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ISIS After the Death of its Leader

ISIS After the Death of its Leader

Saturday, 5 February, 2022 - 09:15
Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

Two weeks ago, ISIS launched its biggest attack in Syria and Iraq since its territorial defeat nearly three years ago, in March 2019. According to the Syrian Democratic Forces, as many as 300 ISIS militants launched an assault on al-Sina Prison in Hasakeh city late on January 20. Two suicide bombers detonated truck bombs outside the prison’s northern walls, preparing the ground for a ground assault that entered the facility, armed prisoners, took control of the northern wing, and released hundreds of battle-hardened extremists onto the streets.

After the dramatic attack, it took a week for the SDF to re-assert control of the prison, thanks in part to the intervention of British and American special forces and a series of helicopter and fighter jet strikes. By that point, nearly 120 SDF personnel and 375 ISIS fighters were dead, but sporadic fighting continued in Hasakeh’s streets throughout the second week. According to multiple well-placed sources, it would appear that at least 300 more ISIS prisoners successfully escaped and evaded recapture – a number that threatens to significantly enhance ISIS’s capabilities, whether in Syria or next-door in Iraq.

Two weeks after ISIS’s prison attack in northeastern Syria, an elite team of US Delta Force operatives landed by helicopter outside a house in Syria’s northwest and killed ISIS leader Haji Abdullah. The operation, based on months of planning and intelligence intercepts, took more than two hours and saw the ISIS leader detonate wired explosives on the buildings’ third level, killing him along with his whole family. The death of Haji Abdullah – who US officials said remained in constant contact with ISIS operatives in Syria and Iraq, as well as around the world – is likely to deal a sizeable blow to ISIS’s morale, particularly coming so soon after the prison attack, but it is unlikely to have much of an impact on ISIS’s every-day operational capabilities.

ISIS has a long track record of prison attacks and this will not have been its last. A decade ago, its “Breaking the Walls” campaign in Iraq broke hundreds of prisoners out of detention and catalyzed its dramatic resurgence. These operations carry a practical purpose, in freeing members from detention, but they are also a powerful propaganda tool – demonstrating to members and supporters that ISIS stands by those who swore it allegiance. There can be no doubting that the al-Sina attack served as an enormous morale boost for ISIS’s support base, both in the Middle East and further afield.

When analyzing the attack, Haji Abdullah’s death and all the various consequences, we should first abide by a word of caution: ISIS is not dramatically resurging and it remains an exceedingly long way from replicating anything close to its gains in 2014. However, the attack must serve as a wake-up call. ISIS was not defeated when it lost its territory three years ago, it merely evolved into a different form. In fact, ISIS and its predecessors have existed since 2003 and thrived for far longer without territory than with it. ISIS is well-versed in operating as a covert guerrilla insurgency and it knows that time is on its side – particularly in Syria.

An attack of this scale on such a target raises serious questions about the sustainability of the US-led coalition’s willingness to hold 12,000 ISIS militants in a network of makeshift and poorly resourced detention facilities. Holding between 4,000 and 5,000 inmates, Al-Sina Prison was the world’s largest facility holding captured ISIS members – and yet it was merely a series of former school buildings surrounded by a large wall. Security was provided by minimally trained civilian guards, most unarmed, and security outside by the SDF, some of whose personnel were almost certainly bribed or coerced into stepping aside prior to ISIS’s attack. Beyond periodic training and provision of riot gear, US or coalition personnel have assumed no role in prison security.

Once the dust settles from this attack, a serious and substantial coalition investigation should look squarely into whether ISIS did indeed infiltrate al-Sina’s security – as it has done in almost every prison break in its history. Judging by ISIS video footage from inside the prison, detainees appear likely to have known about the attack in advance, and it is well known that through bribery, ISIS prisoners in al-Sina had regular access to cell phones. The coalition should also investigate why the SDF was holding as many as 800 boys alongside experienced ISIS militants in al-Sina Prison.

In the coming weeks, the international community has some serious soul-searching ahead of it. The detention of thousands of ISIS militants without trial, in poorly resourced makeshift facilities, guarded by a non-state actor lacking any experience in mass, secure detention was always going to be a ticking time bomb. Having intervened in 2014 to reverse ISIS’s territorial gains, the international coalition holds a serious responsibility for what comes next. Little or nothing has been done since to resolve the detainee issue, let alone the crisis posed by the more than 70,000 associated women and children in internment camps like al-Hol and al-Roj. The world can no longer ‘kick the can down the road.’ The time has come to more determinedly deal with these challenges head-on, before it is too late.

Ultimately however, ISIS’s attack on al-Sina Prison also underlines a very concerning trend that has been clear for some time: ISIS has slowly, quietly and methodically been rebuilding itself in Syria and Iraq since its territorial defeat in 2019. Comments from US officials following Haji Abdullah’s killing appeared to describe an ISIS leader that had maintained communication and some coordination with operatives in Syria, Iraq and further afield. In and of itself, that is a reality more in line with a confident, well-structured organization – not the weak, decentralized insurgent network previously described to us in public. If these more recent descriptions are accurate, then ISIS has recovered to a greater extent than previously thought.

Rolling back ISIS’s territorial entity was a strategically large, but relatively simple task when compared to the challenge we currently face: a complex, resource-heavy and intelligence-dependent counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaign against an enemy hiding in the shadows. Instead of adapting to that challenge in 2019, the coalition reduced its footprint and resources, placing even more pressure on our local partners, like the SDF. The coalition must seriously consider increasing its investment in the counter-ISIS mission, to better match the challenges ahead – or otherwise risk granting ISIS the space and opportunities to continue its recovery.

Finally, the international community must also acknowledge that ISIS remains what it has always been: a symptom of far bigger and deeper-rooted crises. In Syria, those crises may look different than they did in 2014, but the drivers fueling ISIS activity and providing vacuums into which to step and fissures to exploit are all still in existence. The greatest of those root causes remains the Assad regime and its reputation for brutality, corruption and incompetence, but poverty as well as ethnic, sectarian and geopolitical hostilities all play into ISIS’s hands too. In fact, re-engaging with Assad’s regime and failing to push for and to achieve meaningful and positive change for Syria and its people virtually guarantees that ISIS will benefit.

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