VICE World News and Airwars take you inside an audacious ISIS jailbreak in Syria that displaced thousands of people and exposed critical weaknesses in the US “war on terror”.
HASAKAH, Syria – It was a daring attack that threw northern Syria into chaos. For years, there had been warnings that al Sina’a prison – a converted school with paper-thin walls – was totally unsuitable to house its estimated 3,500-5,000 prisoners, most of whom were suspected of being current or former members of ISIS.
In January 2022, those warnings were proven to be right, as ISIS militants stormed the crumbling detention facility and freed hundreds of detainees. The consequences were huge. Around 500 people, including civilians, prison staff and suspected ISIS militants, died in the battle to secure the compound, while tens of thousands of people who lived in the surrounding area were displaced in harsh winter conditions as the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fought for 10 days to regain control.
Following a joint investigation between VICE World News and Airwars, a non-profit watchdog that monitors the war against ISIS, new failings have been uncovered which show how hundreds of detainees were allowed to escape what should have been a secure prison.
This is the story of how the West neglected the people fighting hardest against ISIS, and allowed a catastrophe to unfold.
It was on the evening of the 20th of January, 2022, when residents of Hasakah first heard explosions coming from the prison in the south of the city. Attackers had set a group of fuel tankers close to the jail on fire at around 7:20PM, and the sound carried across the barren landscape. Smoke rose above the prison buildings and the surrounding area, obscuring the site.
At the same time, a car bomb rammed into the main gate. A section of the blast wall, which was meant to protect against attacks, was destroyed. Simultaneously, a car rammed into another gate.
Inside the prison, ISIS members rioted. Videos showed them armed with knives, guns and other makeshift weapons. Guards said the prisoners also set fire to anything they could find, including blankets and clothing.
The ferocity and scale of the assault led the SDF to initially claim there were hundreds of attackers, but Airwars analysis of videos and photos suggests that the real number was far fewer. There is no publicly available evidence to suggest that any of the external ISIS members – who were thought to be wearing suicide vests – made it into the prison.
Over the course of the first night of the jailbreak, prisoners escaped to the surrounding areas, and SDF personnel were dispatched to try and catch them. The jail was originally a school, so the walls of the buildings were often only one brick thick, and the gates were weak.
During the course of the jailbreak, at least 120 guards were killed. One of the prison guards, Bawar, who at his request we have referred to by his Kurdish nickname, was trapped inside the prison compound for five terrifying days.
Speaking to VICE World News, Bawar said that when the jailbreak started, he and another guard, Akif, grabbed their weapons and headed towards the rioting prisoners. Some fired their weapons at the guards.
Prisoners were bombarding them with grenades, and one killed Akif when Bawar was only a few feet away.
“Smoke was everywhere, it got dark, the electricity went out so you couldn’t see… I was covered with blood and I couldn’t see what was happening in front of me,” he said.
Over the next five days, Bawar and other guards barricaded themselves into a room and shot at oncoming attackers.
He finally emerged with his face covered in soot from fires ISIS members had set to try and smoke him and a handful of his colleagues out. Other guards were tortured and decapitated by ISIS members.
They were eventually liberated by SDF and Coalition forces, made up of forces from the US, UK and 13 other allied countries. By the 30th of January, all the prisoners that they could find had been slowly moved into a new prison building next to al Sina’a. Over 120 SDF members, and nearly 400 prisoners or other ISIS members were dead.
Some 3,500 to 5,000 prisoners were kept in al Sina’a before the jailbreak. In the weeks after the attack the SDF claimed the majority of the prisoners had been recaptured, although others claim that hundreds were still unaccounted for.
Around 700 boys aged 12-18 were being held at the prison, and they were caught up in the terrifying siege. These boys were mostly the children of women held at al-Hol and Roj camps, open-air prisons for female ISIS members, and many had been held at al Sina’a for years. One of the boys, an Australian teenager named Yusef, sent a desperate voice note to family begging for help.
He said: “They want us to surrender now to the new prison. I don't know what is going to happen. It’s probably the last time I’m going to call you. Give salaams to my mum.”
Yusef’s whereabouts are still unknown. The United Nations says 100 minors are still unaccounted for.
People had warned of a jailbreak at al Sina’a for years. Since 2019, the SDF had been requesting millions of dollars from the US to properly secure the prison. While there had been security upgrades during the three years that it was being used to house ISIS militants, it was not enough; there had been at least five documented attempted breakouts or riots at the prison in three years.
Funding for the prison and assistance (such as training the SDF) came from the US and some of its partners. But the amount of US funding decreased over several years, mostly due to domestic political factors such as President Donald Trump’s eagerness to get American forces out of Syria.
The US placed a $4 million limit on its infrastructure spending in Syria, so eventually the UK gave $20 million to fund a new, secure prison. It had been scheduled to open at the end of September 2021, but this was delayed. By the time of the jailbreak, it hadn’t officially opened.
In December 2022, ISIS carried out another attack on a military prison in Raqqa, attempting to free its militants. Just a month earlier, the US announced it is planning to build another prison to house ISIS detainees in Rumaylan, just 150 km west of al Sina’a.
But with persistently weak infrastructure, a lack of consistent funding and no political solutions, the events of the 20th of January could still repeat themselves.
Read more on the investigation here.
All graphics designed and created by Airwars.
For Airwars: Imogen Piper, Azul de Monte
For VICE World News: Gavin Butler, Roberto Daza, Andy Hayward, Maya Rostowska
For VICE Studio: lee misenheimer, Rob thomas