As ISIS Resurges, US is Drawn Back Into the Fray

BAGHDAD, Iraq – A daring attack on a prison housing thousands of former IS fighters in Syria. A series of strikes against military forces in neighboring Iraq. And a gruesome video reminiscent of the darkest days of the insurgency showing the beheading of an Iraqi policeman.

Evidence of an Islamic State resurgence in Syria and Iraq is mounting daily, nearly three years after the militants lost the last chunk of territory from their so-called caliphate, which spanned once over large parts of both countries. The fact that ISIS has been able to mount these coordinated and sophisticated attacks in recent days shows that what were thought to be disparate sleeper cells are reemerging as a more serious threat.

“This is a wake-up call for regional players, for national players, that ISIS is not over, the fight is not over,” said Kawa Hassan, Middle East and North Africa at the Stimson Center, a research institute in Washington. “It shows ISIS’s resilience to retaliate when and where it chooses.”

On Tuesday, fighting between a US-backed Kurdish-led militia and militants spread from the beleaguered Sinaa prison in northeast Syria to surrounding neighborhoods, becoming the biggest confrontation between the military American and its Syrian allies and ISIS in three years.

The US military joined the fight after militants attacked the makeshift prison in the town of Hasaka, trying to free their fellow fighters. Islamic State now controls about a quarter of the prison and holds hundreds of hostages, many of them children detained during the fall of the caliphate their families joined in 2019.

The United States conducted airstrikes and provided intelligence and ground troops in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to help seal off the prison.

Even as skirmishes took place around the prison on Tuesday, fighting involving ISIS fighters also broke out about 240 km away, in Rasafa, about 48 km from Raqqa city.

The militant show of force was not limited to Syria.

In Iraq, around the same time the prison attack began, ISIS fighters stormed an army outpost in Diyala province, killing 10 soldiers and one officer in the deadliest attack in several years against an Iraqi military base. Gunmen approached the base from three sides late at night while some soldiers slept.

The attack raised fears that some of the same conditions in Iraq that enabled the rise of the Islamic State in 2014 are now giving it room to rebuild.

In December, insurgents abducted four Iraqi hunters in a mountainous region of northeastern Iraq, including a police colonel. Activists beheaded the policeman and then released the gruesome video.

The attacks in Iraq, carried out by ISIS sleeper cells in remote mountainous and desert areas, have exposed a lack of coordination between Iraqi government forces and the peshmerga, Kurdish forces in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Many attacks are taking place in disputed territory claimed by both the Iraqi Kurdish government and the central government.

Ardian Shajkovci, director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute, said many of the militants arrested in attacks since the group lost the last of its territory three years ago appeared to be younger and from families with older operatives linked to ISIS.

“If so,” he said, “this is a new generation of ISIS recruits, changing the calculus and the threat landscape in many ways.”

Iraq has struggled to deal with tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens who are relatives of ISIS fighters and who have been collectively punished and placed in detention camps – now feared to be grounds conducive to radicalization.

Corruption within the Iraqi security forces deprived some of their supply bases and allowed soldiers and officers to neglect their duties, contributing to the collapse of entire army divisions which withdrew in 2014 rather than to fight ISIS.

On Tuesday in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces said they carried out sweeps in Hasaka neighborhoods near the prison, killing five Islamic State fighters who were wearing suicide belts.

The militia said it freed nine prison workers held by Islamic State on Monday and killed nine other militants, including two suicide bombers, in raids around the prison. An SDF spokesman, Farhad Shami, said so far 550 detainees who took part in the siege had surrendered.

The militia also negotiated with ISIS leaders in the prison.

There are around 3,500 inmates in the overcrowded prison. As many as 700 minors are also there, including some 150 citizens of other countries who were taken to Syria as young children when their parents left home to join the insurgency. An estimated 40,000 foreigners traveled to Syria to fight or work for the caliphate.

The prison siege has brought to light the plight of thousands of foreign children who have been detained for three years in camps and prisons in the region, abandoned by their own country.

Prison inmates include boys as young as 12 years old. Some were transferred to prison after being deemed too old to stay in detention camps that held families of suspected Islamic State fighters.

Save the Children’s Syrian director Sonia Khush said those holding the children were responsible for their safety. But she also pointed the finger at foreign governments that refused to repatriate their imprisoned citizens.

“The responsibility for everything that happens to these children also lies with foreign governments who thought they could simply abandon their Syrian national children,” Ms Khush said.

At its height in 2014, the Islamic State controlled around a third of Iraq and large parts of Syria, a territory that rivaled Britain in size. When the last piece, in Baghuz, Syria, fell three years ago, women and young children were placed in detention camps, while those believed to be fighters were sent to prison .

The families’ main detention camp, Al Hol, is squalid, overcrowded and dangerous, lacking food, medical services and guards. Amid the chaos, an increasingly radicalized segment of inmates emerged to terrorize other camp residents.

When the boys in the camps become teenagers, they are usually transferred to Sinaa prison, where they are crammed into overcrowded cells. Food, medical care and even sunlight are scarce.

But their fate worsens even more when they reach the age of 18. Although none of the young foreigners have been charged with a crime, they are placed with the general prison population, where wounded ISIS fighters sleep three to a bed.

Outside the prison, US troops who have re-engaged in battle with IS fighters are part of a residual US-led military coalition force that has largely been withdrawn from the country in 2019. There are currently around 700 US troops in the region, operating mostly from a base in Hasaka, and another 200 near the Syria-Jordan border.

The Pentagon said Bradley armored fighting vehicles set up to support Kurdish-led SDF forces were being used as barricades as the Kurdish militia tightened its cordon around the prison. A coalition official said the vehicles came under fire and returned fire.

“We have provided limited, strategically positioned ground support to assist with security in the region,” Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby told reporters in Washington.

Jane Arraf brought back from Baghdad, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon.