A Prison Attack and the Death of its Leader: Weighing Up the Islamic State’s Trajectory in Syria

Abstract: On January 20, 2022, the Islamic State launched a complex assault on Hasakah’s Ghwayran prison, a place in which thousands of its fighters had been held since the ‘defeat’ of its territorial caliphate in March 2019. The attack was the first time that the group had directly targeted a major detention facility in Syria since losing its last significant territorial toehold in Syria, notwithstanding the consistent calls for prison breaks that have been uttered by its leaders during the last three years. Even though, according to the U.S. government, the attack failed to produce a large-scale prison break, it was, by a significant margin, the highest impact and most complex operation launched by the Islamic State in Syria since its territorial defeat. A complete dataset of the operation claims the Islamic State has published relating to Syria since March 2019 suggests Islamic State cadres in Syria may have been saving their energies to carry out a large strike, cutting through the notion that previous declines in operational activity were a sign of weakening or that the prison attack necessarily portends a resurgence. With its leader since 2019, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi, removed from the battlefield in a U.S. military operation in Syria in February 2022, it remains to be seen whether the group will return to ‘normal’ operations syncopated by occasional ‘spectaculars,’ or escalate its campaign of violence as it attempts to demonstrate any immediate tactical gains it made at Ghwayran and, simultaneously, showcase its ability to weather the storm of leadership decapitation. The data suggests that whatever the monthly ebb and flow of Islamic State operations in Syria, the group remains a latent and persistent threat.


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