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The problem of Kurdish prisons and the specter of the Islamic State

On the night of Thursday 20th January, a commando of ISIS militants managed to penetrate the perimeter of a Kurdish detention center through a car bomb. The scene of the attack was the prison of Gweiran, located in the north-east of Syria (governorate of al-Hasaka) and controlled by the Kurdish militia of the SDF - Syrian Democratic Forces. According to reconstructions, after the assault, intense fighting broke out between local security forces and jihadist militants. The firefight also continued in the following days and reportedly caused more than 150 casualties - more than one hundred dead among members of the Islamic State and about 40 dead among Kurdish fighters and civilians. The exact toll remains uncertain, however, given the difficulty of finding official information on the ground, just as the number of prisoners who managed to escape remains undetermined. The Kurdish authorities have announced that they have re-captured about a hundred prisoners but, at the same time, other sources speak of dozens of terrorists currently on the run. Given the complexity of the situation, the US also intervened, providing logistical and intelligence support to the SDF, and carrying out several air raids in the area of the clashes.

ISIS promptly claimed responsibility for the attack, using its usual propaganda organ Amaq. In addition, the jihadist organization published two videos showing moments of the assault, including the taking of prison guards’ hostage. What happened is to be considered the biggest attack - in terms of victims and operational methods - by ISIS since the defeat of Baghuz in March 2019, which set the territorial end of Daesh. For this very reason, the events that occurred deserve special attention and lead to some important observations.

First of all, the assault on the prison of Gweiran brought to light a major problem in Syria (and Iraq): the conditions of the centers were ISIS members, or allegedly so, are held. In fact, over the years, the situation in Kurdish-controlled prisons has become increasingly unbearable. Lack of funding and inadequate security staff are the factors that characterize these prisons. Overcrowding is to be added to all of this: Gweiran prison is home to more than 3,500 ISIS prisoners and their families (including many children). According to some estimates, there are about 12,000 ISIS members - or sympathizers – detained in Kurdish-Syrian prisons in the north-east of the country. In addition to this, there is the legal limbo in which members of the Islamic State coming from the West find themselves. Many European states have refused to repatriate their citizens (so-called foreign fighters), including relatives and minors. The choice of Western governments, justified by security reasons and fears of excessive guarantees of national judicial systems, has made the management of detainees in Syria even more complex. Therefore, despite the appeals for cooperation, the Kurdish authorities found themselves faced with a "pass the buck" not only from Europe, but also from those states that are the largest reservoirs of foreign fighters, such as Tunisia. Moreover, it should be remembered that the US military commitment in the territories of Syrian Kurdistan (and in support of the Kurdish militias) has ceased in recent years, as desired by then-President Trump.

All the elements above are the roots of the problems in Kurdish-Syrian prisons. The precariousness and the deficiencies of these facilities, whose conditions have been described by Human Right Watch as "inhuman and degrading", increase the risks on the level of local (and therefore regional/international) security. In fact, the danger of internal revolts is always as high as it is the real danger that some detention centers will fall into the hands of the prisoners themselves. Clearly, given their fragility, these environments are even more exposed to attacks by ISIS, which in recent years has conducted frequent offensives against Kurdish prisons - most recently that of Gweiran - with the aim of freeing its "brothers". In addition, there is another highly dangerous factor: radicalization in prison. In fact, it is commonly known, that prison represents a place of potential radicalization and the context mentioned above would create the ideal conditions for such a process. Finally, regional geopolitical dynamics can also have a negative impact on that situation. Specifically, the reference is to the war actions by Ankara, which in recent years has already intervened three times in north-eastern Syria with the aim of neutralizing and containing the local Kurdish militias of the YPG (Popular Protection Units) considered close to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) - the latter being considered by the Turkish government a terrorist organization. The Turkish interventions have the effect of destabilizing an already highly precarious area, weakening the Kurdish militias, and thus favoring the escape of terrorists from detention centers.

This shows that the threat of the Islamic State is far from over. The perennial instability in the Syrian-Iraqi theatre contributes to creating a favorable environment for ISIS and its “return to the field”. Moreover, it is worth highlighting that, despite its territorial defeat and subsequent downsizing in 2019, Daesh has continued to perpetrate low-intensity attacks through its cells scattered across Syria and Iraq. Isis has thus shown resilience in recent years, continuing to pose a real threat in the areas where the “Caliphate” was established. The Gweiran episode is therefore emblematic in this sense, and in the same hours as the prison assault took place, a group of IS jihadists struck a military base in the Iraqi province of Diyala, causing more than ten casualties. This said, developments in this scenario will have to be carefully examined in the short to medium term.

Translated by Sara Prunecchi


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  • L'Autore

    Vincenzo Battaglia

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