Abstract: Assaulting prisons and inciting prison riots are cornerstones of jihadi operational strategy. Jihadi groups target prisons as sites for attacks to free operatives and leaders from detention, and to create propaganda wins against their adversaries. While jihadi attacks on prisons and prison riots have been frequently employed by the jihadi movement, during the past few years, a new string of these incidents have affected prison systems in the Sahel, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. In each case, severe deficits in basic prison security mechanisms provided opportunities for jihadis to exploit, allowing them to launch successful attacks on prison facilities and orchestrate prison riots that escalated into mass violence.
Many counterterrorism analysts and practitioners view jihadi-inspired attacks targeting prisons as both short-term and longer-term security risks.1 In many countries’ prison systems, the numbers of individuals incarcerated for supporting the Islamic State and other jihadi groups has risen to a historically unprecedented level during the past few years.2 With the cessation of territorial control of the Islamic State inside Iraq and Syria, many of its onetime combatants are currently detained in prisons and camps throughout the Levant. The most infamous facility is the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-administered al-Hol camp, which currently houses over 60,000 people, of which approximately 9,000 are foreign (non-Syrian and non-Iraqi) citizens.3 a Since the fall of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate, the group frequently incites its supporters in the region to free its affiliates who are held in facilities in Syria and Iraq.4 A report submitted by U.N. monitors in December 2019 to the United Nations Security Council noted that the Islamic State was “calling and planning for the breakout of ISIL fighters in detention facilities” and noted the “precariousness of the holding arrangements of local authorities and non-State armed groups for displaced persons and detainees.”5
The Islamic State and other jihadi groups have also incited attacks and riots outside of the Levant. With the large number of detained jihadis worldwide, the fear is that the groups to which they belong may either target prisons for attacks with the aim of releasing them or the incarcerated jihadis will spark riots and assault staff. During the past three years, several notable examples of both types of attacks occurred in several prison systems around the globe. In many instances, mostly within prisons in Western Europe and North America, a single inmate or small group of jihadi inmates carried out small-scale attacks against correctional staff or other inmates.6 These incidents largely did not escalate into mass violence, and the perpetrators are usually detained swiftly before casualties mounted. In contrast, a number of assaults by jihadi groups and in-prison riots involving large groups of perpetrators mobilized by detained jihadis took place, mostly in prison systems outside the West.b These incidents escalated into mass violence between the attackers and correctional staff, law enforcement, or military special response teams.
This article focuses mainly on the second type of jihadi prison attacks and riots, which resulted in either substantial casualty figures or mass escapes. To understand this phenomenon and assess its threat, this article reviews both jihadi attacks on prison facilities and mass riots sparked by Islamic State-affiliated prisoners during the past few years, with the hopes of situating these incidents within the recent history of prison attacks. The authors’ findings are twofold. First, drawing on previous literature, historical attacks, and the current reemergence of jihadi groups’ attempts to target prison systems, the authors find that three considerations drive jihadi prison assaults and riots. In planning these types of attacks, jihadis are interested in restoring their force size, releasing incarcerated jihadi leaders or specialists, and/or creating a propaganda win.
Second, prison assaults and riots are opportunistic. Jihadis exploit profound weaknesses in prison system management, resources, intelligence, and wherewithal in order to conduct attacks. The authors analyze a string of highly successful raids on prisons by Sahelian jihadi groups during the past five years, as well as prison riots in Indonesia and Tajikistan perpetrated by Islamic State supporters. Specifically, several of the prison facilities examined in the article faced one or more of these problems: severe overcrowding, a lack of basic security infrastructure and effective management regimes for terrorist offenders, and/or recent facility conversion into prison wings for terrorist offenders. In the Sahel, Indonesia, and Tajikistan, jihadi perpetrators took advantage of these opportunities, and disturbances were able to escalate into successful attacks and riots.
After an explanation of the recent historical incidences of prison assaults and riots perpetrated by jihadi groups, this article places recent cases in the Sahel, Indonesia, and Tajikistan in the broader strategy and history of these types of attacks. In examining these cases, the assessments demonstrate that jihadi groups were able to exploit a lack of basic security infrastructure within the prison systems that they targeted. The last part of this article looks at possible future trends. Due to the continued strategic importance of prison assaults and riots, the increasing number of jihadi detainees worldwide, and permissive environments in prison systems, jihadi groups are likely to continue their campaigns of targeting prisons and jails.
The Recent History and Strategy of Prison Assaults and Riots
To answer the question of the strategy behind why a jihadi group might execute or even prioritize attacks on or inside prisons, the authors postulate three possible scenarios: 1) force regeneration; 2) freeing high-value individuals; and 3) propaganda value. The first possible scenario, force regeneration, is perhaps the most prominent. Following sustained military operations against it, the jihadi group may stand to regenerate some of its lost manpower by conducting assaults on prisons. As Trevor Cloen, Yelena Biberman, and Farhan Zahid found, these types of assaults in places with weak central authorities have been “low cost, high reward” operations for these groups.7
This logic is exemplified by the Islamic State of Iraq’s “Breaking the Walls” campaign from 2012-2013, which as Aki Peritz described “enabled the Caliphate’s rise” by freeing hundreds of fighters from prisons across Iraq.8 As part of this campaign, the Islamic State of Iraq targeted prisons in Kirkuk, Tikrit, Taji, Abu Ghraib, and other facilities, resulting in “at least eight separate jailbreaks in Iraq that freed hundreds of senior- and mid-level ISIS militants.”9 By the end of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign, the Islamic State of Iraq had restored its ranks with hundreds of previously detained, skilled operatives, setting the stage for its resurgence and the transition into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Due to its success and strategic importance, the Islamic State’s jailbreak strategy can now be considered part of the group’s organizational fabric.10 As Craig Whiteside, Ian Rice, and Daniele Raineri astutely argued in 2019, “prisons, and the valuable human capital they contain, will be the key to any future resurgence of the group.”11
However, this dynamic is not exclusive to Iraq or the Islamic State. The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (or the Pakistani Taliban, TTP) conducted at least two large-scale prison assaults in 2012-2013, which also freed hundreds of fellow jihadis from Pakistani prisons.12 Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Taliban prison breaks in 2008,13 2011,14 and 201515 freed almost 2,000 fighters combined. In each case, these operations have undoubtedly impacted these groups’ longevity and overall operational capacity.
Looking at the authors’ second scenario, the freeing of high-value individuals, this also stands to have severe long-term consequences for jihadi groups. For instance, in 2006, Nasir al-Wuhayshi and 22 other al-Qa`ida members escaped from a prison in Sana’a, Yemen.16 These individuals would provide the nexus of the first generation of leadership for what would become al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).17 While al-Wuhayshi would become AQAP’s first emir, he would also eventually, before his death, become the “general manager” of al-Qa`ida’s overall global network.18 Al-Wuhayshi’s successor as the second AQAP emir, Qasim al-Raymi, another jihadi veteran, also escaped from the Sana’a prison alongside al-Wuhayshi.19
More recently, in 2014, AQAP launched a massive operation against Sana’a’s central prison.20 Utilizing suicide bombers and an assault team, the group was able to free at least 29 fellow jihadis, including several key operatives.21 A year later, AQAP launched an assault on Mukallah’s central prison, which freed over 300 jihadis including Khalid Batarfi.22 Batarfi, an important AQAP commander prior to his arrest in 2011, resumed his role as a senior AQAP leader upon being freed.23 Following the January 2020 death of Qasim al-Raymi,24 Batarfi was selected as the new AQAP emir.25 And much like al-Wuhayshi, FDD’s Long War Journal has assessed that Batarfi likely plays a key role in al-Qa`ida’s global leadership.26 Batarfi’s appointment also means that all three emirs of AQAP have been prison escapees.
Lastly, the authors posit that the propaganda value of prison breaks or assaults on/in prisons is twofold. First, the individual groups can message to its supporters or allies that it does not forget its imprisoned members, akin to the “leave no man behind” mantra. Secondly, these operations can send a powerful message to the outside world about the lack of state capacity and the exploitation thereof.
Though virtue signaling about freeing prisoners to a group’s supporters or allies is a common theme in jihadi propaganda, it is a core part of their strategy.27 For instance, in his final message as the leader of the Islamic State in September 2019, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi told his followers to “do your utmost to rescue your brothers and sisters and break down the walls that imprison them.”28 This notion was repeated by Abu Hamza al-Quraishi, the Islamic State’s current spokesman, when he announced the deaths of both al-Baghdadi and former spokesman Abul Hassan al-Muhajir. In that message, al-Quraishi repeated al-Baghdadi’s appeal to “set free the captive Muslims from their prisons [and] remove unjust from the oppressed.”29 A January 2020 report to the United Nations Security Council notes that due to the continuity in the Islamic State’s messaging about freeing detained fighters before and after al-Baghdadi’s death, “the plight of ISIL detainees and refugees” will continue to be “the worst and most important matter” for the group.30
In Pakistan, the TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) even formed an entire unit dedicated to freeing jihadi prisoners in 2013.31 That unit, Ansar al Aseer (Helpers of the Prisoners), was likely responsible for at least one prison assault in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which freed at least 200 inmates.32 In its inaugural video in January 2013, a Russian-speaking member of IMU’s contingent to the unit noted that “our beloved brothers and sisters have had to live in captivity, when they spit, they spit blood.”33 Making a call to action to the entire Muslim world, he also added, “yet this 1.5 billion-strong Ummah [worldwide Islamic community] is doing nothing about it.”c
On social media, jihadis have established at least two recent campaigns on the online messaging platform Telegram dedicated to the issue of jihadi prisoners.d The Islamic State-oriented Kafel34 and the pro-al-Qa`ida Fukku al Asirat (Free the Female Prisoners)35 channels have posted in support of jihadi prisoners held in makeshift camps and prisons in northern Syria. In addition to propaganda regarding the freeing of jihadi prisoners, Kafel has even posted photos of Islamic State-loyal women inside these camps—often depicting the women pleading for outside help.36 Fukku al Asirat, on the other hand, has allegedly helped with the smuggling of female jihadi prisoners out of these camps.37
The need to free well-known prisoners is also a staple of jihadi propaganda. For example, al-Qa`ida propaganda routinely discusses the freeing of Aafia Siddiqui, colloquially known as “Lady al-Qa’ida,” from her cell in a Texas prison.38 Prior to her arrest in 2008, Siddiqui was alleged by U.S. officials to have been involved in the plotting of several attacks inside the United States.e Since then, she has become a common talking point of al-Qa`ida and its various branches around the world. In 2015, her plight became the subject of a high-profile terrorism case in the United States. A year earlier, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, a U.S. citizen, traveled to Syria to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra, then al-Qa`ida’s branch in Syria.39
According to the court documents, Mohamud was instructed by al-Nusra to return to the United States to conduct an attack.40 As a result, Mohamud plotted to target the Federal Medical Center, Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, where Siddiqui is held, before his arrest.41 During Mohamud’s sentencing, the presiding judge stated that Mohamud’s goal was to free Siddiqui from the prison.42
Another common jihadi cause was that of freeing Omar Abdel Rahman, or “The Blind Sheikh.” Prior to his death in a North Carolina prison,f Abdel-Rahman was a common propaganda point for various al-Qa`ida branches and affiliates around the world. For instance, “The Blind Sheikh” was mentioned in Usama bin Ladin’s original declaration of war against the United States in 1996.43 In 2013 during the In Amenas, Algeria, hostage crisis, veteran jihadi Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who led the attack, demanded Abdel-Rahman’s release.44 g Three years later, Hamza bin Ladin would go on to include Abdel Rahman’s plight in a 2016 speech.45 Even after his death, the “Blind Sheikh” continues to be a staple of al-Qa`ida propaganda.46
Several terrorist attacks have also been launched in the pursuit of freeing the “Blind Sheikh.” For instance, the November 1997 Luxor massacre, which was perpetrated by Abdel Rahman’s group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah, was reportedly conducted in order to free the Sheikh.47 Pamphlets found at the scene also noted the group referred to itself as “Omar Abdel Rahman’s Squadron of Death of Destruction.”48 And the September 2012 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, was also reportedly partly inspired by the plight of the Sheikh.49 Several protestors were also filmed outside the embassy before the attack calling for the release of Abdel Rahman.50
Showcasing weak state capacity or control over prisons can also be an effective tool for propaganda.51 In Sudan, this can clearly be seen when four members of the al-Qa`ida-linked Ansar al Tawhid managed to escape from the Kober prison in Khartoum in 2010.52 h Almost two years later, an al-Qa`ida-linked media organization released a video of the escape.53 The video demonstrates the intricate planning of the prison break, as well as the massive tunnel the jihadis were able to construct leading out of the prison.54 In releasing the video, the jihadis were able to effectively highlight exploitable structural flaws even within the police state of dictator Omar al-Bashir.
In current discussions about attacks on prisons or prison breaks, the majority of the focus is on the makeshift prisons in northern Syria currently holding thousands of Islamic State militants.55 Female detainees have been reported as “imposing their own caliphate” in the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria through a series of attacks on other prisoners and facility staff.56 Several women were also responsible for an attack on Kurdish security guards within the camp last October.57 That same month, hundreds of Islamic State members were able to break out of Kurdish-held prisons in northern Syria following the Turkish incursion into the region.58 A mass Islamic State jailbreak attempt also occurred in northern Syria’s Al Malikiya (also known as Derik in Kurdish) in April 2019.59
However, as the following section demonstrates, jihadi efforts to assault prisons is not limited to Syria. The bulk of the attacks on prison facilities by jihadi groups in the past few years has instead occurred in countries of the Sahel, where the ongoing destabilization of the overall security environment and immense structural weaknesses in prisons housing large numbers of jihadi operatives60 led to significant opportunities for jihadi attacks. These attacks have the potential to further strengthen the array of jihadi groups operating in the region, as with many of these assaults, jihadi groups successfully freed dozens of skilled operatives.
Jihadis Assaults on Prisons: ‘Breaking the Walls’ in the Sahel
In the Sahel, both al-Qa`ida and Islamic State-loyal groups have routinely launched attacks on prisons in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger over the last few years. In 2013, gunmen believed to be members of the al-Qa`ida-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)i launched a coordinated assault on the Niamey, Niger, prison. That attack began when a Sudanese MUJAO member detained at the prison stole a gun and opened fire on security guards. Meanwhile, MUJAO fighters positioned outside the facility launched their own assault, freeing at least 22 jihadi prisoners.61 In October 2016, Nigerien security forces were able to repel an Islamic State attack on the Koutoukalé prison outside of Niamey.62
A month later, one of al-Qa`ida’s Malian affiliates, Ansar Dine, took responsibility for a prison assault in the central Malian town of Banamba.63 Following this attack, a statement from the group was published in AQAP’s Al Masra newspaper threatening more prison assaults to “liberate all prisoners in Mali.”64 Ansar Dine made significant progress on this threat in December 2016 when its men freed 93 fellow jihadis from another prison in central Mali.65
Tracking with the rapid deterioration in security in the Sahel over the last three years,66 these types of operations have grown in frequency. In many respects, the Sahel is also currently witnessing its own version of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign seen in Iraq. While jihadi attacks on prisons in the Sahel have occurred in the past, the region is currently witnessing a relative spike in this phenomenon.67 j
For example, in October 2018, jihadis targeted a Burkinabe gendarmerie-run prison near the town of Djibo close to the borders with Mali.68 A few months later, in May 2019, Islamic State gunmen targeted the Koutoukalé prison outside of Niamey, Niger.69 While Nigerien authorities have claimed that the attack was quickly repelled,70 an Islamic State video detailing the assault paints a different picture. The video, which was released in January 2020, shows the jihadis clearly breaching the prison’s perimeter.71 Nigerien officials later stated that one soldier was indeed killed during the prison assault.72
In November 2019, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), al-Qa`ida’s branch in the Sahel,k claimed an attack on the Diré prison south of Timbuktu, Mali.73 In keeping in line with jihadi messaging on these operations, JNIM warned of further prison breaks by stating that “we renew our promise with our imprisoned brothers and we say to them that we have not forgotten you and we will not forget you.”74
On December 31, 2019, another Burkinabe gendarmerie-run prison near the town of Djibo was targeted by jihadis.75 According to local officials, the jihadi gunmen were able to free “several” inmates from the prison.76 Two days later, a Malian prison in Niono was also attacked by gunmen from JNIM, though Malian officials have claimed the assault was repelled.77
JNIM’s operations against prisons have been featured in al-Qa`ida propaganda. On January 18, 2020, al-Qa`ida’s General Command (AQGC) released a statement praising JNIM’s activities in the Sahel.78 In the statement, the leadership commended the jihadi group for its “success in liberating the prisoners from the prisons of the oppressors.”79 AQGC added, “your jihad is a glad tiding for the Islamic Maghreb and the entire Ummah.”80
Worsening jihadi violence coupled with the lack of strong state capacity in the Sahelian states does not bode well for the future of the region. As regional and international states struggle to contain the spread and scale of the violence, it is likely that this growing trend of prison assaults in the region will continue. Already, states are struggling to contain the spread of a surging Islamic State branch in the region.81 l In just over one month, for instance, Niger has lost at least 174 soldiers to the jihadi group in just three separate attacks in late December 2019 to January 2020.82 It is unlikely that state security in Niger, Burkina Faso, or Mali will be able to stave off any coordinated jihadi strategy around assaults on prisons.
The aforementioned Islamic State video of its assault on the Koutoukalé prison outside of Niamey, Niger, highlights this problem well. That facility, like many others in the Sahel, was shown to be both poorly equipped and defended and prone to attacks.m While Nigerien security might have been successful in fending off that particular raid, without proper defenses, funding, and equipment, it is unclear how well those security forces can continue to adequately defend the prison from further jihadi assaults. That said, it is worth noting that with the rampant corruption in the Sahelian states, it is possible that even with these things, jihadis could exploit the systemic corruption to still conduct successful attacks on prisons.83 Given the lack of state capacity throughout the region, this scenario plays out in many other prisons and makeshift detention facilities in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. And much like other regions in which jihadis are actively engaged in combat with state authorities, operations against prisons will only serve to further prolong and exacerbate the conflict.
Jihadi Prison Riots: Indonesia and Tajikistan
In addition to externally coordinated attacks on prisons, incarcerated supporters of jihadi groups have also launched prison riots. In some cases, it is easier for jihadi groups to instigate prison riots from outside the prison walls than conducting external attacks. Additionally, in the wake of jihadi prison riots that do not involve external planning, organizations can claim responsibility for the attacks through media releases.
Jihadi prison riots seem to follow some of the objectives of externally coordinated attacks: jihadis attempt to free prisoners, disturb the institutional security of the correctional facility, and create propaganda victories for jihadi groups. Yet, incarcerated jihadis may also spark riots to wound or kill other inmates over ideological or other disputes, or simply to heighten the state of chaos within a prison and lessen the perception that the correctional staff control an institution.
In the United States and Western Europe, several notable attacks on correctional staff by individual jihadis occurred during the past few years. The most recent example is the January 2019 attack on prison guards by two jihadi prisoners at HMP Whitemoor in the United Kingdom. On the morning of January 9, 2019, two inmates at the high-security prison staged an attack on correctional staff using makeshift knives and imitation suicide belts.84 Fortunately, prison staff quickly detained the two perpetrators of the attack, but five prison guards suffered injuries.85 Due to the circumstances of the assault, the Metropolitan Police Service’s Counter Terrorism Command treated the incident as a terrorist attack.86 One of the reported perpetrators, Brusthom Ziamani, was serving a 22-year sentence for preparing a jihadi-inspired assault on a U.K. military base.87 As Robin Simcox notes, the United States and France have also experienced these types of attacks in their prison systems in increasing frequency.88
While these examples represent significant threats to security within Western prisons, they did not escalate into full-blown riots. In comparison, the jihadi prison riots described below caught momentum, involved larger groupings of prisoners, and eventually metastasized into mass violence in prisons, resulting in dozens of casualties. Since 2018, three notable jihadi prison riots claimed by the Islamic State—in Indonesia and Tajikistan, respectively—resulted in institutional breakdowns and mass casualties.
Indonesia: Mako Brimob Riot
During the past three years, one incident that exemplified the continued relevance of jihadi prison riots was an uprising launched by supporters of the Islamic State at the Indonesian National Police’s Mobile Brigade Corps’ (Mako Brimob) detention unit in the West Javan town of Depok.89 On May 8, 2018, over 150 prisoners in a section of the detention center holding terrorist offenders broke out of their holding cells, overpowered prison guards, and seized dozens of weapons.90 The situation quickly devolved into a hostage crisis, as the inmates held six prison guards hostage for nearly 24 hours.91 During the hostage crisis, official Islamic State propaganda channels began circulating footage and photos, apparently taken from within the prison, of the hostage-takers with the Islamic State’s black flags and weapons.92 On the first full day of the hostage crisis, the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency claimed that the perpetrators of the riot were Islamic State fighters.93 Several rounds of communications between the hostage-takers and the Indonesian police failed to resolve the situation, and by the time that the police declared the negotiations to be a failure, the perpetrators had already killed five of the six hostages.94 On May 9, 2018, Indonesia’s counterterrorism unit Densus 88 stormed the prison and shut down the riot using tear gas; in total, five prison guards and one inmate died during the raid.95
Tajikistan: Khujand and Vakhdat Riots
Indonesia’s prison system was not the only one to face mass rioting by jihadi prisoners in recent years. Late on November 7, 2018, a riot erupted in High Security Prison 3/3 in Khujand, Tajikistan, started by several inmates affiliated with the Islamic State.96 The riots reportedly began when an inmate attacked a guard and seized control of his rifle, turning it on other guards and freeing other prisoners to join the riot.97 In the aftermath, estimates of the numbers of rioters and the casualty figures varied widely between media and official accounts. The government of Tajikistan claims that the perpetrators included 12 individuals who previously fought in Syria for the Islamic State and returned to Tajikistan, alongside several members of other extremist groups.98 Officials reported 25 casualties as a result of the November 2018 Khujand riot; independent media claims that as many as 50 people died.99 A day after the attack, Amaq News Agency claimed responsibility for the riot on behalf of the Islamic State.100
On May 19, 2019, another prison riot broke out in Tajikistan involving Islamic State affiliates, this time at the maximum-security Kirpichniy prison in Vakhdat.101 Tajik authorities claim that the riot began when four prisoners, incarcerated on charges of supporting the Islamic State, used homemade knives to stab three prison guards to death.102 The Islamic State-affiliated perpetrators in Vakhdat were reportedly led by 20-year-old Behruz Gulmurod, the son of former Tajik police colonel and Islamic State minister of war Gulmurod Halimov.103 n In 2017, Behruz Gulmurod had been arrested in Tajikistan after planning to travel to Iraq to join his father.104 Following the attack on the prison guards, these inmates allegedly freed two dozen other prisoners tied to other Islamist groups banned in Tajikistan.o In tandem, the individuals involved in the riot attacked guards and other prisoners and burned down a prison medical facility before Tajik special police (OMON) intervened.105 A list published by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan reports 29 prisoner casualties in addition to three guards slain during the attack.106 The Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed that the initial group of four rioters were responsible for five of the deaths—three guards and two prisoners—while 25 other inmates died during the effort to “neutralize” the inmates involved in the riot.107
The Future of Jihadi Prison Assaults and Riots
Attacks on prisons and prison riots can be considered an essential objective of the strategic and operational planning for global jihadi groups. The 2019 addresses by former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and current spokesperson Abu Hamza al-Quraishi underscore the critical relevance of this type of tactic for jihadi groups moving forward.108 A successful raid or mass prison break by jihadi operatives is rife with advantages for the organizations that they represent. As both historical and more recent incidents prove, given certain conditions a strike team of jihadis can free large numbers of operatives in a matter of hours. In certain cases, incarcerated jihadis possess significant prior experience in jihadi groups, including essential training and skills. As opposed to attempts to free jihadi prisoners, training non-incarcerated supporters to reach the same status and skill-level may take years. Moreover, raids to free prisoners and prison breaks are imbued with historical and ideological significance for the jihadi movement. By using successful assaults and riots in propaganda releases, jihadis signal to their followers that their adversaries’ attempts to subdue the movement through arrests and prosecution is a band-aid solution, while simultaneously challenging the authority and governance of the states that oppose them.
Jihadi groups’ continual targeting of prisons and jails entails significant implications for improving the resilience of prison systems across the world against terrorist attacks. Recent cases from the Sahel, Indonesia and Tajikistan demonstrate that prison systems in which jihadi external assaults and riots bore the most success for the perpetrators had basic security deficits. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that “the credibility of any prison system rests on its ability to keep prisoners in custody safely and securely—in other words, to prevent violence or harm within the prison setting and to prevent escapes.”109
In the incidents discussed above, jihadi groups exploited gaps in security infrastructure within prisons, leading to the success of assaults on prisons or the escalation of riots. Infrastructure and capacity deficits are particularly prominent in the Sahel, where the average national prison overcrowding rate is over 230 percent of capacity—among the highest in the world.110 A fact-finding mission by the United Nations found that “in the Sahel region, high overcrowding rates, poor infrastructure and precarious detention conditions increase the likelihood of violence and related security incidents in prison settings.”111 The threats posed by overcrowding and lack of infrastructure were found to be “further aggravated by the increasing presence of high risk detainees suspected of being extremist terrorists in penitentiary institutions throughout the region.”112 These same factors are present, albeit to a lesser extent, in Indonesia and Tajikistan.113 In these instances, it is worth noting that all three prison riots examined in detail in this article involved prisons (Mako Brimob in Indonesia; Khujand and Vakhdat in Tajikistan), which were converted from prison camps or detention units into high- or maximum-security prisons for extremist offenders. However, prison authorities did not develop the infrastructure that typifies high-security facilities, such as individual cells, sufficient staff power, or security controls.p The ‘maximum-security’ component of all three prisons consisted of only a few armed guards and designated wings for extremist offenders.114 In the Mako Brimob facility, as many as 10 inmates shared individual cells within a 156-person prison block, while both of the Tajik prison units were large barracks that fit 200 inmates in a single hall with several rows of bunk beds.115
One or more of the following factors—overcrowding, ill-equipped facilities, and co-location of extremist inmates—were precursors to several of the security breaches discussed in this article. Co-location is one management approach to violent extremist prisoners, wherein terrorist offenders are separated from other inmates and placed into a single prison or unit within a prison.116 Its benefits are preventing inmates with terrorist affiliations from radicalizing or recruiting others, and when effectively implemented, can isolate security risks posed by terrorist offenders and prevent them from spilling over into the rest of the prison. However, in systems where basic capacities are missing, co-location may pose additional risks.117 Overcrowded “extremist prisons” or “extremist prison wings” without adequate security infrastructure potentially allows inmates with affiliations to terrorist groups to easily communicate, form groupings, develop critical mass to overpower prison staff, and spark riots.118 It could also assist terrorist groups seeking to assault prisons in limiting their targets to particular prisons or particular wings, if they know a large quantity of their operatives are being held there.
Developing prison system resilience is important because jihadi groups are likely to attempt additional attacks and spark riots in the near-term. A significant number of jihadis are currently incarcerated across the globe, and many prison systems are structurally unprepared to deal with large numbers of extremists held in their facilities. The Islamic State and various al-Qa`ida affiliates are encouraging and directing operatives to assault prisons and praising the perpetrators of prison riots. If history is a guide, supporters of jihadi groups typically respond to leadership focus on prison systems by perpetrating attacks and riots, most clearly exemplified by the “Breaking the Walls” campaign in Iraq during the early 2010s. With these new calls to action, continued jihadi attacks on prisons and riots by incarcerated jihadis is a very likely possibility. CTC
Bennett Clifford is a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. Follow @_bCliff
Caleb Weiss is a research analyst and contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal, where he focuses on political violence and jihadism in the Middle East and Africa, and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. Follow @Weissenberg7
[a] Recent estimates of the total population and the number of Islamic State fighters held in northeastern Syria vary. In December 2019, one United Nations member state reported that in the al-Hol camp alone, the total population exceeded 100,000 people, 10,000 of whom were male Islamic State fighters. The number of foreign (non-Syrian and non-Iraqi) Islamic State fighters in the camp was reported by this member state to be approximately 2,000. Outside of al-Hol, the SDF has been reported to hold thousands more in various other detention facilities. For example, as of January 2020, the SDF was reportedly holding 4,000 Islamic State prisoners in northeastern Syria. If the numbers of 2,000 in al-Hol are accurate, then it is likely the other 2,000 reported prisoners are outside of al-Hol. See “Twenty-fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations, December 27, 2019, and Jeff Seldin, “In Syria, Captured Islamic State Fighters, Followers Going Home,” Voice of America, January 23, 2020.
[b] For example, this article analyzes a May 2018 jihadi prison riot in Indonesia and two jihadi prison riots in Tajikistan, in November 2018 and May 2019, respectively.
[c] Interestingly, that Russian-speaking jihadi, Abdul Hakim al-Tatari, would defect to the Islamic State with most of the IMU in early 2015. He would then join the Islamic State’s Wilayat Khorasan before migrating to Iraq. He was killed in action near Baiji, Iraq, in late 2015 and later eulogized by the Islamic State. See Caleb Weiss, “Islamic State eulogizes former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan figure killed in Iraq,” FDD’s Long War Journal, November 8, 2017.
[d] In late November 2019, Telegram undertook a massive purge of Islamic State-affiliated accounts on its platform. While not all were taken down, as the authors still maintain access to several Islamic State channels that were not removed, and some accounts remain active today unscathed, Kafel was among those channels taken down by the platform. For more on the purge, see Max Bernhard, “Telegram App Tackles Islamic State Online Propaganda,” Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2019.
[e] Siddiqui was convicted on two charges of attempted murder, armed assault, using and carrying a firearm, and assault of U.S. officers and employees. Following her arrest in Afghanistan in 2008, she reportedly opened fire on a group of U.S. personnel who were interrogating her after grabbing one of the soldiers’ weapons. See Ed Pilkington, “Pakistani scientist found guilty of attempted murder of US agents,” Guardian, February 3, 2010.
[f] Abdel Rahman died in 2017 in the North Carolina-based Federal Medical Center, Butner, where he was serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. See Julia Preston, “Omar Abdel Rahman, Blind Cleric Found Guilty of Plot to Wage ‘War of Urban Terrorism,’ Dies at 78,” New York Times, February 18, 2017.
[g] The group responsible for the In Amenas attack, Al-Moulathimin, would go on to form one of the backbones of al Qa`ida’s branch in the Sahel.
[h] After the prison break, one individual, Abdul Raouf Abu Zeid Muhammad Hamza, was recaptured shortly thereafter. Two other individuals, Mohammad Makkawi and Mohannad Osman Youssef, went to Somalia and joined al-Qa`ida’s affiliate al-Shabaab. Youssef was killed in Somalia sometime before the release of the video, while Makkawi became a commander within the group. He would later defect to the Islamic State before being assassinated by al-Shabaab gunmen in December 2015. The whereabouts or condition of the fourth individual, Abdel-Basit Haj al-Hassan, is currently unknown, although the U.S. government believes he is also in Somalia. See “Sudanese jihadist media front releases video detailing prison escape of convicted militants,” FDD’s Long War Journal, December 30, 2012, and “Abdelbasit Alhaj Alhassan Haj Hamad,” Rewards for Justice.
[i] Formed in 2011 as an offshoot of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), MUJAO ceased to exist after it merged with another AQIM splinter, al-Moulathimin, to form al-Murabitoon, an al-Qa’ida loyal entity, in August 2013. See Bill Roggio, “Al Qaeda group led by Belmokhtar, MUJAO unite to form al-Murabitoon,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 22, 2013.
[j] For instance, since November 2019, there have been three major successful or attempted jihadi assaults on prisons in Mali and Burkina Faso with two occurring in the December 2019-January 2020 timeframe. The only similar rate at which this occurred was between October to December 2016 in which there were three other major successful or attempted jihadi assaults on prisons in Mali and Niger.
[k] Formed in March 2017, JNIM includes several former al-Qa`ida affiliates in the region, including Ansar Dine, Katibat Macina, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) Sahara Emirate, and Al-Murabitoon. It is led by former Ansar Dine emir Iyad Ag Ghaly and has sworn allegiance to Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of AQIM; Ayman al-Zawahiri; and Hibatullah Akhundzada, the emir of the Afghan Taliban. See Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: Al Qaeda groups reorganize in West Africa,” FDD’s Long War Journal, March 13, 2017.
[l] Formed in 2015 and colloquially known as the “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS),” the group has operated under the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) moniker since early 2019. However, the leadership hierarchy between Islamic State commanders in Nigeria, where ISWAP is headquartered, and ISGS commanders in the Sahel is currently unknown. The United Nations has found that though ISGS and ISWAP “have joint facilitators,” ISGS is currently “operationally independent” from ISWAP. “Twenty-fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 11.
[m] The prison facility, as shown in the Islamic State video, lacked proper defensive fortifications and was poorly staffed. The video also detailed how the jihadi gunmen were able to easily breach the perimeter of the prison, further highlighting its structural flaws. This is not unlike other prisons or makeshift detention centers in the Sahel. For an example of a poorly defended gendarmerie station in the Sahel, which often house jihadi detainees in makeshift prisons, see Menastream, “#Niger: On October 21, 2017, #ISGS militants attacked the gendarmerie in Ayorou, #Tillabery Region …” Twitter, March 31, 2018.
[n] The other perpetrators of the riot in Vakhdat (Fathiddin Gulov, Mahmadullo Sharipov, and Ruhullo Hasanov) were listed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs as Islamic State supporters, although their roles and activities on behalf of the group are unknown. “[List: Convicted persons who were neutralized or died as a result of the riot at High Security Prison 3/2 on May 19th and 20th, 2019],” Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan, May 20, 2019.
[o] According to the list of prisoner casualties during the Vakhdat riot published by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan, casualties included inmates affiliated with the Islamic State; Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the banned salafi group “Ansarulloh;” and the former Islamist opposition party Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Among the dead were senior IRPT members Sattor Karimov (Makhsumi Sattor), Qiyomiddin Ghozi, and Jomahmad Boev, regarded by external watchdog groups as political prisoners. Tajik religious figure Saidmakhdikhon Sattorov (also known as Sheikh Temur), convicted of fraud and leading a cult after he declared himself to be the Mahdi in 2012, was also killed during the riot. Accounts vary as to whether the Islamic State-linked perpetrators of the riot or the prison guards that responded to it were responsible for the deaths of the non-Islamic State inmates killed at the Kirpichniy prison. “[List: Convicted persons who were neutralized or died as a result of the riot at High Security Prison 3/2 on May 19th and 20th, 2019];” “Tajik Opposition Party Accuses Authorities Of Concealing Truth About Deadly Prison Riot,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 21, 2019; “[Prison riot: 32 killed, 35 detained. Among the casualties—“Sheikh Temur,” Makhsumi Sattor and Qiyomiddin Ghozi],” Radioi Ozodi, May 21, 2019.
[p] Security controls for prisons include, but are not limited to, centralized locking mechanisms for jail cells, surveillance equipment, alarm systems, detection equipment (metal detectors, x-ray machines, etc.) physical security instruments and aids (e.g., handcuffs, shackles, and/or fetters), and physical infrastructure (walls, fences, watchtowers, etc.). “Handbook on Dynamic Security and Prison Intelligence,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2015.
 Lorenzo Vidino and Bennett Clifford, “A Review of Transatlantic Best Practices for Countering Radicalisation in Prisons and Terrorist Recidivism,” Europol, July 12, 2019; “Handbook on the Management of Violent Extremist Prisoners and the Prevention of Radicalization to Violence in Prisons,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, October 2016; “EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2019,” Europol, June 27, 2019.
 “North East Syria: Al-Hol Camp,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, January 13, 2020; Louisa Loveluck and Souad Mekhennet, “At a sprawling tent camp in Syria, ISIS women impose a brutal rule,” Washington Post, September 3, 2019.
 Ibid., pp. 3, 5.
 See Ibid.; Ellen Ioanes, “Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from Syria may allow ISIS to come back with a vengeance — using the group’s time-tested strategy,” Business Insider, October 10, 2019; Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt, “Escaped Inmates From Iraq Fuel Syrian Insurgency,” New York Times, February 12, 2014; and “Twenty-fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 6.
 Bill Roggio, “Pakistani Taliban assault prison, free nearly 400 inmates,” FDD’s Long War Journal, April 15, 2012; Bill Roggio, “Pakistani Taliban assault prison, free hundreds of inmates,” FDD’s Long War Journal, July 30, 2013.
 Sara Lynch and Oren Dorell, “Deadly embassy attacks were days in the making,” USA Today, September 12, 2012; Thomas Joscelyn, “In Service of the Blind Sheikh?” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, September 13, 2012; Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda-linked jihadists helped incite 9/11 Cairo protest,” FDD’s Long War Journal, October 26, 2012.
 “Shawshank Redemption-style prison breakout in Sudan raises eyebrows,” Sudan Tribune, June 12, 2010.
 Samuel Osborne, “Isis militants break out of prison in Syria after bombing by Turkey,” Independent, October 11, 2019; Bethan McKernan, “At least 750 Isis affiliates escape Syria camp after Turkish shelling,” Guardian, October 13, 2019; “Twenty-fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 5.
 “Niger – Prisoner De-radicalization and Reintegration: UNODC promotes deradicalization and reintegration for high risk detainees and suspected terrorists,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; “Note d’information de l’ISSAT sur La réforme du secteur de la sécurité au Niger,” International Security Sector Advisory Team; Diana Goff and Erwin van Veen, “A Crisis of Confidence, Competence, and Capacity: Programming Advice for Strengthening Mali’s Penal Chain,” International Development Law Organization, November 2015.
 See Caleb Weiss, “Suspected jihadists launch jailbreak in southern Mali,” FDD’s Long War Journal, December 7, 2016, and “Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula,” Al Masra, issue 29, available at Jihadology.
 See, for example, “‘Unprecedented terrorist violence’ in West Africa, Sahel region,” UN News, January 8, 2020; “Atrocities by Armed Islamists and Security Forces in Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region,” Human Rights Watch, March 22, 2019; “Jihadist violence putting ‘generation at risk’ in Africa’s Sahel: WFP,” Reuters, November 19, 2019; and “Mali: Militias, Armed Islamists Ravage Central Mali,” Human Rights Watch, February 10, 2020. This is also based on author Caleb Weiss’ tracking of the Sahel for FDD’s Long War Journal.
 Based on author Caleb Weiss’ tracking of jihadi attacks in the Sahel for FDD’s Long War Journal.
 “Communiqué du Ministère de l’Intérieur relatif à l’attaque de la prison de Koutoukalé,” Markmg.227 News, via Facebook, May 15, 2019.
 “Burkina Faso : La Gendarmerie De Djibo Attaquée Et Plusieurs Détenus Libérés,” Newland Info, January 1, 2020.
 “Mali: un assaillant abattu dans l’attaque de la prison de Niono,” Sahelien, January 2, 2020. For JNIM’s claim, see Wassim Nasr, “#Mali #JNIM #AQMI #AlQaeda revendique plusieurs ops & dans le pays …,” Twitter, January 16, 2020.
 Weiss, “Islamic State video details operations across the Sahel;” Caleb Weiss, “Islamic State kills almost 100 soldiers in Niger,” FDD’s Long War Journal, January 14, 2020; “IntelBrief: France Reconsiders Force Posture in Sahel Amid Surging Violence,” Soufan Center, February 11, 2020.
 “[The number of victims in the riot in Khujand is approximately 50],” Radioi Ozodi, November 12, 2018.
 “[List: Convicted persons who were neutralized or died as a result of the riot at High Security Prison 3/2 on May 19th and 20th, 2019].”
 Ibid.; “Tajikistan Makes First Comments About Prison Riot.”
 Richard Spencer, “Isis leader Baghdadi calls for prison camp raids in Syria and Iraq,” Times, September 17, 2019; Joscelyn, “Islamic State confirms Baghdadi’s death, names new ‘Emir of the Faithful.’”
 “Information on State Parties to be Examined- Tajikistan,” submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Freedom Now, July 2019; Kamila Ibragimova, “Tajikistan’s prison system claims victims and makes monsters,” Eurasianet, October 16, 2019; Cameron Sumpter, “Reintegration in Indonesia: Extremists, Start-ups and Occasional Engagements,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism-The Hague, February 19, 2019; Aisyah Llewellyn, “Indonesia’s prison system is broken,” Diplomat, May 23, 2018.
 “Information on State Parties to be Examined- Tajikistan;” Sumpter; Cochrane, “Deadly Uprising by ISIS Followers Shakes Indonesia’s Prison System;” Catherine Putz, “What Really Happened at Khujand Prison in Tajikistan,” Diplomat, November 27, 2018; Farangis Najibullah and Ainura Asankojoeva, “Activist Gives Rare Glimpse Of Tajik Prison Where Deadly Violence Occurred,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 26, 2019.