IS increases focus on prisons

IS has told its members that freeing prisoners is a top priority, as the group seeks to capitalise on the “success” of its recent attack on a prison in east Afghanistan. IS made the call in the latest issue of its weekly newspaper al-Naba, which was released on 6 August via the messaging apps Hoop and Telegram. Through the article, IS also revealed, possibly for the first time, that it secretly engages in negotiations with its enemies to secure the release of prisoners – something the group was previously known to do but had not publicly acknowledged. The editorial, titled “[Target] Prisons..Prisons..O Soldiers of the Caliphate”, said IS leaders have been urging their soldiers to “prioritise this issue over all others”. It lauded the group’s alleged proven and “sound strategy” in dealing with the prisoners issue, and listed its key approaches on the subject.

In addition to the editorial, the publication featured on its front page a detailed account of IS’s 2-3 August attack on a prison in Jalalabad in which the group claimed to have freed “hundreds” of Muslims, including IS members. The report revealed that the attack was carried out by three Indians, four Tajiks, three Afghans and one Pakistani (or possibly Indian) members of the group, adding that a lot of preparation and planning had gone into it. The newspaper also highlighted recent low-profile attacks on an “investigator” and a “jailor” in eastern Syria as part of IS’s overall plan to defend prisoners.

How does IS help prisoners?

IS listed a number methods that it claims to have employed as part of its efforts to free Muslims prisoners. The group first and foremost highlighted its use of force, as in the case of the Jalalabad prison attack, to free prisoners, “without having to succumb to blackmail by their captors… or allow the enemy to use them as a card to pressure” jihadists, IS said. This appeared to be a dig at IS’s staunch rival, the Taliban, whom IS has repeatedly criticised for striking political deals with the US and the government, partly to free Taliban prisoners. The editorial said that prisoners are at the top of IS priorities whenever the group raids or captures a town or city, adding it always makes sure to head to prisons and free “Muslims” held there.

Attacks, riots and jail-break attempts by IS members inside prisons are other methods, IS said. Sometimes these IS inmates get help from outside and other times they act alone, it claimed.  IS has previously claimed that violence inside prisons in Indonesia and Tajikistan, among other places, were carried out by members of the group. Payments and prisoner exchanges were listed as other key methods. In this context, IS openly admitted that it “secretly” engaged in negotiations, presumably with its enemies, to secure the release of its members.

To that end, IS said some of its attacks are in fact designed to take hostages, especially high-value individuals, in order to later use them as a bargaining chip to free IS members. Money payments to free or help imprisoned jihadists is another course of action, IS said, adding that a large amount of its war booty gains go to that effort. If money cannot free prisoners, IS said, it can at least help by bribing jailors so that inmates get shorter sentences, moved to prisons with more favourable conditions, or are offered support inside prison to reduce their suffering. Finally, IS said that terrorising the judicial system and prison staff is another method the group uses to support prisoners. The aim, it said, is that personnel, such as investigators, judges and jailors, would become too scared to hand down “harsh” sentences against IS members or harass them in prison for fear of IS retribution. Moreover, these terror tactics, it said, could even force personnel to cooperate with IS to release its members. IS claimed that jailors in Iraq would deliberately treat IS inmates with respect for fear of being attacked outside prison.

In this same issue of al-Naba, IS claimed to have recently killed an investigator and a jailor in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour given, it alleged, their role in “persecuting” Muslim prisoners. Such killings, IS said in the editorial, send a strong message to fellow jailors and investigators.

Why now?

Islamic State al-Naba newsletter talks about focus on targeting prisons

IS has sought to gain maximum publicity from its Jalalabad prison attack on 2-3 August

IS’s call to free prisoners is not new. In fact, the group is known for its infamous Hadm al-Aswar (Breaking down the [prison] Walls) campaigns, which in July 2013 saw IS attack prisons in Iraq and allegedly free hundreds of prisoners, many of whom went on to become top officials when IS declared its so-called caliphate a year later. So while IS has previously stressed that it has not forgotten about its imprisoned members, including in leadership speeches over the past year, the latest message in al-Naba carries more urgency and a tone of confidence.

IS may now feel more emboldened to to deliver this message following its Jalalabad prison operation which authorities said left over 300 prisoners at large. Prior to that, the group was criticised by its jiahdist rivals for saying little and doing even less to rescue its affiliates from prisons, especially women and children in east Syria camps. IS will clearly have its sights on prisons and detention camps in Kurdish-controlled areas in eastern Syria where thousands of IS members and linked families are held. The presence of IS-linked women in these camps is a particular source of embarrassment for the group, which is why it needs to be seen as doing something to “rescue” them. Political or other crises always present an opportunity for the jihadist group to decide to strike.

Last October when Turkey began operation “Peace Spring” against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, IS immediately launched its own campaign against Kurdish forces, saying it was to avenge IS-linked detainees held by Kurdish authorities. During that campaign, IS claimed to have freed an unidentified number of female captives. In March, IS told its followers around the world to take advantage of governments’ “pre-occupation” with the Covid-19 health crisis to step up their attacks, singling out attacks aimed at freeing prisoners. Another possible reason for IS’s present focus on prisoners is that its staunch jihadist rival, the Taliban, has made IS look bad.

The Afghan group has recently been successful in securing the release of hundreds of its imprisoned members through political deals. The US-Taliban agreement of February 2020 had stipulated the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan captives. In the context of the rivalry between the two, jihadists may see the Taliban as a group that looks after its members and doesn’t abandon them, which in the long run could have an impact on recruitment. The Taliban’s willingness to negotiate with the US and the Afghan government to make gains for itself and its prisoners has been lauded by al-Qaeda and other jihadists, but strongly condemned by IS. And yet in its latest editorial IS is keen to say that it too has been engaged in negotiations, albeit secretly, to free prisoners, in a likely attempt by the group to prove to its followers that it is willing to make sacrifices for their sake.

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