“Boys, often under the age of twelve, have to fear for their lives”

The Islamic State terrorist organization was considered defeated. However, their bloody attack on a prison in northeastern Syria a few days ago shows that a fundamental problem persists - in part because countries like Germany refuse to find a solution.

This article was originally published in German by Die Welt on January 31, 2022. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger correspondent for WELT

The liberating news finally came on Sunday: Ghwayran prison in Hassakah is back under control of Kurdish security forces in northeastern Syria. On January 20, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organization attacked the detention facility to free the 4,000 Islamists held there. Suicide bombers detonated car bombs, 300 fighters of terrorist organization stormed the complex, while the prisoners rioted from within.

Outside support came from sleeper cells in the surrounding residential areas, who appeared out of nowhere and launched attacks. The deadly record of the past ten days: 374 IS members, 77 prison employees, 40 members of the security forces, and four civilians were killed.

It was the terrorist organization’s largest terrorist operation since its defeat on the Euphrates in 2019 which effectively sealed the end of the so-called Caliphate that IS-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared in Mosul in 2014. “The attack in Hassakah is a reminder that ISIS continues to pose a clear and present threat to the entire region,” Vladimir Voronkov, UN Under Secretary General for Counter-Terrorism, told Security Council members.

Also Read: Islamic State’s devastating message to the West

“There were previous warnings and the liberation action in Hassakah was predictable,” said Voronkov, calling for determined and consistent measures to prevent more such incidents. Prison break-ins are the modus operandi repeatedly used by the jihadists to free terrorists in Iraq to bolster their ranks. “Tear down the walls” is a well-known slogan used by the Islamic extremists.

Voronkov demanded urgent solutions for the detained IS fighters, as well as for their wives and children, tens of thousands of whom are being held indefinitely in detention camps in North and East Syria. The 58-year-old spoke of the “urgent need” to repatriate them to their homecountries.

However, European countries, including Germany, have rejected this. In individual cases, women and children have been repatriated from the camps, but today no one wants to hear or know about the 2,000 European IS fighters held in the prisons of northeast Syria. They are considered a security risk.

Some 60 men are from Germany

Some 60 young men come from Germany. They surrendered or were captured before the final fall of the Islamic Caliphate. “It is vital that they are brought to justice and held accountable,” Voronkov said at the UN Security Council meeting.

“Of course I want to go back to Germany and take responsibility before a judge,” said IS prisoner Dirk Pleil with whom WELT spoke in northeast Syria. He serves as an example of numerous other detained Germans. Most of them have been in prison for several years without knowing what their future will be. The situation also weighs heavily on the family at home – especially when they see warlike scenes such as in Hassakah prison.

The IS liberation operation in Hassakah shows how overwhelmed the local authorities of North and East Syria are with needing to accommodate so many detainees. A few days ago, the Administration again called on the UN to expedite the repatriation of women and children in particular.

They expect from the UN Children’s aid organization UNICEF “an action plan and sustainable assistance” for rehabilitation facilities that meet international standards. So far there is only one therapy center for young people who grew up under IS. Because no country wants to take them back, they will have to go back to one of the detention camps, at the latest when they are of age. If they have no family, they are left with only prison.

The attack on the prison in Hassakah showed how dire the problem with these IS youths is. The prison facility housed some 700 youths who had been ideologically indoctrinated by the Caliphate. “I was in my cell when I heard the explosions and the shots,” a 17-year-old Australian man told a Human Rights Watch (HRW) employee. “As we walked out, two of my friends were murdered in front of my eyes, one was 14 years old and the other 15 years old.”

The young Australian later suffered head and hand injuries. “I have lost a lot of blood. There are no doctors, no help,” he complained. “I’m very scared.” The youths had to hide for days and were sometimes used as living shields by the adult IS terrorists. “We haven’t eaten anything for five days,” an 18-year-old American told human rights group HRW. “We don’t know what is happening. We are being fired upon and bombed.”

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Commission, called on the countries concerned to “save their boys”. Many of these young people have been forcibly separated from their families and deprived of their fundamental rights in recent years.

“The children should be seen as victims of terrorism and protected by international law,” Aoláin said about the events in Hassakah. “Boys, often as young as twelve, have to fear for their lives in this chaos, in this prison carnage.” It is not known how many youths died in the attack. Eyewitnesses speak of ten to fifteen dead. Authorities have since transferred the young people to other facilities.

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

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