Islamic State’s devastating message to the West

The terrorist organization was considered by many to be defeated in Syria. But then the Islamists suddenly attacked a prison in the north of the country to release prisoners. The toughest battle in years reminds Germany of a problem it has been trying to avoid for years.

This article was originally published in German by Die Welt on January 24, 2022. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger correspondent for WELT

On Friday morning, residents of Hassakah woke up to the roar of machine gun bursts, loud explosions and American Apache attack helicopters firing their cannons. The IS terrorist organization had attacked Ghwayran prison in the northeastern Syrian city to free their imprisoned co-jihadists. With about 5,000 prisoners, the prison-turned school is the largest detention facility for IS prisoners in northeast Syria.

The attackers first detonated a car bomb in front of the prison entrance and then opened fire on security forces. A riot broke out in the prison, during which the guards were overpowered and disarmed. More than 100 prisoners were able to escape. The action followed the same modus operandi used several times to free jihadists from Iraqi prisons. “Break down the walls” is a well-known extremist slogan.

More than 120 people were killed on Sunday, including 77 jihadists and several civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Hassakah operation was the largest in Syria by IS after it was defeated three years ago.

In the summer of 2014, the Islamists took over large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq and proclaimed a so-called caliphate. Iraq was only able to push back the terrorist organization with military support from the United States and other coalition countries. In the spring of 2019, troops led by Kurds captured the last IS stronghold on the Euphrates river in Syria. Despite this devastating defeat, the terrorist organization was able to quickly re-establish itself and has continued to carry out new attacks in Iraq, but also in northeastern Syria. Kurdish special forces work together with the US military in the fight against terrorism.

Islamic State escapes the radar of the security authorities

Almost every day these special forces track down sleeper cells in predominantly Arab areas in northeastern Syria. But the attack on Ghwayran prison showed that the terrorist organization has lost little of its capacity. IS escapes the radar of the security authorities and can carry out complex operations.

Up to 200 heavily armed IS fighters are said to have been involved in the liberation operation in Hasakah. Kurdish security forces were able to recapture most of the approximately 100 escaped prisoners. The bodies of attackers and escaped prisoners littered the streets of Hasakah over the weekend. The IS fighters who are still alive have entrenched themselves in residential areas. They murdered at least five civilians who refused the terrorists access to their homes.

The gunfights continued throughout the weekend. However, it is only a matter of time before the Kurdish security forces capture or kill the last jihadist. The liberation operation of the terrorist organization has failed, a relief for the Kurdish administration but also for many governments worldwide.

IS Fighters from Germany also in custody in Syria

Around 12,000 jihadists from over 50 countries are in prison in northeastern Syria. Among them are 2,000 IS fighters from European countries such as France, Belgium and Germany. In Paris, Brussels and Berlin, the liberation of their IS citizens would cause great concern.

After all, they are classified as extremely dangerous, so dangerous that they are no longer taken in to be brought before decent courts. Instead, the European prisoners are left in the care of northeastern Syria indefinitely. In recent years, the Kurdish self-administration has repeatedly warned that it is permanently overloaded with the detention of thousands of IS prisoners. No one really took this warning seriously. The current IS attack on Ghwayran prison now shows how serious the situation really is. And IS will continue to do everything it can to free its followers from behind bars.

The fact that the liberation operation in Hasakah was unsuccessful is of secondary importance to IS. The extremists mainly want to show strength and send a message to their supporters. To all “brothers and sisters” active in Syria and Iraq, in Europe and especially in Africa, where branches of the terrorist organization are expanding to new countries.

The message is: Islamic State can strike brutally, anytime and anywhere. All jihadists in the world should join the holy war. This message, which is rapidly spreading through social media worldwide, is the real and threatening message of Hassakah.

Alfred Hackensberger is correspondent for WELT. You can follow him via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.

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