The Coming ISIS Jailbreak

The Strategy That Enabled the Caliphate’s Rise Just Became Viable Again

ISIS fighters parade through the streets of Raqqa, June 2014. Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump just handed the Islamic State (ISIS) a literal get-out-of-jail free card. On October 6, he announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeastern Syria in order to make way for a Turkish invasion. The Turks had in their sights the Kurdish forces with whom the United States partnered to topple ISIS’ territorial caliphate only seven months prior. Trump’s decision was a betrayal of these partners, whose ties to militants on the Turkish side of the border threatened Ankara. More ominously, the decision was a gift to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the biggest single boost to his organization since it captured a large swath of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Remarkably, ISIS won’t even have to adjust its strategy to seize this opportunity to rebuild. It can merely reuse the playbook that enabled its initial rise: a systematic campaign of jailbreaks that yielded the manpower and the leadership necessary to conquer physical territory.

Thanks to the Trump administration, the Kurdish forces guarding Syrian prisons that contain tens of thousands of ISIS militants and their families are now fighting for their lives. The flurry of prison breaks reported in recent days isn’t just an accident of the Turkish invasion—for years, ISIS has relied on breaking its fighters out of jails and detention camps to bolster its manpower. That strategy has worked time and again, and it will likely enable ISIS to replenish its ranks, eventually allowing the organization to strike at Europe or the United States.


ISIS was not the first jihadi group to exploit weak prison security or even to employ a purposeful strategy of freeing incarcerated fighters. In 2006, scores of Islamist militants, including a former private secretary to Osama bin Laden, famously tunneled out of a prison in Sanaa, Yemen, and formed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) soon thereafter. Since then, AQAP, which once controlled Yemen’s third-largest port and was responsible for the thwarted 2009 Christmas Day attack on

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