Hundreds of Prisoners Are Missing After ISIS Stormed an Afghan Prison

Despite losing territory and leadership, ISIS are "clearly still a threat to consider".
August 3, 2020, 4:47pm
isis fighters
ISIS militants in 2015. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

At least 29 people were killed in fierce clashes between Afghan security forces and ISIS fighters Monday, after the militants launched a raid on a prison, sparking a mass jailbreak.

The dead included prison guards, security forces and civilians, as well as at least eight militants, according to Attaullah Khugyani, a spokesman for the local governor.

The assault on the prison in the eastern city of Jalalabad began late Sunday when an ISIS suicide bomber crashed his bomb-laden vehicle through the facility’s gates, before militants stormed the complex, opening fire on guards.

Amid the chaos, many of the prison’s 1,800-odd inmates – many of them ISIS or Taliban fighters – escaped. This triggered a massive manhunt by security forces that saw Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, put under a tight security lockdown.

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Khugyani told Reuters Monday that hundreds of prisoners were still being searched for, while more than 1,000 had been recaptured.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, which followed the killing of one of the group’s senior intelligence operatives by Afghan forces near Jalalabad on Saturday.

Emily Winterbotham, director of the terrorism and conflict group at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, told VICE News that the attack was a grim reminder of the continued threat of ISIS, as international forces focus on securing a peace deal with the Taliban — even after the group’s recent loss of territory and leadership.

“It’s a further demonstration that, even once you have a deal with the Taliban — however slim the chances of that are — that’s not the only concern in terms of violence in the country,” she said. “This is clearly still a threat to consider.”

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Nangarhar, in the east of Afghanistan, has long been a stronghold for ISIS, and was the scene of intense fighting last year as Afghan forces mounted a sustained campaign against the group.

In November, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani claimed his forces had “obliterated” ISIS in the country, following a series of battlefield victories and the surrender of hundreds of the group’s fighters — including many foreign nationals.

Winterbotham said the jail assault — and other devastating attacks attributed to ISIS, including a suicide bombing in Nangahar that killed dozens in May — showed that Ghani’s claim was premature.

“This attack demonstrates they were pushed back, they were diminished but not obliterated. It just demonstrates that if you don’t keep the momentum up, then groups reform and regroup.”

According to a U.N. report last month, while the terror group is in territorial retreat in Afghanistan, it still commands about 2,200 fighters in the country and retains the ability to carry out devastating attacks.

The terror group is excluded from negotiations between the Taliban and the United States, intended to end Washington's longest war by agreeing to withdraw foreign troops from the country in return for security guarantees from the Taliban.