS detainees who initially surrendered. The SDF initiated its efforts to compel ISIS fighters entrenched inside the prison to surrender without resistance, which resulted in the surrender of approximately 1,000 elderly, wounded, and incapacitated ISIS detainees. It also commenced encircling the epicenter of the clash, confining the battlefield to the prison and its immediate vicinity, as it regained its stability on the third day after seemingly faltering during the initial two days of the attack.

The number of casualties among the prisoners and attackers of ISIS was 374, while in addition to four civilians, 40 fighters and 77 prison guards among them, the death toll reached 117, according to the statement by SDF. The final outcome of the attack resulted in this statement by SDF.

Several ISIS commanders successfully fled.

ISIS managed to secure the escape of more than 300 detainees on the first day of the attack, taking advantage of the chaos. This was confirmed by sources from the southern countryside of al-Hasakah, as well as local sources from the Ghweiran neighborhood, with whom we were able to establish contact during the first day of the attack. While some assert that there were no important ISIS leaders among them, others claim that there were no more than 30, while others say the number exceeded 100. There is conflicting information about the number of ISIS members who managed to escape from the prison as a result of the chaos and the operation.

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According to a source, they went from the Syrian-Iraqi border to the Rawda desert and then proceeded to the Tuwaimin desert in the Deir ez-Zour countryside. They traveled through secondary roads between the al-Hol and al-Shaddadi areas. Afterwards, in the vicinity of the prison in the Sakour’ Sab’ area, batches of fugitives were seized by ISIS fighters, some of whom owned civilian vehicles.

“According to this source, some of the fugitives were smuggled across the Syrian desert to areas controlled by the Syrian regime and the Euphrates River, where ISIS is currently present in the cities of Deir ez-Zour, Homs, and other regions. Among the fugitives are four important ISIS leaders, including Hamza Abu Sharqieh, a Syrian leader from the countryside of Deir ez-Zour Province, and al-Dujana Abu, an Iraqi military leader of ISIS, who both belong to the al-Shaitat Clan.”

The objectives of the assault and the causes for its lack of success.

The goal of achieving triumph in a massacre that turned into a triumph, however, he miserably failed. He was hoping to prove himself as a heroic savior. In regards to al-Hashimi, he was trying to make a name for himself by orchestrating an especially effective attack in front of the detained leaders of the organization in SDF prisons. The goals of the attack can be split into two categories: those of ISIS as a larger organization and those of Saeed al-Mawli al-Hashimi, the leader of ISIS.

The second objective of the attack was to return the international attention from the fading spotlight, achieving the operation. This meant shifting the focus back to ISIS, where it is currently present in Iraq and Syria. The group is now suffering from a decline in new recruits, especially in various specializations where many fighters with expertise and experience would have been provided by ISIS. The first goal was to liberate the thousands of detained fighters, which would have served as a means to achieve the larger goals of the organization.

The organization’s lack of strategy and realism is the primary reason for its ill-preparedness to carry out such a large-scale operation, targeting the most strategically important opponents in the region. There were a few key reasons for the failure. Despite the audacity of its perpetrators and the implications of the ISIS attack, it was a catastrophic disappointment and failure for the group’s supporters.

As for the second reason, the attackers lacked an adequate quantity and caliber of weapons to engage in such a large battle.

The prevention of the assault was vital because the SDF deployed a significant amount of its combatants and U.S. Special forces intervened with air assistance, which constitutes the third rationale.

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SDF hacked.

The elements within the SDF who secretly collaborated with ISIS played a crucial role in facilitating the transfer of fighters, weapons, and vital information about the forces in the attack area and the prison garrison to the vicinity of the prison. The high-ranking source within the SDF, who chose not to disclose the individual’s name, confirmed that this operation significantly compromised the effectiveness of the SDF security apparatus, which is one of their most important preemptive measures for safeguarding both the SDF’s security and the areas under their control. Despite the presence of numerous checkpoints in the “security square,” the most significant military zone for the SDF in al-Hasakah Governorate, ISIS still managed to transport their fighters and weaponry from remote locations to the prison vicinity, thereby exposing the extent of ISIS’s security breaches within the SDF ranks during the al-Sina Prison operation.

Until now, it persists in carrying out its assaults and has been able to identify the defensive strategies employed by ISIS members. By sending cells and leaders to the eastern region of the Euphrates, it has managed to gather intelligence and blend into the resentful local communities, thus evading pursuit by security forces and protecting themselves. Former elements of ISIS who joined the SDF in order to benefit from their knowledge were able to avoid being pursued after the fall of al-Baghouz in spring 2019. Although it exposed unconventional and novel ways in which its security had been compromised, the SDF did not initiate the operation to secure the prison.

The intelligence failure cannot be attributed to the international coalition and the SDF, but rather to the extent of ISIS’s infiltration into the security system. Former allies are unable to gain entry to crucial locations in SDF territory, while the next generation of ISIS fighters, recruited after their defeat in Syria, have been integrated into the SDF. This integration was made possible by diverting suspicion away from them and allowing them to join the ranks of the SDF and its military councils. They have received security training and now rely on new members who were not affiliated with the group during the 2014-19 period, indicating a shift in ISIS’s approach to recruiting collaborators within the SDF.

The final outcome.

Noteworthy progress was made in the SDF’s fight, despite the unfortunate loss of human lives. It emerged victorious in another confrontation, at the expense of ISIS. Firstly, its backing was secured and its collaboration with the global coalition was revitalized. Additionally, as a regional entity combatting terrorism, it garnered extensive media coverage.

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