The world forgot this Syrian prison. The Islamic State did not.
The Washington Post February 5, 2022
HASAKAH, Syria — The truck rumbling past Ghwaryan prison didn't look like much to worry about at first. It drove along as expected, but then abruptly veered rightward. It hit the prison's exterior wall near the main gate, and a fireball lit up the night sky.
Several miles away in his operations room, Gen. Mazloum Kobane Abdi, commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, received reports of the blast within moments, he later recalled. He had spent the past three years warning foreign allies, Washington notable among them, that this night might come.
Within 30 minutes, he was sure of it: The nightmare they had predicted was unfolding.
The Islamic State's assault on Ghwaryan prison in the northeastern Syrian town of Hasakah on Jan. 20 was the group's most dramatic attack in years and triggered the longest and deadliest battle with ISIS since its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq was defeated nearly three years ago. The goal, officials believe, was to break free Islamic State leaders, who were imprisoned there among more than 3,000 suspected militants.
By the time the SDF recaptured the prison after a 10-day battle, American and British forces had joined the fight, carrying out days of airstrikes and dispatching Special Forces on the ground. More than 500 people died, about three quarters of them ISIS members, or men or boys imprisoned among them, according to the SDF. Scores, if not hundreds, of suspected militants remain unaccounted for.
"They wanted to renew ISIS," Mazloum said in an interview. Usually laser-focused, the general looked weary. "They wanted to attack the prison, but after that, the plan was even bigger."
The Islamic State has proved resilient in the past couple of years despite its territorial losses. After being largely chased from northeastern Syria, it has returned, seeding sleeper cells across the countryside and waging an increasingly successful campaign of assassinations and other small-scale attacks. These in turn have intimidated local communities that might have resisted or informed on them, creating space for more ambitious operations.
The attack on the prison was more sophisticated and lethal than Western governments had anticipated. And at the same time that it was under assault, the SDF was reporting other simultaneous attacks in the region, including militant raids on checkpoints and a water tanker, the targeting of an SDF location with rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire, and a similar attack elsewhere on the home of an SDF commander.
In Iraq, the overall pace of Islamic State attacks has slowed in recent months. But the group has still been able to exploit security gaps, especially in central Diyala province, to carry out a pair of dramatic, deadly attacks.
In a briefing for reporters hours after U.S. Special Forces killed ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi during a raid in northwestern Syria on Thursday, a senior Biden administration official said Qurayshi had directly supervised the group's activities across Syria and Iraq and that it had been "seeking to reconstitute under his leadership."
While the U.S. raid had been planned months before the prison attack, the official said Qurayshi had influenced multiple threats against the Hasakah facility. In the past, the Islamic State has renewed itself through prison breaks, and Qurayshi had urged them to do so again.
As the winter sun dipped below Hasakah's sprawl on Jan. 20, Malak Maesh, 26, was stealing a nap between shifts. The thickset prison administrator, known as Bawar to his friends, had been keenly aware that the prison was vulnerable to assault. But dwelling on those worries would have made daily life feel untenable, he always said. The room he shared with other prison staff had only one gun, and that was for emergencies.
Like other detention facilities across northeastern Syrian that hold as many as 10,000 Islamic State suspects, the one in Hasakah was never meant to be a prison. It had once been a technical school and was retrofitted with metal doors. The inmates, many of them foreigners, were packed so tightly into some of the old classrooms that their limbs touched when they lay down to sleep.
As soon as Bawar heard the blast of the truck bomb, he was on his feet, scrambling down the stairs and into the corridor below, he recounted. A doorway blown open by the explosion framed the chaos outside. Dozens of attackers had swarmed the perimeter of the compound as flames illuminated it. Inmates in orange jumpsuits and gray prison-issue sweaters were running toward freedom.
When he stepped into the courtyard, he was struck on the head with a metal pole and forced to retreat. Another prison worker, Akef, grabbed the block's only gun and fired it to keep attackers at bay. When one of the militants hurled a grenade toward them, Akef tried to throw it back, but it exploded, killing him instantly.
Bawar stooped to pick up Akef's gun and fixed his eyes on a locked door behind him. "We needed a safe place, so I broke the door down," he said. "I barricaded myself in."
When the sun finally came up, Bawar peered through the room's shattered window to find that the prison yard was littered with bodies. Overnight, he had been joined in his hiding place by 11 prison guards, several of them badly wounded. There were no medical supplies. Three of them died.
Within hours of the attack, forces from the U.S.-led military coalition joined the battle, Western military officials said, launching the longest sustained period of airstrikes in support of its SDF allies since the battle for the Islamic State's final redoubt in Baghouz, Syria, nearly three years ago. In a series of more than 20 strikes over the course of a week, coalition jets unleashed Hellfire missiles and other large munitions. Apache attack helicopters strafed targets inside a cordon hastily established by the Kurdish-led SDF fighters, drawn from across Hasakah and the wider region.
When a 30-year-old SDF fighter nicknamed Partizan arrived near the prison with his unit, the battle was so loud that the ground was shaking, soldiers recalled. The father of two girls from Ras al-Ayn joined a line of reinforcements at a nearby traffic circle.
He cocked his gun and waited.
Before long, the battle was spilling into the surrounding streets. Residents were terrified. One mother tried to convince her young sons that the gunfire was celebratory. "I told them, don't be scared, it's just a wedding," said Abir Abdullah, 20. When the excuse wore thin, she gathered the boys in her arms, held their hands and stroked their hair through the night.
The fighting spread into the al-Zuhour and al-Taqqadum districts, north and west of the prison. SDF fighters and other local Kurdish security forces traded fire with bands of militants between the houses.
Partizan's unit was redeployed to comb the old Arab-style homes for ISIS fighters. They had low walls and wide open courtyards and the jihadists were slipping easily among them. Some of the militants wore prison clothes but others were in military fatigues. "You get confused because some of our members wear the same clothes," said Kurdeau, 27, a member of Partizan's unit.
The SDF fighters moved quickly from house to house to minimize their exposure. They were being watched, but they weren't sure from where. At each home, Partizan would slip up the stairs to check the roof, while the rest of the unit waited in silence a floor below.
Sometime around midday, members of the unit later said, the sound of a sniper's bullet sliced the air.
At the top of the stairs, Partizan fell mortally wounded.
As the days passed, hundreds of ISIS fighters surrendered and hundreds more had been killed. The SDF reported capturing several prison blocks, but fighting was still fierce. The remaining militants, the SDF said, were holed up in the north wing. Mixed among them were at least 700 adolescent boys, brought to the so-called caliphate by their parents and now imprisoned for it, and the SDF said that the boys were being used as human shields.
Some of the prison staffers who had been taken hostage during the first hours of fighting had been released. But Bawar was still trapped inside, even though the SDF's armored vehicles had penetrated the prison compound days earlier.
Bawar was at a loss. The militants had tried to smoke him out, and so the flag he hoped to wave in surrender had turned the same black color as the Islamic State's. He thought, at one point, he had caught the attention of some SDF soldiers driving past, but their vehicle kept going.
"I couldn't tell if he knew I was one of them," Bawar recalled. He stayed awake the whole night, wondering if they had seen him.
They came back the following morning. And finally, he was rescued.
"I never gave up hope," Bawar said. But he didn't recognize the soot-stained face he later saw in media photographs of himself. "It was like it wasn't me," he said.
By the time the fighting ended, nearly 400 prisoners and attackers were dead. According to officials, most of the survivors have been transferred from the shattered prison to a British-built facility close by.
The battle also cost the lives of 121 SDF members and at least five of the prison staff. The SDF is still burying its dead.
This week, thousands of Syrians gathered to watch as Partizan was laid to rest alongside other fallen soldiers in the northern Syrian city of Derik. The freshly dug graves sat at the far end of the cemetery. In front of them were hundreds more headstones for fighters killed in earlier battles against the Islamic State or other enemies.
Days later in the city of Qamishli, about 50 miles to the west, thousands of others collected below a heavy gray sky, this time to bury 13 sons of their own town. "Our boys take our hearts with them," said the mother of a slain 18-year-old fighter, sitting by his headstone. "When we lost my son, we lost ourselves too."
Back in Hasakah, the Kurdish security forces on afternoon patrol remained jumpy. They warned that Islamic State sleeper cells were still operating in the area.
Suddenly, gunfire erupted without warning. Two suspected militants had appeared from a side street, apparently wearing suicide belts over their robes. The security forces shot them dead in the middle of the thoroughfare. A tense silence descended.
Gen. Mazloum believes it all could have been worse. "They wanted to take Hasakah and expand," he said.
His forces had recovered a truck near the prison full of suicide belts and other weapons. It was proof, he said, that the Islamic State had been aiming to escalate its armed campaign once their imprisoned comrades were freed. "This attack could have turned them into an army," Mazloum said. "We warned the world of this many times."
Slumping backward on his office sofa, the general looked exhausted.
"We have a phrase in Arabic: 'There is no life for he who calls,'" he said.
It means no one was listening.
The Washington Post's Mustafa al-Ali contributed to this report.