In late October 2019, the United States killed Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of the Islamic State (IS). However, the terrorist organization is still capable of launching large-scale offensives. Most recently, as part of its “Breaking the Walls” strategy, IS staged a number of prison breaks in different parts of the world to free its imprisoned members.
On 20 October 2020, IS stormed the Kangbayi prison in northeast Congo and freed over 900 inmates, and in early August 2020, it perpetrated an assault on Nangarhar prison in eastern Afghanistan and freed about 300 IS members. The organization’s diligent efforts to free its elements raise important questions regarding their nature, motives and indications.
A sustained approach
Freeing prisoners is one of the priorities of IS. The group’s leaders and media spokesmen constantly refer to this key issue. IS has been using the “Breaking the Walls” strategy since Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi established Jamaat Al-Tawhid and Jihad, IS’ first nucleus, until Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi succeeded Al-Baghdadi as IS leader.
The strategy was first implemented in 2004, when Abu Anas Al-Shami attempted to target Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. The breakthrough was in 2013 when IS attacked a number of Iraqi prisons and freed over 600 members who had earlier moved to Syria and perpetrated a number of atrocities on both the Iraqi and Syrian arenas.
The group’s tone to free its prisoners intensified as military pressure against IS escalated. IS’ main strongholds were lost, and a large number of IS members in Syria and Iraq were detained.
In his speech entitled ‘Do Deeds’ in September 2019, Al-Baghdadi called on his followers to free detained IS members and their families held in camps in Iraq and Syria, and he promised to take “revenge”. He also called for targeting policemen, investigators and judges in prisons where IS members are held captive.
After Al-Baghdadi was killed and Al-Qurashi took over, IS continued to focus on the same subject.
On 27 January 2020, in his second audiotape entitled “Allah destroyed everything on them, and for the disbelievers is something comparable”, Abu Hamza Al-Qurashi, IS’s new spokesman, called upon all imprisoned IS members to remain steadfast, and called on all IS members to liberate them.
In his third speech entitled “And the Disbelievers Will Know Who Gets the Good End,” in May 2020, he stated that IS is making everything possible to release its detainees everywhere. In his fourth and last speech entitled “So narrate to them stories of the past, so perhaps they will reflect” in October 2020, he called on the organization’s operatives to liberate IS members from prisons, mentioning successful breaks into prisons.
IS’ moves can be explained through a host of motives, which can be outlined as follows:
1- Restoring influence: IS aims at restoring its influence by relying on its members in prisons after their liberation. This brings to mind its use of that strategy in Iraq between 2012 and 2013, and its success in liberating large numbers of its members from Iraqi prisons, who subsequently perpetrated its main operations in Syria and Iraq.
2- Repositioning: IS is currently repositioning after it lost control of its main strongholds. Therefore, it undertook a strategic transition to Asia and Africa, where there are sectarian conflicts, ethnic divisions, and religious differences, representing the perfect soil for extremism and terrorism. Accordingly, it seeks to free and invest in its members in prisons to extend its control in the new arenas it has moved to.
3- Propaganda: IS looks forward to increasing its propaganda by fulfilling its promises to liberate its members, which stresses its ability to protect its members and threaten the security of states and societies and reinforces its jihadist image once again.
4- Embarrassing competitors: IS aims at embarrassing both the Taliban and the group of Support for Islam and Muslims, who negotiated with governments to liberate their prisoners. This way, IS sends a message that “what has been obtained by political bargains and negotiations can be achieved by force and weapons,” thereby enhancing its legitimacy and ideology, and solidifies its image as being firm in its approach.
Based on the above, a number of indications can be reviewed:
- First, IS has a declared strategy for liberating its prisoners. The 246th edition of the Al-Naba, the weekly newsletter of the Islamic State, emphasized the diversity of IS’ methods of freeing its members (direct attack, prisoner exchange, and money). The newsletter turned a blind eye to links between transnational organised crime groups and IS that used smuggling networks to free women and children from Al-Hol camp.
- Second, IS’ focus on breaking into prisons and freeing prisoners will enhance the legitimacy of its new leader, Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi, especially that he came to power at a time when operations to free prisoners decreased and attacking prisons was shrouded in secrecy. Thus, the new leader sets the issue of prisoners’ liberation as a top priority for the organization.
- Third, storming Kangbay and Nangarhar prisons is an example of what IS can do in Iraq and Syria, especially since Iraq is detaining about 12,000 IS members, and the Syrian Democratic Forces are detaining about 14,000 IS members, not to mention IS families in Al-Hol camp. Therefore, it is likely these positions are targets of IS attacks.
- Fourth, the prison breaks affirm the strength and power of IS-Khorasan Province and IS’ Central Africa Province. This power indicates that IS is capable of decentralization even if the central organization is under pressure. It also affirms IS’ flexibility and adaptability, which would help it overcome ordeals and defeats.
- Fifth, while IS has general motives for adopting “Breaking the Walls” strategy, it also has special motives. IS’ Central Africa Province, for example, targeted the central prison in Congo to emphasize its presence in Central Africa, especially in light of its rising activity in Mozambique. IS-Khorasan Province, on the other hand, aims to pressure the Taliban, especially in light of its negotiations with the US.
- Sixth, IS’ recent prison breaks in Africa and Asia reflect its success in repositioning to the new arenas that it has moved to, and allow the organization to expand to areas of influence of its traditional rival, Al-Qaeda.
In sum, IS aims at staging a comeback using its recent restructuring and repositioning activities. Despite the military pressure exercised against the group worldwide, IS can still diversify its strategies and benefit from its flexibility and adaptability. The “Breaking the Walls” strategy, therefore, is a preliminary stage paving the way for IS’ resurgence.