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Al-Sina'a prison battle. Lack of international support signals ISIS' resurgence

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With the start of the military operations launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the International Coalition against Islamic State (ISIS) at the end of 2014, many of the ISIS members were arrested after liberating every city and village, as well as after liberating most lands occupied by ISIS, specifically after gaining control of the town of Al-Baghouz, east of Deir ez-Zor. Thousands of ISIS detainees have been captured. SDF was forced to deal with this file and secure safe places of detention due to the increase in the number of detainees and the refusal of most countries from where ISIS fighters originate, especially European countries, to return them.

In 2018, the Industrial Institute building in Ghweran neighborhood, south of Al-Al-Hasakah, named Al-Sina'a Prison, was chosen to house ISIS detainees due to its inviolability, space, and strategic location, which is in the center of many military bases of the (SDF).

As a result, the building, which was a significant educational center for the city's students, became one of the most dangerous in the world, as most of ISIS fighters from Arab and foreign countries (Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Germany, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Russia, Turkey, France, the Netherlands, etc) were transferred to it. The leadership of the (SDF) and the International Coalitionrevealed that there are about 4380 detainees in the prison, the majority of which are foreign fighters (emirs and security personnel) from 50 different countries.

After the recent attack on the prison, this number has fallen to about 3800. 103 escaped prisoners' fate is still unknown, while 477 militants from ISIS were confirmed dead in the attack.

ISIS members were not only transferred to Al-Sina'a Prison, but also to (the Chinese Camp Prison in Al-Shaddadi - Derik Prison - Al-Raqqa Central Prison - Al-Kasra Prison in Deir ez-Zor).

The number of detainees in each of these prisons is not officially known, except that the vast majority are in Al-Sina'a and Al-Shadadi prisons, while the number of prisoners in other prisons doesn't exceed hundreds out of about 12,000 detainees from 80 countries, according to General Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the SDF in a statement to Al-Arabiya TV station.

In late January, more than 45,000 civilians were displaced from the neighborhoods of Al-Zohour and Ghweran, south of al- Hasaka, into the city's safe neighborhoods as a result of the attack on Al-Sina'a prison. Many of them have been moved to mosques and temporary shelters, while others have gone to the homes of relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Another section includes large mourning tents that were set up by civil initiatives to house the displaced fleeing the battles. All these efforts, however, did little to alleviate the human suffering of the displaced, particularly in light of the low temperatures and a lack of heating fuel. Some families have been displaced twice, as about 4000 residents of Serêkaniyê city who had been living in temporary shelters (schools) have been evacuated from these temporary shelters to other safe locations.

Escape attempts and negotiations.

It wasn't just the latest attack that ISIS tried to free members of the Al Sina'a prison as it began in 2019, when a car bomb exploded near the prison's walls, but the damage was not enough to free the prisoners. In March of 2020, 25 prisoners succeeded in breaking through the walls of Al Sina'a prison and escaping via an underground tunnel but were captured by the SDF days later when they were trying to reach areas occupied by the Turkish army in Serêkaniyê.

Considering the weak fortifications of the prison and its incapacity to contain such a large number of terrorists, the SDF and the international coalition led by the United States viewed this escape attempt as an alarm. International Coalition and SDF have developed a plan to establish a new prison fortified against car bomb attacks in the same old prison yard, where construction began at the end of 2020, and preparation and fortification operations are still underway.

Muhammad Abdul-Awwad was arrested in Raqqa by the SDF on September 20, 2020. He is the emir of the Al-Adiyat Brigade, which was established by ISIS specifically to storm the Alsina'a Prison in Al-Al-Hasakah. He revealed the entire plan of the operation in a video broadcast by the SDF media center page.

According to the information we gathered, the detainees held in prison didn't just attempt escapes; they conducted three insurrections inside. Their demands ranged from improving the quality of food to demanding that they be deported, especially those from European countries, to take advantage of their judicial systems.

With this scenario in mind, the question arises once again as to how and where to prosecute ISIS elements, especially the Western Nationalists. So that they do not benefit from the advantages of European judicial and prison systems. And to ensure that they are not allowed to return to their terrorist activities.

Control of Al Sina'a prison.

By arresting Muhammad Abdul-Awwad, the mastermind behind the storming of Al Sina'a Prison, and most of the Al-Adiyat Brigade members, the SDF believed they had aborted the operation, only to be surprised on January 20, at 08:00 p.m., by a booby-trapped explosion in front of the prison gate, setting off a chain reaction that caused the guards to be distracted as 12 fuel tanks in the( Sadkob )Center burned.

An explosion in front of the prison gate, caused a major breach at the main and only gate, paving the way for more than 150 ISIS cells to storm the prison while the guards and security forces were focused on dealing with the first explosion.

The intruders opened the prison gates and dormitories to free the prisoners. They handed over the weapons and ammunition that were stored in a heavy truck that escorted them to the prison gate.

During the operation, the ISIS cells were moving into Al-Zohour and Ghweran neighborhoods, which resulted in the deaths of nine SDF recruits who were at home on official holidays at the time.

According to the information we obtained, some members of the ISIS sleeper cells that participated in the attack lived in Ghweran and had accurate information about the recruits and their whereabouts on the night of the attack.

Meanwhile, Other cells attacked coming support patrols so that the prison was surrounded, and at the same time, militants of ISIS were able to take over the Faculty of Economics building, the Institute of Technical Monitors building, and the Ghweran silos, in addition to several military points, including a (logistical) and weapons store in the immediate vicinity of the prison. After killing several prison guards and capturing others, together with ISIS terrorists, they controlled the prison building almost entirely.

On the other hand, the SDF have begun cordoning off much of the area from Al-Basel to the Panorama Roundabout, as well as Al-Zohour and Ghweran neighborhoods, with the announcement of a curfew after providing civilians with a safe exit route to safer areas. Over a period of 7 continuous days, fierce battles were fought with the participation of international coalition aircraft, before ISIS prisoners were reprieved into the prison building itself after 477 militants were killed and over 3,000 were surrendered to the SDF.

When the SDF besieged the prison building, ISIS prisoners began negotiating with the SDF for the release of the SDF Prison Guards in exchange for the restoration of power. However, the negotiations failed when ISIS militants refused to stick to the agreement. This led to even tighter controls inside the prison, especially with SDF controlling eight dormitories. the operation ended on Wednesday, January 26, 2022, with the unconditional surrender of the organization's militants and the failure of the mass escape attempt from prison, the fate of approximately 103 members of the organization is unknown, but it is believed that they were able to escape towards the Badia area or the area occupied by the Syrian opposition factions loyal to Turkey.

Conflicts within ISIS.

Toward the end of 2018, ISIS stopped its activities, entering a period of hibernation in which it focused its efforts on planning and preparing for various attacks, which in many cases coincided with statements and threats by Turkish officials, showing an apparent attempt to exploit the political situation of the SDF and the pressures they were subjected to by Russia, Turkey, and the Syrian regime.

Depending on our conversations with military analysts, it appears that the organization will not end at this point, as current conditions seem ripe for it to fully resume its operations.

As a result, the region will face fierce battles, especially since 103 ISIS militants are still unaccounted for, most of whom are bombing experts, master planners, and ISIS's leading princes.

Even though ISIS appeared to be strong and coherent in its operations, prisoners who surrendered in the first two days of the siege confirmed that the battle was being forced on many of the captives, and ISIS Iraqi members had been managing the whole process.

Following the arrival of the (SDF) and the start of air assaults by the international coalition, many fighters surrendered, particularly after the escape attempt outside the prison perimeter failed.

The information shows that there are major disputes between ISIS members who are of different nationalities under the sole leadership of Iraqi elements.

Iraqi elements have controlled ISIS since the time it was founded in Iraq. Initially known as the "ISIS of Iraq", the terrorist organization changed its name to the "ISIS of Iraq and the Sham" after moving to Syria during the conflict.

To give it a global perspective, the organization adopted the name ISIS. The majority of elements in the Iraqi terrorist organization follow the ideas of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was considered one of Al-Qaida's most hardline leaders, whereas the majority of its members form the Moroccan and Gulf area terrorist groups follow the ideas of former Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as the views of jihadist Salafi Abdullah Azam.

As a result of the failure of the ISIS project, it appears that the non-Syrians and non-Iraqis of the terrorist group have become tired and exhausted, and the geographical distance has made it difficult for them to adjust to their new surroundings, unlike the Syrians and Iraqis who do not have difficulty adjusting or speaking different dialects.

During the recent operation and the insurrections that preceded it in Al-Sina'a prison, another disagreement between the organization's elements emerged regarding the tools and methods used to escape. Members of the terrorist organization who hold Western citizenship have shown a clear tendency to demand fair trials in their countries of origin to gain the advantages of judicial systems which have abolished execution sentences, not to mention the advantages of what can be called "luxury" in those countries'' prison system, as we discussed earlier.

Security breach.

In his interview with Al-Arabiya TV, General Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the SDF confirmed that ISIS carefully planned the raid on Al-Sina'a prison, with a centralized command and support system, and with ample financial support.

The timing and organization of the multiple attacks indicate coordination between ISIS cells outside and inside the prison, which demonstrates the existence of a security breach among prison guards, as the information we collected indicates the intelligence service of the SDF has arrested the assistant prison commander (Trex) for providing facilities to the detained ISIS elements, including allowing them to receive communication devices in exchange for large sums of money.

According to the investigation, the father of the assistant prison commander was affiliated with the terrorist organization and had been previously killed during a security operation by the SDF in Deir ez-Zor, confirming the existence of a security breach and failure at the level of studying and auditing the security files of the prison guards.

Furthermore, the arrival of dozens of ISIS militants, most of them Arab nationalities, in the neighborhoods of Al-Zohour and Ghweran, as well as passing the security checkpoints of the SDF in the vicinity of Al-Hasakah, indicates the possibility of security breaches at these checkpoints, as well as the possibility that the members of the terrorist organization received aid from the security checkpoints affiliated with the Syrian regime and the forces of the Turkish government and the National Army loyal to them.

How was ISIS able to carry out this attack nearly a month after it arrested Abdul-Awwad, dismantled the equipment for the operation, and arrested a most of ISIS cells affiliated with this operation?

According to this analysis, there are two possibilities. First, coalition forces and the SDF may have ended the investigation of the operation after Muhammad Abdul-Awwad and members of the cell (Al-Adiyat Brigade) were arrested, so ISIS pulled off the attack with the same method and with the same tools, which is indicative of the organization's military, financial, and logistic capabilities, as it is difficult to secure explosives and weapons a month after the operation was aborted.

The second one, ISIS turned over Abdul-Awwad deliberately in order to serve as a bait for coalition forces and SDF, as well as to detect emergency procedures and the readiness of prison guards for an attack of this nature.

Causes of security imbalances.
  1. Inadequate security measures

In light of the spread of ISIS throughout many countries in the region, it is evident that the security measures in place are inadequate to contain such a terrorist organization. However, despite being located in the middle of a number of SDF security headquarters, the Industrial Prison is situated near a residential area. This indicates that the SDF suffers from an absence of security tools and equipment required to secure such prisons, such as cameras, surveillance equipment, and other modern means and technologies.

2.Lack of a comprehensive stabilization strategy

Since the United States insists on limiting the partnership with the SDF to the military aspect and linking it to the threat and possibility of ISIS's return, local forces perceive a constant threat, realizing that the military partnership will end as soon as the threat of its return ends.

This is especially true since the risks they face are considerable, particularly the threats from Turkey as well as Russia and Iran. Furthermore, the United States should not limit the security challenges it faces in the region to only the threats posed by ISIS, as the devastation, destruction, displacement, and demographic changes that Turkey and various factions within the National Army loyal to it have caused are no less horrific than ISIS's violations.

In order to effectively counter the terrorist threat posed by ISIS, the region must have both political and economic stability and multiple civilian and military institutions of governance.

3. Multiple control zones

Despite the bilateral and tripartite agreements concluded between these parties, it is impossible to find coordinated security mechanisms due to the distribution of control areas between the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Iran. In addition, each region operates according to its own set of security policies and procedures appropriate for its local government structure. There is no denying that ISIS is actively exploiting these gaps, which take advantage of a variety of security issues, as well as regional and international differences between the parties in the conflict on Syrian territory, and it cannot be excluded that some parties not only utilize but overlook ISIS' attacks on their opponents, as Russia did during the ISIS attack on the Al Sina'a prison.

4. Economic conditions.

As a direct result of the economic conditions in the northern and eastern of Syria, together with the drought conditions in the region and the partial siege as a result of the closure of border crossings, this contributes to weakening security, which leads to social instability and increases the gap between local authorities and citizens, which in turn is easier for ISIS to exploit.

5. Russia and the Syrian Government

There is a limited Russian and Syrian military presence in the north and east of Syria, based mainly in the city of Deir ez-Zor and the two security squares of Al-Hasakah and Qamishli, but this deployment is strategically important, in that it gives the Russian and Syrian governments greater ability to exploit any opportunity to weaken the international coalition forces and the (SDF).

The Syrian government played on the same chord of further fueling the national conflict during Al-Hasakah's bloody battles and tried to portray the attack as an attempt to displace mostly Arab residents from Al-Zohour and Ghweran neighborhoods.

During the sessions of the UN Security Council, Russia used the event to attack the United States and its role in the region.

In other words, the spread of security barriers affiliated with the Russian-backed Syrian government in important areas around and within cities constitutes a major security gap, which ISIS can exploit as a crossing point to the areas of influence of the International Coalition and the SDF.

. Presence of soft security areas.

It is clear that the Turkish invasion (Operation Peace Spring) greatly undermined security, especially when it came to combating ISIS, and generally created a serious security imbalance throughout the region, since it severely restricted the SDF's capabilities in countering ISIS and tightening its control over prisons and detention centers.

ISIS's most significant gain after the Turkish invasion was the emergence of soft security zones that it can use to plan its attacks on SDF and then to use them as a refuge for its elements. Given that Turkey has a military presence that is linked to the fight against SDF, it makes sense for it to use ISIS to attack the SDF deep in the areas of influence of the international coalition, either directly or by facilitating the transit of fighters. It is significant to note that the Turkish spheres of influence provided a suitable social environment for the presence of ISIS terrorist elements from different nationalities.

There seem to be indications that there is coordination between Turkish-backed factions and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) on the one hand and ISIS on the other hand. Some of these indicators are reports indicating the presence of ISIS leaders in Serêkaniyê and Idlib. On February 3, a US security operation killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi successor (Qardashi) in his hideout in Atimah town, Idlib, several hundred meters from the Turkish border, which is near one of the Turkish military points inside the Syrian border. This was the same area where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed on October 27, 2019.

Additionally, Turkey has increased its drone operations against SDF leaders, as well as its bombing campaign against SDF positions at points of contact with the occupied areas, which has undermined or weakened SDF capabilities against ISIS.

7. Local solution mechanisms.

Local conflict resolution mechanisms have played an important role in dealing with armed conflicts, but they appear to have been ineffective in dealing with ISIS, as clan mediation was an important factor in releasing ISIS Syrian members without trial or rehabilitation. During March 2018, the SDF released 15 prisoners from ISIS, and in May 2019 it released 43 prisoners, followed by 89 prisoners in the same month, and on March 2, 2019, it released 280 prisoners, followed by 300 prisoners on January 8, 2020. According to analysts, a large proportion of those released remain associated with ISIS or at least sympathize with them based on the sample sizes we were able to acquire.

8. ISIS Children’s (cubs of the caliphate).

In camps such as Al-Hol, children of fighters of ISIS are nearing the age of 18, which requires treating them as adults and taking additional precautions. It is predicted that the number of teenage children of ISIS fighters who are able to fight will reach about 17,000 within the next two to three years, a staggering number that may turn these teens into time bombs that threaten international stability and security.

9. Conflict in Ukraine.

Tensions on the Ukrainian border raise the possibility of a Russian invasion, triggering a conflict between the United States and Russia, whose consequences could extend to northeastern Syria, where American and Russian troops are deployed. As a result, ISIS's return and activities will be affected immediately while Turkey and its faction allies will expand their spheres of influence at the expense of SDF.

  1. It is critical to find a solution for the location of the prison, such as relocating it or closing the roads around it, but these fixes are temporary, and alternative solutions should be sought as well, such as building prisons outside cities with strong and advanced fortifications.

  2. Establishing a specially trained prison protection force and providing strict security checks for its members, especially considering the security breach and the participation of some members of the guard in the Al Sina’a prison attack.

  3. In arguing that improving security cannot be achieved without economic and political stability, which requires recognition and financial support for the Autonomous Administration and pushing Kurdish parties to find solutions to their problems, the United States has not yet concluded that internal political stability is critical to the defense against security threats.

  4. Currently, the international coalition's role is limited to air support, a temporary measure that fails to ensure long-term security stability in the region. Hence, the coalition should recognise the Autonomous Administration politically and support it militarily by providing the weapons and technology that are necessary to counter threats and pressure from various parties, particularly ISIS.

  5. A large number of prisoners are being held, and the SDF are not able to handle them; so, Western countries, especially, should retrieve their citizens of ISIS fighters and bring them to justice. Furthermore, they must support the SDF's efforts to build fortified prisons and equip them with advanced tools and equipment that would allow them to monitor detention centres, along with supporting the political and economic stability of northern and eastern Syria.

  6. The SDF and the Autonomous Administration must enforce the law, prosecute ISIS fighters who are Syrian citizens, and reject any form of clan mediation because the fighters are accused of serious crimes. The Autonomous Administration will need to establish local courts while securing support from the international coalition and international community so it can build an impartial and independent judicial system for conducting fair trials and tying this process to economic and political stability.

  7. Currently, the al-Hol camp, the largest camp in northern Syria, is a security risk, and the international community and the United Nations need to address the issue seriously and force the countries to return their nationals, as it is considered a time bomb that could result in a security chaos throughout the region in the event that a solution is not made. This needs to be done quickly and effectively.




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