Caging terror: The ongoing saga of ISIS prison breaks

Ahmed al-Rubaie , The Cradle, September 22, 2023 —

ISIS orchestrates ‘prison breaks’ in order to provide manpower for the group’s resurgence. In the last decade, mass escapes have taken place under the watch of Americans, Kurds, and some Iraqis, whose dedication to containing and punishing the thousands of incarcerated terrorists in their custody must seriously be questioned.

In November 2022, Iraqi security services intercepted an encrypted message from Iraq’s ISIS governor Abu Abdul Qadir to “Abu Salem,” an enigmatic figure known as the “prison’s emir,” instructing him to prepare for a “prisoner release” operation. Specifically, the message used the phrase: “a barter deal to release the sisters and brothers soon,” a veiled reference to the organization’s intention to kidnap Iraqi diplomats somewhere in Europe.

This intercepted message was the key to decrypting dozens of encrypted messages that ISIS leadership exchanged with the organization’s branch in South Asia and Central Asia, known as Wilayat Khorasan,” says a source in the Popular Mobilization Unit’s (PMU) Security and Discipline Directorate, which uncovered the crucial cache of ISIS communications.

These inter-ISIS exchanges mainly revolved around a strategy to revive ISIS by securing the release of their incarcerated ISIS comrades – either through prison breaks or prisoner exchanges.

Operation ‘Release of Prisoners’ 

During an exclusive interview, The Cradle met with Abu Salem at his detention facility. With a steely gaze, the thick, gnarled bearded “prison’s emir” offered insights into the intricate communication network he had masterminded between various detention centers.

He speaks of the seamless coordination between the emir in each prison, facilitated through discreet text messages or verbal exchanges carried out by family members during their visits to detainees. These “prisoner liberation” operations, says Abu Salem, provide the only glimmer of hope for detainees.

For ISIS, these operations represent a chance to repopulate its ranks and rekindle its activities. As Abu Salem tells The Cradle: “My primary focus was on persuading those whose sentences had expired to renew their allegiance to the organization and swiftly return to active duty upon their release.”

In January 2023, a PMU security force launched a sweeping search operation within Baghdad’s Cropper and Taji prisons, where thousands of ISIS members are incarcerated. In a significant turn of events, they seized numerous mobile phones and apprehended four guards and two civilians.

In the process, PMU intel also discovered that Abu Salem had designated two key ISIS officials to oversee his prison break operations: one of whom was “the official responsible for the release of prisoners in the south,” and the other, “the official responsible for the release of prisoners in the north of Baghdad.”

In the world of Iraqi counterterrorism ops, routine prison raids to seize contraband mobile phones are hardly uncommon. But the November 2022 discovery of encrypted messages on ISIS prison break plots provided fresh grounds for the January 2023 raid – helping the PMU’s Investigations Directorate trace the various threads of ISIS’ prison break network.

This operation managed to significantly disrupt the terror group’s “prisoner release” plans and dealt a severe blow to ISIS’s efforts to reestablish its foothold in Iraq.

Indeed, several months after the arrest of the conspirators, the Washington Post revealed US intelligence reports of “a plot in which the group’s supporters would kidnap Iraqi diplomats in Belgium or France in a bid to secure the release of 4,000 imprisoned militants.”

ISIS prison breaks in Syria

In neighboring Syria, the situation has been vastly different as multitudes of ISIS members have managed to escape from areas controlled by Syrian opposition forces. The Syrian prison breaks have given the terrorist organization a newfound lease on life, enabling them to orchestrate a series of devastating attacks against the Syrian army and the US-backed Kurdish militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

In June, a daring escape saw 37 ISIS leaders and members, hailing from various nationalities, including Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, break free from a prison located in Ras al-Ayn, an area under the influence of Syrian Turkmen opposition factions closely aligned with Turkiye.

On 27 August, the SDF imposed a strict curfew in Al-Hasakah, a city within the Autonomous Administration region in the northeast of Syria. This measure was in response to intelligence reports that ISIS cells were preparing for a mass escape attempt in Ghwayran Prison  – a detention facility housing thousands of ISIS members, from which a successful escape operation had been executed over a year and a half ago.

In January 2022, dozens of ISIS fighters, including suicide bombers, under the direct supervision of the organization’s late leader, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, carried out an attack on the prison to free an estimated 5,000 ISIS members. The attack led to hundreds escaping successfully before most of them were re-arrested in complex operations that lasted more than two weeks.

The Ghwayran prison breach forced the Kurdish Autonomous Administration to intensify efforts to repatriate non-Syrian ISIS prisoners – some, Iraqis – to their respective countries. For those who remained, the administration sought to subject them to judicial proceedings under both international and local laws governing terrorism.

The prospect of prosecuting over 19,000 detainees from more than 40 countries, including high-ranking ISIS leaders, has been daunting for all involved parties. In fact, international indifference toward establishing an international court to adjudicate their cases – coupled with the reluctance of the detainees’ home countries to approve their return – has led to mounting concerns that more frequent prisoner escapes may ensue.

Overcrowded prisons 

Iraq, too, faces a serious dilemma as it grapples with the thousands of death sentences handed down by its judiciary against leaders and members of ISIS directly implicated in crimes against Iraqi citizens. The execution of terrorists, however, remains stalled because of an American “veto” obstructing their implementation. This inaction has placed a substantial financial burden on the Iraqi government, which spends millions in public funds to maintain the incarceration of these individuals.

An official source within Iraq’s Ministry of Justice informs The Cradle of two primary reasons behind the protracted delay in carrying out the death sentences, as mandated by Article 4 of the Anti-Terrorism Act No. 13 of 2005.

The first is Washington’s intense pressure to block the ISIS executions, “even though the Americans have never objected to the implementation of death sentences for convicts in criminal cases.”

And second is “the reluctance of [Kurdish Regional presidents] to sign death sentences on the pretext that Iraq has signed international agreements to abolish this penalty.”

Speaking to The Cradle, a prison official voices frustration at the US stance:

“The Americans are leveraging the United Nations to thwart the execution of terrorists. Every time a decision is made to carry out a death sentence, the international organization issues a statement condemning the move. It appears that they are more concerned about the well-being of terrorists than the welfare of Iraqis.”

Management issues 

In post-conflict Iraq and Syria, the management of ISIS prisoners remains a formidable challenge. These detainees are held in five major prisons specifically designated for individuals accused of terrorism-related offenses.

The most significant among them include Nasiriyah Central Prison (located in the Dhi Qar Governorate, commonly known as Al-Hout Prison), Al-Taji Prison (north of Baghdad), Al-Hilla Central Prison (in Babil Governorate, also known as Al-Kifl), Susah Prison in Sulaymaniyah Governorate within the Kurdistan Region, and Cropper Prison, situated to the west of the capital near Baghdad International Airport.

This network of facilities collectively houses approximately 60,000 inmates, with 29,000 individuals convicted on terrorism charges. Shockingly, more than 14,000 prisoners from terrorist organizations – including over 8,000 from Nasiriyah Prison alone – have been sentenced to death, as revealed in a confidential document obtained by The Cradle.

The sheer volume of ISIS prisoners incarcerated in Syria and Iraq creates a tempting objective for the organization, which continually seeks opportunities to orchestrate their release. Since 2003, a number of high-profile prisoner escapes have occurred, a significant percentage of whom are affiliated with armed radical organizations, including Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunna, and ISIS.

Release and recruitment from prisons 

Recent Iraqi intelligence investigations have revealed that the self-proclaimed “caliph” of ISIS, known as “Abu al-Hussein al-Qurayshi” (killed in May 2023), dedicated a substantial portion of his organization’s efforts to devise plans for the release of its imprisoned members.

When ISIS leader Ibrahim bin Awad, commonly known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the “Caliphate” on 5 July, 2014, the group’s organizational structure included a particular entity known as the Prisoners and Martyrs Affairs Authority.

This body was established to closely monitor the status of leaders and members of the organization held in Iraqi prisons, its primary mandate being to appoint legal representatives who would advocate on behalf of ISIS detainees in court proceedings.

Intelligence reports seen by The Cradle show a sophisticated network of intermediaries tasked with communicating with various lawyers representing the inmates. These intermediaries also facilitate the payment of legal fees, often channeled from abroad, with Turkiye serving as a prominent hub for those financial transactions.

This ISIS network operated actively between 2013 and 2018, but has declined in recent years. It also assumes responsibility for the families of organization members who have been killed or apprehended.

As ISIS sought to consolidate control over territories in Syria and Iraq, it needed to bolster its human resources with well-trained fighters. At that time, Iraqi prisons – particularly those at Taji (north of Baghdad) and Abu Ghraib (west of Baghdad) – housed thousands of detainees affiliated with armed terrorist groups in detention facilities supervised by relatively weak security agencies, making them ripe for exploitation.

Decline and leadership losses

In an audio recording on 22 July, 2012, ISIS predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, announced its intention to “liberate the prisoners” through an operation dubbed “Breaking the Walls.”

One year later, on 22 July, 2013, the organization executed the most substantial armed attack of its kind on Abu Ghraib and Al-Taji prisons. The operation was a highly coordinated effort, featuring the deployment of 12 booby-trapped vehicles and multiple suicide bombers.

The outcome was nothing short of extraordinary: approximately 500 organization members, including 33 leaders, successfully escaped. Among these escapees was Abu Abdullah al-Kurdi, who would later emerge as one of the foremost “Sharia officials” within ISIS.

The organization dispersed its fleeing members between Jurf al-Sakhar (south of Baghdad) and al-Nabai and Tarmiyah (north), while the bulk were transferred to the border city of Al-Qaim, and from there to Syria.

The escaped prisoners – whom the organization called “the Free” – were delegated key positions and formed the solid core of ISIS, on which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi relied heavily to establish the Caliphate.

Ongoing resurgence concerns

In the aftermath of the “Breaking the Walls” prison break, Iraqi officials became mired in a blame-game: while the government pointed fingers at weak intelligence efforts, domestic political parties accused certain government agencies of active collusion with the terrorist groups, blaming this for facilitating the escape of fugitives across the border.

In the years following, ISIS experienced a significant decline. It lost control over the majority of the territories it once held in Iraq and Syria, and its leadership suffered heavy casualties, including its three successive leaders: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, and Abu al-Hassan al-Qurayshi.

Faced with these challenges, the new caliph, Abu al-Hussein al-Hashemi, embarked on a mission to rejuvenate the organization by orchestrating the escape of thousands of detained militants.

ISIS’ unwavering commitment to liberate its imprisoned members demonstrates that even in the absence of the self-proclaimed caliphate, the potential for its resurgence remains a legitimate concern, alongside the ongoing challenges of radicalization and recruitment.

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