Is ISIS Growing?

Some analysts are pointing out that the armed terrorist group is getting stronger.

ISIL’s (ISIS) latest attack on a prison in northeast Syria was carried out by detonating two car bombs outside a prison holding more than 3,000 ISIL detainees on January 22. 200 assailants also cut off neighborhood routes in Hasakeh city and attacked a nearby military base.

Hundreds of the group’s detainees escaped al-Sina’a prison, the largest in the world for ISIL members, during the initial chaos – exacerbated by a riot inside the prison, which culminated in kitchen staff being taken hostage and the whole north wing of the prison falling under the control of ISIL.

So far, more than 160 people have been killed and civilians have fled the fighting. This attack is the largest in Syria since the fall of ISIS’s so-called caliphate in 2019.

Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria have said that 250 ISIL fighters have surrendered as the United States-backed forces have attempted to clear the last part of the prison still seized by the armed group. Additionally, on Monday 24 at least 300 ISIL members handed themselves in.

In this context, there are mounting fears for 850 children caught in the crossfire in the Syrian prison, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Tuesday.

What are the experts saying?

Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme from Chatham House, David Butter has told Core Middle East that this attack has been bigger than most of ISILS ops in the past couple of years, but that is “hard to tell if they are growing stronger or whether this was a throw of the dice to try to do something dramatic and boost manpower by getting former fighters out.”

Due to money and revenue-earning capabilities being less than before, David Butter explains that “it will be hard for them to get anywhere near back to former status.”

Other analysts point out that ISIL in Syria is “absolutely” growing stronger because they have been able to carry out this attack, Counter Extremism Project analyst Gregory Waters has told Al Jazeera. This news site also picks up the opinion of Middle East Institute Syria’s counterterrorism and extremism programs, Director Charles Lister, who is more inclined to believe that within the last six months, there has been a clear indication of ISIL’s intentions to expand.

New York Times journalists Jane Arraf and Ben Hubbard have written that three events could support the idea of ISIL growing stronger.

These have been the attack on the prison, a series of strikes against military forces in neighboring Iraq, and a video that showed the beheading of an Iraqi police officer. In Iraq, around the same time as the prison attack began, ISIL fighters stormed an army outpost in Diyala Province, killing 10 soldiers and an officer.

The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) has also stated that threat of the ISIS is growing in north and east Syria.

The SDC has called for more international cooperation to confront this danger.

What all experts share is that ISIL has been active for years, although the international community has turned its back to Syria. This attack is not surprising, “they have been quite active in both regime areas and SDF zone, with attacks on military checkpoints and convoys, and a big operation about a year ago on a convoy of Qaterji oil tankers southeast of Aleppo”, David Butter adds. He concludes that “the main purpose of the attack seems to have been to refute suggestions that ISIL is down and out.”

International Crisis Group Senior Syria Analyst Dareen Khalifa told Al Jazeera that ISIL has maintained weapons and supply caches, training camps, and safe houses for fighters and commanders to retreat to in central Syria. After the Syrian government launched operations against the armed group there, the cells moved to the northeast which bolstered the technical expertise of previous cells in that territory.

Targeting prisons, with the aim of freeing their detained members, is a well-known part of ISIL’s strategy and has been present along with roadside bombings, drive-by shootings, and targeted assassinations.

The volatile conditions of Syria after the more than 10-year civil war is the perfect ground for armed groups like ISIL to act since internal borders have been put up and areas controlled by competing factions have been formed. ISIL will continue to act until a real and coordinated anti-ISIL coalition is built between different factions, states, and world players.

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