Prison break: ISIS fighters launched a brazen attack to free their comrades

Hundreds died in the ensuing battle. Here’s how it played out.

Fighting continued between Kurdish-led forces and Islamic State fighters on Jan. 22 after militants attacked Ghwaryan prison. (Video: YPG Press Office via Storyful)
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HASAKAH, Syria — The militants of the Islamic State announced their most brazen attack in years with a truck bombing that blasted a hole in the exterior wall of a Syrian prison holding thousands of their comrades. The Jan. 20 attack triggered a 10-day battle that spilled into the surrounding streets of Hasakah in northeastern Syria, drew American and British ground and air forces back into combat in support of their local allies, and energized global supporters of the Islamic State like little else since its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq was defeated three years ago. By the time the fighting was finished and the devastated prison was back in the hands of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, more than 500 people were dead, about three-quarters of them suspected militants, the SDF reported. And scores, maybe hundreds, of prisoners had escaped, free to raise the Islamic State’s black flag and fight again.

Down but not defeated, thousands of Islamic State insurgents wage Syrian fight anew

Thursday Jan. 20

The video published on ISIS channels early on Jan. 21 shows militants swarming the makeshift jail. (Video: Telegram)

As the truck bombing lights up the night sky, scores of militants swarm the Ghwaryan prison, which reportedly houses more than 3,000 Islamic State suspects and about 700 adolescent boys, who in many cases had been taken to the caliphate as youngsters and then became separated from their parents either during its final days or after being placed in displacement camps with their mothers. Small-arms fire crackles outside the complex, also known as Sina’a prison. Inside, prisoners begin to riot, according to officials from the SDF and U.S.-led coalition, believing their comrades are staging a prison break. They overpower guards, killing several, and take kitchen staff hostage. As SDF troops counter the attack, U.S.-led coalition aircraft carry out initial airstrikes in support.

Friday Jan. 21

The skirmishing quickly spreads to several surrounding neighborhoods. Clashes reportedly damage the town’s power lines — knocking out electricity — while Islamic State fighters take up positions in residential neighborhoods, using townspeople as human shields, the SDF alleges. Hundreds of people flee the area, seeking refuge elsewhere with family and friends or sheltering in mosques. Some prisoners, who had initially tried to aid the assault by setting their blankets and plastic goods on fire, stream past the prison walls to join the battle. Others consolidate their positions inside the building.

Civilians fled their houses after fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces clashed with Islamic state group fighters outside the Ghwaryan prison. (Video: Mohammed Hassan)

Saturday Jan. 22

As fighting enters its third day, American and British ground forces have joined the fray, deploying Bradley Fighting Vehicles to bolster SDF efforts to seal off the conflict area. From above, the U.S.-led coalition carries out a series of airstrikes with Hellfire missiles and larger munitions. Apache attack helicopters strafe militant positions. Inside the prison, SDF forces are battling to regain control but face stiff resistance from militants who continue to hold kitchen staff hostage, while Islamic State militants outside the walls are ambushing SDF fighters in the al-Zuhour and al-Taqqadum neighborhoods. Thousands of terrified residents stream away on foot, as security forces arrive to evacuate them.

Sunday Jan. 23

By Sunday, the fiercest fighting is centered on the prison’s southern and northern wings, and SDF fighters are finding it hard to make progress. Both sides are taking heavy casualties. The northern wing houses the 700 adolescent boys, some as young as 12. Like the adults, they are a mix of Syrians, Iraqis and other foreigners who have been held for years without trial while waiting to be repatriated to their homes. As night falls, human rights groups express grave concern for the boys inside the cells. In an audio message shared with Human Rights Watch, an Australian teenager pleads for help.

Inside Syria’s teeming ISIS prisons: Broken men, child inmates and orders to break free

Monday Jan. 24

In an annotated video from the YPG Press office, Kurdish-led forces continued "clean up" operations on Jan. 24 at Ghwaryan prison. (Video: YPG Press Office via Storyful)

As day breaks, coalition F-16 jets resume airstrikes, taking out Islamic State positions around the prison and helping Kurdish-led special forces advance, the SDF reports. With supporting fire from the coalition’s Bradley Fighting Vehicles, SDF troops try to storm militant positions inside the prison. In the meantime, the SDF takes what it says is the rare step of introducing its Soviet-era T-62 tanks into the battle. Throughout the day, the SDF calls for the militants’ surrender over loudspeakers. Several hundred accept. Late in the afternoon, three buses transfer prisoners to Alaya prison, several hours away, according to the Rojava Information Center.

Tuesday Jan. 25

SDF tanks and armored vehicles penetrate the prison compound. Islamic State fighters armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles battle SDF soldiers in the courtyard. As the day unfolds, the Kurdish-led force announces it has recaptured a block of prison buildings, and while more militants surrender, others appear to dig in. Most of the kitchen staff is reportedly freed. But concerns are spiking about the well-being of the boys still trapped inside, possibly being used as human shields and caught up in the fighting.

Video published on ISIS channels shows inside the Ghwaryan prison, the center of a week-long standoff (Video: Telegram)

Outside the prison, SDF troops are carrying out combing operations, not just in nearby neighborhoods but as far afield as neighboring provinces, in pursuit of insurgents who have gone to ground.

Wednesday Jan. 26

Video released by the SDF press office showed what were described as surrendered ISIS mercenaries at the Ghwaryan prison (Video: SDF via Storyful)

Even as Apache helicopters circle above, the sounds of gunfire fall silent as medical teams are reportedly allowed to enter the prison to treat wounded militants and other prisoners and, in return, several guards are released by their captors. Inside the northern wing, the SDF has begun negotiating with the final holdouts. By midafternoon, rumors are swirling that the battle is over. Then SDF spokesman Farhad Shami confirms it: “The Peoples’ Hammer Operation has culminated with our entire control of the al-Sina’a prison in al-Hasaka and the surrendering of all [ISIS] terrorists.” The claim of victory, though, proves to be premature.

Thursday Jan. 27

It doesn’t take long for the claim of victory to unravel. By midday, the SDF issues a new statement acknowledging that as many as 90 militants are still holed up in the basement under the north wing. In the streets surrounding the prison, SDF fighters trade fire from rooftops with the remaining prison attackers, and other clashes flare elsewhere in Hasakah. In neighborhoods around the prison, the SDF’s special forces are going house to house looking for militants believed to be hiding. The vast magnitude of death is now coming into focus, and witnesses say that the bodies of fallen militants are being collected with dump trucks.

SDF's special forces searched for ISIS militants in neighborhoods surrounding the Ghwaryan prison. (Video: Mohammed Hassan)

Friday Jan. 28

Inmates emerge from the Ghwaryan prison on Jan. 28 while Kurdish-led forces wait out militants still holed up inside. (Video: YPG Press Office)

The SDF delivers an ultimatum to the final holdouts: surrender or face an all-out assault. But military sources say that it’s still unclear whether the SDF will risk it, given the loss of life this might entail. As the Kurdish-led force waits out the entrenched militants, soldiers clear defeated Islamic State fighters and other inmates from the compound, giving them a chance to get out alive. Many require medical attention.

Saturday Jan. 29

With the battle now well into its second week, those residents of Hasakah who did not flee remain under lockdown. In Ghwaryan and Zouhour districts, close to the prison, residents have been left without access to drinking water, bread, fuel and medical care. SDF forces continue to carry out sweeps across the city.

Sunday Jan. 30

It’s finally over, SDF officials say. The prison is back under control, and in the surrounding neighborhoods, the guns have largely fallen quiet. The largest, deadliest battle with the Islamic State since the defeat of its so-called caliphate nearly three years ago has come to a close. “We announce the end of the sweep campaign in Sina’a prison in Ghwaryan neighborhood of Hasakah and the end of the last pockets in which ISIS militants were holed up in the [prison’s] northern dormitories,” the SDF announces. It would later disclose the death toll: 121 among the SDF, 374 suspected members of the Islamic State and four civilians. Officials would not provide figures for the number of prisoners unaccounted for.

Outside the prison, SDF commanders direct their troops to continue combing districts across the city, looking for sleeper cells or caches of weapons. Other searches are taking place in towns around the region. In Hasakah, hundreds of civilians are still camped out in a mosque, where the stench of fear and sickness fills the air. “This is not over for us,” says one soldier, taking rest for a moment from the SDF’s raids. “We still have a long way to go.”

Video recorded on Feb. 1 shows Ghwaryan prison after nearly two weeks of fighting. (Video: Mohammed Hassan)

About this story:

Video editing by Luis Velarde and Sarah Cahlan. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Videos were sourced from the YPG Press Office, SDF Press Center, journalist Muhammed Hassan and ISIS Telegram channels. They were corroborated with other visuals from the area and satellite imagery. Satellite imagery is from Maxar Technologies.