Assaulting prisons and inciting prison riots are cornerstones of jihadi operational strategy. Jihadi groups target prisons as sites for attacks to free operatives and leaders from detention, and to create propaganda wins against their adversaries. While jihadi attacks on prisons and prison riots have been frequently employed by the jihadi movement, during the past few years, a new string of these incidents have affected prison systems in the Sahel, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. In each case, severe deficits in basic prison security mechanisms provided opportunities for jihadis to exploit, allowing them to launch successful attacks on prison facilities and orchestrate prison riots that escalated into mass violence.
Many counterterrorism analysts and practitioners view jihadi-inspired attacks targeting prisons as both short-term and longer-term security risks. (1) In many countries' prison systems, the numbers of individuals incarcerated for supporting the Islamic State and other jihadi groups has risen to a historically unprecedented level during the past few years. (2) With the cessation of territorial control of the Islamic State inside Iraq and Syria, many of its onetime combatants are currently detained in prisons and camps throughout the Levant. The most infamous facility is the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-administered al-Hol camp, which currently houses over 60,000 people, of which approximately 9,000 are foreign (non-Syrian and non-Iraqi) citizens. (3) (a) Since the fall of the Islamic State's territorial caliphate, the group frequently incites its supporters in the region to free its affiliates who are held in facilities in Syria and Iraq. (4) A report submitted by U.N. monitors in December 2019 to the United Nations Security Council noted that the Islamic State was "calling and planning for the breakout of ISIL fighters in detention facilities" and noted the "precariousness of the holding arrangements of local authorities and non-State armed groups for displaced persons and detainees." (5)
The Islamic State and other jihadi groups have also incited attacks and riots outside of the Levant. With the large number of detained jihadis worldwide, the fear is that the groups to which they belong may either target prisons for attacks with the aim of releasing them or the incarcerated jihadis will spark riots and assault staff. During the past three years, several notable examples of both types of attacks occurred in several prison systems around the globe. In many instances, mostly within prisons in Western Europe and North America, a single inmate or small group of jihadi inmates carried out small-scale attacks against correctional staff or other inmates. (6) These incidents largely did not escalate into mass violence, and the perpetrators are usually detained swiftly before casualties mounted. In contrast, a number of assaults by jihadi groups and in-prison riots involving large groups of perpetrators mobilized by detained jihadis took place, mostly in prison systems outside the West. (b) These incidents escalated into mass violence between the attackers and correctional staff, law enforcement, or military special response teams.
This article focuses mainly on the second type of jihadi prison attacks and riots, which resulted in either substantial casualty figures or mass escapes. To understand this phenomenon and assess its threat, this article reviews both jihadi attacks on prison facilities and mass riots sparked by Islamic State-affiliated prisoners during the past few years, with the hopes of situating these incidents within the recent history of prison attacks. The authors' findings are twofold. First, drawing on previous literature, historical attacks, and the current reemergence of jihadi groups' attempts to target prison systems, the authors find that three considerations drive jihadi prison assaults and riots. In planning these types of attacks, jihadis are interested in restoring their force size, releasing incarcerated jihadi leaders or specialists, and/or creating a propaganda win.
Second, prison assaults and riots are opportunistic. Jihadis exploit profound weaknesses in prison system management, resources, intelligence, and wherewithal in order to conduct attacks. The authors analyze a string of highly successful raids on prisons by Sahelian jihadi groups during the past five years, as well as prison riots in Indonesia and Tajikistan perpetrated by Islamic State supporters. Specifically, several of the prison facilities examined in the article faced one or more of these problems: severe overcrowding, a lack of basic security infrastructure and effective management regimes for terrorist offenders, and/or recent facility conversion into prison wings for terrorist offenders. In the Sahel, Indonesia, and Tajikistan, jihadi perpetrators took advantage of these opportunities, and disturbances were able to escalate into successful attacks and riots.
After an explanation of the recent historical incidences of prison assaults and riots perpetrated by jihadi groups, this article places recent cases in the Sahel, Indonesia, and Tajikistan in the broader strategy and history of these types of attacks. In examining these cases, the assessments demonstrate that jihadi groups were able to exploit a lack of basic security infrastructure within the prison systems that they targeted. The last part of this article looks at possible future trends. Due to the continued strategic importance of prison assaults and riots, the increasing number of jihadi detainees worldwide, and permissive environments in prison systems, jihadi groups are likely to continue their campaigns of targeting prisons and jails.
The Recent History and Strategy of Prison Assaults and Riots
To answer the question of the strategy behind why a jihadi group might execute or even prioritize attacks on or inside prisons, the authors postulate three possible scenarios: 1) force regeneration; 2) freeing high-value individuals; and 3) propaganda value. The first possible scenario, force regeneration, is perhaps the most prominent. Following sustained military operations against it, the jihadi group may stand to regenerate some of its lost manpower by conducting assaults on prisons. As Trevor Cloen, Yelena Biberman, and Farhan Zahid found, these types of assaults in places with weak central authorities have been "low cost, high reward" operations for these groups. (7)
This logic is exemplified by the Islamic State of Iraq's "Breaking the Walls" campaign from 2012-2013, which as Aki Peritz described "enabled the Caliphate's rise" by freeing hundreds of fighters from prisons across Iraq. (8) As part of this campaign, the Islamic State of Iraq targeted prisons in Kirkuk, Tikrit, Taji, Abu Ghraib, and other facilities, resulting in "at least eight separate jailbreaks in Iraq that freed hundreds of senior- and mid-level ISIS militants." (9) By the end of the "Breaking the Walls" campaign, the Islamic State of Iraq had restored its ranks with hundreds of previously detained, skilled operatives, setting the stage for its resurgence and the transition into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Due to its success and strategic importance, the Islamic State's jailbreak strategy can now be considered part of the group's organizational fabric. (10) As Craig Whiteside, Ian Rice, and Daniele Raineri astutely argued in 2019, "prisons, and the valuable human capital they contain, will be the key to any future resurgence of the group." (11)
However, this dynamic is not exclusive to Iraq or the Islamic State. The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (or the Pakistani Taliban, TTP) conducted at least two large-scale prison assaults in 2012-2013, which also freed hundreds of fellow jihadis from Pakistani prisons. (12) Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Taliban prison breaks in 2008, (13) 2011, (14) and 2015 (15) freed almost 2,000 fighters combined. In each case, these operations have undoubtedly impacted these groups' longevity and overall operational capacity.
Looking at the authors' second scenario, the freeing of high-value individuals, this also stands to have severe long-term consequences for jihadi groups. For instance, in 2006, Nasir al-Wuhayshi and 22 other al-Qa'ida members escaped from a prison in Sana'a, Yemen. (16) These individuals would provide the nexus of the first generation of leadership for what would become al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). (17) While al-Wuhayshi would become AQAP's first emir, he would also eventually, before his death, become the "general manager" of al-Qa'ida's overall global network. (18) Al-Wuhayshi's successor as the second AQAP emir, Qasim al-Raymi, another jihadi veteran, also escaped from the Sana'a prison alongside al-Wuhayshi. (19)
More recently, in 2014, AQAP launched a massive operation against Sana'a's central prison. (20) Utilizing suicide bombers and an assault team, the group was able to free at least 29 fellow jihadis, including several key operatives. (21) A year later, AQAP launched an assault on Mukallah's central prison, which freed over 300 jihadis including Khalid Batarfi. (22) Batarfi, an important AQAP commander prior to his arrest in 2011, resumed his role as a senior AQAP leader upon being freed. (23) Following the January 2020 death of Qasim al-Raymi, (24) Batarfi was selected as the new AQAP emir. (25) And much like al-Wuhayshi, FDD's Long War Journal has assessed that Batarfi likely plays a key role in al-Qa'ida's global leadership. (26) Batarfi's appointment also means that all three emirs of AQAP have been prison escapees.
Lastly, the authors posit that the propaganda value of prison breaks or assaults on/in prisons is twofold. First, the individual groups can message to its supporters or allies that it does not forget its imprisoned members, akin to the "leave no man behind" mantra. Secondly, these operations can send a powerful message to the outside world about the lack of...