The Islamic State is a growing threat to northeast Syria, and the group will again flourish unless immediate action is taken, the Kurdish-led region’s security chief said in the wake of last month’s deadly prison attack.
Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, said immediate security measures were taken to contain active IS sleeper cells, but the group is proving to be a resilient insurgency. The threat remains high, he said, despite the death of the group’s leader in a U.S. commando operation last week.
“We are surrounded by the Islamic State,” Abdi said during a wide-ranging interview with the Associated Press on Thursday night. “We have said this many times. If we don’t strive to fight IS now, they will spread again.”
A tenuous calm has prevailed in northeast Syria since the Jan. 20 attack by IS on Gweiran, or al-Sinaa prison — a Kurdish-run facility in Syria’s northeast where over 3,000 militants and juveniles were held.
The attack on the prison led to 10 days of fighting between U.S.-backed fighters and IS militants that left nearly 500 people dead. U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters brought the situation under control eventually.
Abdi said immediate security measures were taken to contain IS sleeper cells after the assault. Faulty detention centers prone to similar attacks have been emptied, security sweeps are ongoing and curfews limit night-time movements.
But, the threat remains.
Last week, a raid by U.S. commandos led to the death of IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi in the Idlib region in Syria’s northwest. Abdi said the SDF had assisted in the operation by facilitating passage and logistics for the U.S., but did not participate with fighters on the ground.
“We provided safety and security for personnel who went in, that’s all I can say,” he said.
While the morale of IS may have been temporarily hit by al-Qurayshi’s death in the aftermath of the prison attack, Abdi said he did not believe it would lead to the group’s decline.
“They depend on decentralization,” he said, behaving differently depending on local conditions and dynamics.
Abdi shared blame for the prison attack — the biggest and bloodiest since IS lost the last sliver of territory it held in 2019, bringing a formal end to it’s self-declared “caliphate” over large parts of Syria and Iraq. At least 121 SDF fighters were killed in the battles around the prison that raged for nearly two weeks.
“We didn’t execute our responsibilities well,” Abdi says.
The prison, located in Syria’s Hassakeh province, was a known threat. Abdi said on two occasions last year the SDF received intelligence that IS sleeper cells were plotting to launch an attack and free their comrades inside. One attack was even thwarted.
But not enough operations to root out IS cells were conducted in the areas around the prison, where militants are believed to have been clandestinely plotting the attack for months, he said. “There was intelligence before that they wanted to attack, and we took procedures, but then we failed,” he said.
But he also said the international community shares the burden, and should assume responsibility for the thousands of foreign nationals in prisons and camps overseen by the SDF, who continue to pose security risks.
Searches are being conducted across the 27 detention facilities housing IS detainees to identify security weaknesses.
Three prisons have been emptied, their inmates scattered to different facilities.
Abdi declined to name the facilities, but said two were close to the Turkish frontier, where bombardment is frequent. Another was found to have similar shortcomings as in Gweiran.