U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces battles to regain control of prison for Islamic State suspects

A U.S.-backed force in Syria said Sunday it was still fighting to regain full control of the country’s largest prison for Islamic State suspects, as the extent of the losses in a three-day standoff became clearer.

Farhad Shami, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said at least 160 suspected militants and 27 members of the U.S.-backed force had been killed in the attack in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah. The attack began with two car bombs that sparked a prison break amid fierce fighting.

The numbers killed could not be independently verified.

The attack was among the most serious by Islamic State fighters since the U.S.-led coalition and the SDF declared them defeated almost three years ago. But it also bore echoes of the past: Before they seized territory and declared their own caliphate, many members of what became the Islamic State group were freed from prison through jailbreaks.

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U.S.-led coalition forces launched airstrikes as their Syrian allies battled to regain control of the area on the ground, the coalition said in a statement. Coalition forces used Hellfire missiles and larger munitions and strafing runs by Apache helicopters, a coalition official said.

On Thursday night, the two car bombs rocked Hasakah and scores of militants swarmed the prison complex.

Prisoners responded by beating their way out into the corridors, officials said, overpowering their guards and killing several, before pouring out into the freezing prison yard.

“Many Daesh detainees seized arms from prison guards whom they murdered and subsequently engaged SDF quick reaction forces,” said Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan, Jr., the coalition’s commander, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State.

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The Hasakah prison, once a school building, now houses roughly 3,000 prisoners, most of them captured in the final weeks of the battle to retake the final sliver of Islamic State territory.

Syria’s northeast has been ruled by a Kurdish-led administration throughout much of the country’s decade-long civil war. Across the region, as many as 10,000 Islamic State suspects are being held in overcrowded and often poorly defended prison complexes. In visits to several, Washington Post reporters have met European inmates who have been in pretrial detention for as long as eight years.

The region’s leaders routinely appeal for help from the international community. They point out that many of the detainees are foreign and that the local administration cannot bear the burden of holding them alone.

Shami said Sunday that the Hasakah prison complex was mostly back under SDF control, but some prisoners remained holed up in the facility’s north wing, where hundreds of children are jailed.

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As night fell, human rights groups expressed grave concern for the boys inside the cells. UNICEF said nearly 850 children, some as young as 12, were in danger. In an audio message shared with Human Rights Watch, a foreign child was heard pleading for assistance. “There’s no doctors here that can help,” he said. “There’s a lot of people dead in front of me.”

Letta Tayler, a counterterrorism lead at Human Rights Watch, described the bloody standoff as an “entirely predictable and avoidable” consequence of countries outsourcing responsibility for their nationals.

“If any of these boys die, some of their blood will be on their home countries’ hands,” she said.

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The prison building has been badly damaged by car bombs and airstrikes, Syrian and coalition officials said.

“Detainees who did not participate in the attack will be secured, with more details to be announced as the SDF completes its operations in the area,” Brennan said.

The size of the attack caught the SDF by surprise, and suggested that the militants, thought to be largely defeated, might have reestablished more advanced fighting capabilities than previously known. For days, they have used snipers, grenades and suicide belts to hold their ground as families stream out of the area amid the din of battle.

Researchers who monitor the Islamic State and similar armed groups say the region’s Kurdish-led authority has done little to address the social and political ills that fueled its rise.

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On a visit to the Hasakah prison in 2019, The Washington Post found parlous conditions. Cells were overcrowded and children were detained among adults. Some men sat for hours in tight circles, speaking among themselves and avoiding eye contact with prisoners around them.

U.S. officials say some prisoners have taken on leadership roles among their cellmates and continue to preach the fundamentalist group’s ideology.

“Attacking the detention facility was a top ISIS priority for more than a year,” said Ned Price, a State Department spokesman. The assault, he said, now highlights the “urgent need” for countries to repatriate, rehabilitate and, where appropriate, prosecute their nationals.

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In neighboring Iraq, where smaller Islamic State sleeper cells have launched a string of attacks in recent weeks, security forces were on high alert around the country’s prisons, according to a senior national security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press. “The order to be on maximum alert has been issued,” he said.

Mustafa al-Ali in Kobane, Syria, and Mustafa Salim in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.