WASHINGTON, May 9, 2015 – The latest jail-break by ISIS suggests that the group is mobilizing for a new offensive. The escape also may indicate that the group is desperate for positive publicity and for recruits.
Iraq’s Ministry of Interior spokesman reported that more than 40 prisoners escaped from a facility in Al-Khalis, north of Baghdad, on Friday.
Iraqi officials told CNN that the prisoners were able to escape after one of the inmates took a weapon from a guard. Brigadier General Saad Maan said the prisoners then clashed with guards before the escape.
However, a few hours after the escape, ISIS posted on Twitter and on several jihadist web sites, saying it had orchestrated the attack. According to those posts, ISIS militants blew up several vehicles outside the prison while members who were prisoners took control of a weapons storage room.
Several individuals died during the escape, including five guards and 30 prisoners, according to Maan.
Iraqi authorities confirmed that several bombs also exploded around Baghdad on Friday. Two bombs in the town of Baladrouz killed 11 people, while four bombs exploded in downtown Baghdad.
Officials said the violence continued on Saturday, when a car bomb killed 26 people in Baghdad’s Karrada district. The explosion appeared to target Shiite Muslims preparing for the annual pilgrimage to commemorate the death of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim.
Islamist militants often stage prison breaks to free members. In 2013, the predecessor to ISIS, Al Qaeda in Iraq, released 500 prisoners from Abu Ghraib prison. In that attack, militants used suicide bombers and mortars to free Al Qaeda prisoners.
In 2012, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of what is now ISIS, started the “Breaking the Walls” campaign. The campaign made freeing members of the group who were in prison a top priority.
The ability of ISIS to continue to free prisoners raises questions about the ability of Iraq to maintain security. Iraq’s military has already come under criticism for failing to fight the initial wave of ISIS, and continued prison breaks will again bring scrutiny to the Iraqi forces. In previous prison breaks, ISIS and Al-Qaeda have alleged collaboration between prison guards and militants.
The release may suggest that ISIS is preparing for a renewed offensive. After the Abu Ghrab break, Al-Qaeda gained new momentum and placed the freed prisoners in charge of new, large-scale attacks.
Although the identities of the prisoners has not yet been released, the decision of ISIS to target this particular prison suggests that high profile members were housed in the facility. These individuals will almost certainly return to fight with ISIS, particularly since they likely owe their freedom to the group.
The prison breaks are also significant morale boosters for ISIS and Al-Qaeda and are effective recruitment tools. With ISIS losing ground over the last several months, the prison breaks are likely aimed at regaining momentum and providing positive public relations fodder for would-be recruits.
Even if ISIS did not coordinate and control the attack, it will trumpet the success on social media, bringing it more attention and giving it effective rhetoric for recruiting efforts.