members of isis stand in the town square of al raqqa, Syria / via youtube

The Abu Ghraib Prison Break Seriously Empowered Jihadists in Syria

Al Qaeda has a new campaign to recruit soldiers abroad and they’re using the notorious prison as their rally flag

As the international community seeks an appropriate response to the Aug. 21 chemical attack in Damascus, jihadist rebels in Syria have been steadily gaining momentum since freeing hundreds of prisoners from Iraq’s most notorious jail nearly two months ago.

On July 21, Islamic militants used suicide bombers to blow their way into Abu Ghraib’s prison, releasing close to 500 convicts, many of whom were senior members of Al Qaeda. According to Jessica Lewis from the Institute for the Study of War, a public policy think tank that provides defense analysis, the prison rescue was the last operation of a year-long campaign called “Breaking the Walls,” in which Al Qaeda members sprung jails in and around Iraq, and as a result, have “significantly increased the operational depth of the organization.”

The campaign was orchestrated by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which along with Jabhat al Nusra, has become a major Al Qaeda faction within the Syrian opposition. In July, after the prison break, Baghdadi relocated to Syria and ISIS, emboldened with more manpower, seemingly took on a more aggressive interest in the Syrian conflict.

On Aug. 5, 2013, ISIS led a siege on a government-controlled air base in Northern Aleppo that had remained embattled for close to a year. Using suicide car bombers, ISIS eventually captured the Mennagh airbase and consequently sent a message to both Assad and the other opposition factions that ISIS sought to establish a preeminent force in Syria.

Soon after, on Aug. 14, ISIS seized control of the northeastern city of al Raqqa, a rebel stronghold, from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). ISIS used intimidation and violence on civilians and FSA soldiers with which they shared a common enemy in Assad. ISIS also detonated four car bombs in al Raqqa, one of which hit the local FSA headquarters and left dozens dead or wounded.

Around this time jihadists across the world were starting to recognize the Abu Ghraib prison break as a supreme accomplishment for Al Qaeda and specifically ISIS. In August I wrote about how ISIS had become very “brand savvy”, using the Tahwid flag as a logo to successfully spread their jihad ideology online and in al Raqqa. Similarly Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, published a study which illuminates the growing global support for ISIS and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in places like Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Sinai.

Al-Tamimi believes that such international backing, “would seem to suggest that ISIS’ reputation is far greater than that of the latter two [Jabhat al Nusra and al Shabaab] in many jihadist hotspots around the Muslim world- something that has no doubt been abetted by ISIS’ quick expansion across northern and eastern Syria in particular, along with ISIS’ leading role in recent rebel offensives like the capture of Mannagh airbase.”

It is likely then, with such global appeal, that ISIS is receiving fighters from other nations, some of them not necessarily located in the Middle East or Africa. In early August, after the Abu Ghraib prison break, a Twitter user with the handle @illsecure announced to nearly 10,000 followers that he was leaving the United Kingdom to join the mujaheddin in Syria, specifically ISIS. (His account has since been closed.)

It is now known that the Abu Ghraib prison break was intentionally coordinated to be the watershed moment that would eventually empower ISIS to solidify its presence in Syria. Reuters reported that when the “Breaking the Walls” campaign ended with Abu Ghraib, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi said that ISIS was entering a new phase called “the Harvest of the Soldiers,” which sought to recruit Sunni Muslims to join the militant ISIS plight in Syria. By touting the Abu Ghraib prison break and the Tahwid flag across the globe, ISIS is seemingly making itself attractive to those who seek religious radicalization.

However, ISIS is not only recruiting on a global scale but also on a local level as well. In addition to absorbing religiously moderate FSA fighters into the Islamist front, ISIS also opened an elementary school in Aleppo in what seems like a bid to recruit children into their ranks. These modes of communal outreach are happening more and more by ISIS in Syria. In September, ISIS has significantly spread its influence westward along the Turkish border, giving out food aids to those in need. However, in the rural Aleppo town of Manbij, Syria Deeply reports that ISIS is attempting to create a monopoly over bread production.

Ultimately ISIS’ rapid ascension in Syria, after the Abu Ghraib prison break, and their hostility against other opposition factions like the FSA makes it infinitely harder to decipher the good guys from the bad guys in a conflict that has been waging for nearly three years.

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