Deadly ISIS jailbreak fuels fears of group’s resurgence in Iraq

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According to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the attack on the Ghweran prison in the northeastern city of Hasakah began on Thursday when a car bomb exploded outside the prison. The Kurdish-led Self-Defense Forces are the main military force in the region and a key US partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

Islamic State militants then infiltrated the area and attacked local forces guarding the prison, while the militants burned blankets and plastic items in the dormitory “in an attempt to create chaos,” the SDF said. It is unclear whether the actions were coordinated, or whether the prisoners simply saw an opportunity to create chaos at the right time.

The Self-Defense Forces said on Thursday that it had “thwarted” the escape attempt; however, there were still reports of skirmishes in the area on Friday. The Islamic State said in a statement on Friday that it was launching a “massive” attack to free entire prisons. The head of the Self-Defense Forces said late Friday that they had fended off the attack, backed by airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed the airstrike at a Pentagon news conference on Friday.

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“Whatever support the coalition gives to the SDF as they deal with this and continue to deal with this escape, I can tell you that we’ve provided some airstrikes to support them in dealing with this particular escape,” Kirby said.

SDF forces killed 28 ISIS fighters in the clashes, the head of the SDF media center, Farhad Shami, told CNN on Friday. At least 89 prisoners managed to escape but were later recaptured, the SDF said in a statement. It said several of the militants involved in the attack were believed to be hiding in civilian homes near the prison, forcing authorities to set up security checkpoints.

This photo provided by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces shows some of the captured Islamic State fighters.

Some 11,000 to 12,000 ISIS fighters are being held in SDF-run prisons and internment camps in northern Syria. While this isn’t the first such attempt at a jailbreak—several escaped in 2020 by ripping off doors and using them to destroy a wall—there’s growing concern that the timing and daring of the attack is indicative of the terror group’s new power .

The Islamic State also claimed responsibility for Friday’s ambush at an Iraqi military post near Baghdad in which 11 soldiers were killed.

“Of course, attempts to revive terrorism in the region cannot be underestimated,” Iraqi President Barham Saleh tweeted on Friday.

‘Break the fence’

At its peak in 2014 and 2015, the Islamic State ruled a self-proclaimed caliphate that spanned large swathes of Syria and Iraq. Further abroad, ISIS has been linked to large-scale terror attacks, including a 2016 truck bombing in Baghdad that killed nearly 300 people, just as gunmen and suicide bombers attacked Bataclan and other locations in Paris a few months later. Other atrocities are said to have been inspired by ISIS, such as truck attacks in Berlin and Nice, France.

The terror group was eventually ousted, but many warned that militants could continue to operate in the shadows.

In 2019, Lt. Gen. Saad Arak, Iraq’s then-head of military intelligence, warned that such escapes were being planned. A new mission for the terror group, code-named “Break the Fences,” is to raid the prison holding its followers and try to rebuild its structure from there, he said.

In recent months, Iraqi security forces have warned that the Islamic State will continue to try to regroup to carry out such deadly attacks, while some senior commanders have warned that sleeper groups are continuing to carry out deadly attacks in the region.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadimi ordered security on the Iraqi-Syrian border after Friday’s prison attack. al-Kadhimi adviser Hussein Allawi said Iraqi security forces still needed to develop their intelligence work to be able to repel such coordinated attacks by various terrorist groups.

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“We need to develop the intelligence work of the Iraqi armed forces through technology and sensing equipment, thermal cameras and modern defense towers,” Allawi told CNN.

Allawi also said that the Iraqi armed forces need to continue to cooperate with the US-led coalition in Iraq, which will no longer be engaged in combat missions from 2021.

The alliance is now focused on training and aid, but its existence remains controversial. The Iraqi government is under intense pressure from the powerful Iran-backed Shiite militias to end the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.

The prison attack was a strong reminder of the challenges of fighting Sunni extremists such as ISIS and the readiness of Iraqi security forces to repel terrorist attacks.

CNN’s Ellie Kaufman contributed reporting.

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