Islamic State, Afghanistan, and Replenishment Through Prison Breaks

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 21 August 2020

Al-Naba 246, front page, 6 August 2020

The Islamic State (IS) published the 246th edition of its newsletter, Al-Naba, on 6 August, which highlighted the 2-3 August prison break in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, a massive IS operation lasting twenty-plus hours, and proclaimed that freeing IS jihadists from prisons will now be a priority for the group. In 2012, shortly after the American withdrawal from Iraq, IS announced Operation BREAKING THE WALLS, which went on for a year, breaking open Iraqi prisons. The narrative of the IS’s “defeat” by the Surge and Awakening of 2007-08 is problematic in some of its fundamentals, but among the reasons it proved to be so fleeting in practice was this prison-break campaign that restored to the battlefield key IS operatives who planned the caliphate project in 2014. It is, therefore, alarming to see the arrival of such a campaign in Afghanistan at the moment the U.S. is headed, heedlessly, for the exit.

Islamic State Describes the Afghanistan Prison Break

The front page of Al-Naba 246 announces that the raid on the Nangarhar prison took place in the context of the Battle of Attrition (Ghazwat al-Istinzaf) announced in May, destroyed much of the prison, freed “hundreds of Muslim prisoners of war”, and killed and wounded nearly 200 Afghan security forces, while simultaneously attacking an American military base with mortar fire. “The attack shocked the Crusader coalition and its apostate allies, who tried in vain to conceal their defeat and the casualties in this new accomplishment for the Islamic State”, Al-Naba announces, adding that this attack has “torpedoed the illusions of the Crusaders and the apostates about eliminating the mujahideen in Khorasan generally and in Nangarhar in particular”.

Al-Naba continues from the front page on page four with a detailed description of the attack. Quoting a “special source” (masdar khasun), it is claimed by Al-Naba that the purpose of the attack on the Nangarhar prison was to “liberate” the 300 mujahideen housed among the 1,800 inmates.

The attack team was divided into three detachments, says Al-Naba, consisting of eleven men in total, most of them foreign, one of them a suicide bomber in a car. The nationalities were: three Afghans, four Indians (including the suicider), and four Tajiks.

The first detachment consisted of Abu Ali al-Punjabi, Hamid al-Tajik, and Mulawi Sa’d al-Khorasani—an Indian, a Tajik, and an Afghan, respectively, judging by their kunyas. This first team was armed with two machine guns, a rocket-propelled grenade-launcher (RPG) and fifteen rounds for it, two sticky bombs, and twenty-four grenades. This team got onto the rooftop of a building overlooking the prison and began firing “to evacuate the Muslim commoners from the area” in preparation for the explosion at the gate when the “martyr brother” arrived in his car. This first detachment is said by Al-Naba to have been crucial to “the success of the attack until its final stages and [to have] inflicted the largest number of casualties on the apostates”, allegedly killing fifty and wounding others.

With the way cleared by the first detachment, says Al-Naba 246, the second detachment—consisting of one man, the suicide bomber—executed his role in the attack, blowing up the car he was in, which was packed with “hundreds of kilograms of explosive material”, at the gates of the Nangarhar prison. Twenty-five security personnel were allegedly killed. The suicide-murderer is named as Abu Ruwaha al-Hindi, presumably an Indian national.

Al-Naba goes on: “The source explained that immediately after the bombing occurred, a second detachment of five mujahideen advanced [into the prison] and they were: Brother Qari Usama al-Khorasani, Brother Abu Umar al-Tajiki, Brother Ismail al-Tajiki, Brother Idrees al-Tajiki, and Doctor Abu Hayan al-Hindi”, an Afghan, three Tajiks, and an Indian, we may presume. These five jihadists were equipped with five automatic rifles, five improvised explosive devices (IEDs), two sticky bombs, an RPG with five shells, and forty-five grenades, according to Al-Naba. This team was able to use the IEDs to blow up the prison walls and after storming in clashed with guards for several hours. Towers were detonated, killing the security personnel in them, says Al-Naba, and once this third detachment reached the prisoners area they guided the inmates outside before burning down much of what was left of the prison. About twenty guards were killed by this final team, Al-Naba claims.

The Islamic State attack team for the Nangarhar Central Prison in Jalalabad, Al-Naba 246, page 4

Al-Naba continues its narrative on page five by claiming that, simultaneous with the prison attack, jihadists from Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP) unleashed a barrage of mortar fire—apparently 270 shells from three launchers—on the American base in Jalalabad city, “with the intention of distracting them” so they could not provide support to the besieged security forces at the prison. ISKP operatives also planted seven IEDs on the roads leading to the prison, according to Al-Naba, which were detonated as Afghan military and police forces approached, killing and wounding an unspecified number of people.

Al-Naba says that when the number of jihadists sprung from the prison is tallied together with the death and destruction of facilities and military equipment inflicted on the forces of the Afghan state, the Islamic State is satisfied that “the raid achieved its goals”.

A separate section at the bottom of page five covers the media war aspect of this attack. The Islamic State mocks the “apostate government” for, on the one hand, seeking to downplay the casualties—claiming initially twenty-nine killed and fifty wounded, and even claiming that civilians were among the slain—and on the other hand appealing for the population to help them round up the escaped prisoners. Al-Naba is particularly pleased that Kabul mistook the size of the attack team, believing it required “about thirty terrorists” to inflict the damage that eleven had managed to bring off, and that the Chief of the General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Yasin Zia, having arrived late and accompanied by special forces, could do no more than impose a curfew that did not prevent “the breaking of the walls” (hadm al-aswar).

Breaking the Walls—Again

Page three of Al-Naba 246 is, as ever, the lead editorial, and it was focused on the Nangarhar prison break, but sought to set it in a larger context. Entitled, “Prisons, Prisons, Oh Soldiers of the Caliphate!” (Al-Sujun, Al-Sujun, Ya Junud al-Khilafa!), by saying that in Nangarhar the Islamic State had once again demonstrated that the correct approach to the matter of jihadi prisoners was to see it as a battlefield, noting that forcibly freeing prisoners prevents anti-IS forces using IS prisoners as a pressure point against the group. In Nangarhar, Al-Naba continues, blood was paid by some “brothers” in order to save others—the number gets no more specific than “hundreds”—from humiliation.

Importantly, Al-Naba says: “The Islamic State continues to place the issue of male and female prisoners in the prisons of the infidels and apostates at the top of its list of priorities, and the emirs recommend that the brothers press this as a case apart and spare no expense … to break out captured Muslims, forcibly or by ransom” [italics added]. It is a rare, possibly unique, admission that IS does deals to free its members, and the editorial goes on to explain that some operations are even designed to capture officials who can then be traded for IS prisoners; this not only “spites” the infidels but has “succeeded in rescuing some Muslims”. Later again, IS underlines that “[prisoner] swap negotiations are secret”, and this is as it should be no matter what IS can get the infidels to pay since the “primary goal” is freeing the captives, “not bragging and showing off”

The raids against prisons holding IS jihadists are ongoing in the various “provinces” (wilayats), says Al-Naba, in a tradition that goes all the way back to the beginning, with the raid on Abu Ghraib led by the IS movement’s first deputy leader, the warrior-scholar Umar Yusef al-Juma (Abu Anas al-Shami). Al-Naba does not give a date for this first prison-break, but since Al-Juma was killed in September 2004, it can be assumed it was before that.

The Naba editorial praises the ISKP raid in Nangarhar for not trying to occupy the prison in any protracted sense: they got in, they freed the prisoners, and then they destroyed the place, preventing the enemy from making any further use of it, following the example set in Mosul and in Tadmur, the infamous prison run by the Syrian regime, the site of a horrendous massacre in June 1980, which was destroyed by IS in May 2015 after it captured Palmyra the first time.

Where it is not possible to forcibly break IS prisoners out or to barter for their freedom, says Al-Naba, the jihadists can “kill and terrorise the jailers and interrogators” to at least mitigate the conditions for jihadi prisoners—reduce their sentences and ensure they are treated well behind the wire. Al-Naba 246 notes that the IS campaign of assassination against judges and other judicial officials in Iraq in the 2000s influence the issuance of more lenient sentences, and the intimidation meant that the custodians of the prisons even sometimes effectively turned into agents for IS, delivering communications.

Once jihadists are free, IS has an obligation to provide for them as best they can—within the confines of money, security conditions, and the rest.

In concluding the editorial, IS reiterates: “The duty of all Muslims today is to strive to release the male and female captives from the prisons of the infidels, and to do everything possible to achieve this”.

Miscellaneous in Al-Naba 246

Much of the rest of Al-Naba 246 is devoted to IS’s smaller-scale insurgent operations.

At the Centre, there are assassinations and roadside bombs all across IS’s prior caliphal zones in Iraq, from Diyala to Kirkuk and Salahuddin to Anbar, and in Syria there are if anything even more attacks in the deserts of the east, though this level of instability might well be called “normal”. The attacks on the Asad regime in Aleppo province, and the 30 July targeted assassination of Sulayman al-Kassar in his home, a tribal official who had been working with the American-protected PKK regime in Deir Ezzor, are more worrying signs. Al-Kassar had appeared in a video praising President Donald Trump and thereby surrendered his religion, says Al-Naba, which goes on to claim that on 4 August—in-keeping with the prisons theme—a PKK secret policemen, allegedly a notoriously cruel jailer, was cut down in Shuhail.

IS says a policeman was killed and two wounded in Somalia by its forces with a grenade, on 30 July, in the Tawfiq area of Mogadishu. A number of attacks are claimed by IS in the Sinai against Egyptian security forces, and a raid in the Qayfa zone of Bayda province in Yemen, against the Iran-backed Huthis on 28 July. IS in Yemen has been making an effort recently to create sectarian propaganda to the effect that it is warring with the (Zaydi Shi’a) Huthis, precisely because people had started to notice that IS was not clashing with the Huthis, and the whole issue in Yemen is one of extreme murkiness about who is doing what for whom and why.

Islamic State operatives preparing to attack Huthi positions in Qifa, Al-Naba 246, page 10

In Africa, where the Sahel has been persistently highlighted of late as one of IS’s areas of focus, attacks are reported from Nigeria, Chad, and especially Mali, where IS claims to have killed four French soldiers—this seems to refer to the incident on 23 July that killed one French soldier—and underlining that whatever “deconfliction” it had with Al-Qaeda in the area is past. Further south, in its “Central African State”, IS claims it clashed with Congolese soldiers near Beni and carried off weapons and ammunition.

Page ten has an item from Bengal (Bangladesh), claiming—again, under the banner of the Battle of Attrition—that on 31 July IS’s forces slaughtered a “polytheistic/idolatrous magician” (al-sahara al-mushrikeen) in northern Dhaka, and on the same day caused material damage with a bomb inside a Hindu temple.

The news of the week roundup on page eleven featured:

  • The 4 August Beirut explosion as the first item, where IS reported the casualties accurately—135 dead and 5,000 wounded—but veered off after that, albeit not committing itself to any one conspiracy theory: noting the widely accepted explanation of fireworks igniting ammonium nitrate that had been at the port for six years, IS took the Trumpian line that many people are saying this doesn’t add up, and wondered aloud if perhaps Hizballah, the Jews, or the Lebanese government itself was behind the blast.
  • Next, Al-Naba takes note of the video conference between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Taliban official Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar on the same day as the Nangarhar prison break. This was a “part of their relentless efforts to support the ‘peace process’,” says Al-Naba, but it gets no more polemical than that.
  • Turkey’s military pact with Niger in July 2020 is after that, and IS is clearly very annoyed about it since the Turks are strengthening a state where the jihadists see potential, and Al-Naba notes that Turkey has been working against the jihadists in Libya, too.
  • IS delights in reporting the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Germany, Trump’s crass remark that the Germans are “not paying their bills; it’s very simple”, and the damage this does to NATO; they even quote Mitt Romney to that effect. IS concludes with strategic speculation that this could help Russia in other theatres, especially since America is retrenching generally across the world.
  • Finally, Al-Naba gloats over the failure of Egypt to get a grip on the IS insurgency in the Sinai under Operation EAGLE, despite vast support from Israel. (Al-Naba has covered this topic before.) Al-Naba quotes Ehud Yaari, whom they refer to in their demented way as “a Jewish analyst close to the Jewish security services” (in fact he is an Israeli journalist affiliated with The Washington Institute), on the total disaster of Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s regime when it comes to stemming the tide even of IS attacks on his own troops, let alone clearing areas of jihadi influence.

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