How prison breaks helped ISIS
Beirut - On July 21, 2013, as many as 800 inmates broke out of Iraqi prisons when teams of highly disciplined fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) attacked the facilities, using suicide bombers to blow holes in the high walls and dozens of gunmen and mortar crews to cover the mass escapes.
The operation bore the ISIS hallmark: innovative and meticulous planning and bold execution. The main breakout at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad rang alarms in the Iraqi capital and Washington for it was a signal that big trouble was coming.
Among the escapees were some 500 seasoned jihadist fighters and master bomb-makers but more important, dozens of senior and mid-level commanders, including the group’s “minister of war”, Adnan Ismail Najim Abdullah al-Dulaimi, aka Abdul Rahman al-Bilawi.
The Abu Ghraib breakout was one of several mass escapes engineered by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who in July 2012, two years after taking over the group, unveiled a battle strategy called “Destroying the Walls”, the prime mission of which was to free thousands of jihadists from prison to form the backbone of his new army.
His strategy to establish an Islamic caliphate, evoking Islam’s centuries of conquest and expansion, from Spain to the East Indies and even China, owed much to the former Ba’athist leaders who had been Saddam Hussein’s generals and intelligence chiefs and who were among the Abu Ghraib escapees.
The prison breaks were an enormously successful operation for ISIS and a disaster for counterterrorism forces. “We just lost track of everyone we didn’t kill who was in al-Qaeda during the surge” of 2006- 07, one Western intelligence analyst confessed.
It was these escapees who have made ISIS the most feared terrorist group on the planet, eclipsing its parent, al-Qaeda, and planned the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in northern Iraq on June 10, 2014, and the strategic city of Ramadi, 100 kilometres west of Baghdad, from May 15th to 17th.
In both instances Iraqi Army garrisons fled in disarray, abandoning vast stores of tanks and armoured vehicles along with weapons and ammunition.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi had to call on Iranian-backed Shia militias to stem the advances of ISIS’s Sunni jihadists, who now threaten Baghdad. But in doing so, Abadi — like his equally beleaguered Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad — had to rely on Iran and its many proxies, such as the Iraqi Shia militias, for survival.
That infuriates the already disillusioned Sunni Iraqis and drives them into the arms of ISIS, which, despite its horrendous brutality, wants to portray itself as the defender of Sunni Islam.
It is this that is the key to understanding how ISIS has been able to grow, amassing vast economic resources and a seemingly endless supply of recruits and reverse major setbacks with surprise attacks that leave its foes reeling.
ISIS has proved to be resilient since it emerged from the wreckage of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2010.
About 20 of its 43 command echelon leaders have been killed, mainly in US air strikes, US intelligence sources told The Arab Weekly. But it remains a highly effective fighting force and still controls vast regions of Iraq and Syria, with a constant supply of volunteers from across the Arab world, Asia and Europe.
Baghdadi proclaimed this an Islamic caliphate on June 29, 2014, at a stroke nullifying the artificial borders imposed on the Levant by the British and French after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the first world war and which have been a source of conflict ever since.
By invoking the religious legitimacy of the glory days when Muslims ruled much of the Middle East, ISIS has made Baghdad, once the seat of the powerful Abbasid dynasty (750- 1258) that symbolised Muslim power, a major target.
Taking the Iraqi capital would confer immense legitimacy on Baghdadi’s caliphate across the Muslim world. He declared that all other Muslim governments had lost legitimacy and that Muslims everywhere must reject “democracy, secularism, nationalism as well as other garbage and ideas from the West”.
The “long slumber of the darkness of neglect” is over, he proclaimed. “The sun of jihad has risen” and Muslims “will own the Earth”.