The Great Iraqi Jail Break

Iraq’s jihadist army has figured out a surefire way to sow chaos: by opening prison doors.


Over the last few weeks, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) snatched a huge chunk of Iraqi territory for itself, making the terrorist group de facto rulers of millions of people in an area the size of Jordan. As they tore through the country, ISIS militants also sacked Iraqi prisons, feeing over 1,200 inmates from two facilities in Mosul and another 300 from Tikrit since the start of their violent campaign.

This strategy is crippling Iraq’s ability to govern effectively. After all, without prisons, the justice system fails — and without a system of justice, Iraq’s ability to remain a coherent political unit and develop a representative democracy falls apart. (In the photo above, volunteers from al-Abbas brigades head to defend holy Shiite sites against attack by the extremists.)

The attacks on prisons pose a formidable challenge: With each raid, ISIS replenishes its ranks with veteran insurgents, making the group an even more effective fighting force. The 6,000 or so ISIS fighters now rampaging across Iraq have access to even more leaders, hardened killers, and master bomb makers who were once languishing in the country’s prisons. These include many terrorists elite U.S. military forces caught over the years and then handed over to the Iraqi government when the United States turned over custody of its prison facilities in 2010. These hard men have been tested both inside and outside of jail and return to the fight as much more capable cogs in the terrorist machine.

The prison breaks are astonishing — but not new. A few years ago, ISIS chief Abu Du’a (a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) actually announced that sacking prisons was his group’s most important mission. In July 2012, Abu Du’a released an audio statement entitled "Destroying the Gates," in which he addressed ISIS members, saying: "We remind you of your top priority, which is to release the Muslim prisoners everywhere, and making the pursuit, chase, and killing of their butchers from amongst the judges, detectives, and guards to be on top of the list."

In September 2012, Abu Du’a’s group carried out its first prison break operation. He freed over 100 prisoners from a prison in Tikrit, including 47 death row inmates. They struck a few more prisons throughout the winter and spring, but in July 2013 they hit their stride, releasing between 500 and 1,000 prisoners from Abu Ghraib. Escapees included ISIS’s top military commander, Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi, as well as a number of other senior leaders awaiting execution. Iraqi forces later caught up with al-Bilawi and killed him prior to the current ISIS offensive.

At the same time as the Abu Ghraib operation, ISIS also assaulted another prison in neighboring Taji, but failed. A suicide strike that October against the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Interior Ministry in Erbil aimed to free ISIS extremists, but was also unsuccessful. Taken in the aggregate, these prison breaks were, nonetheless, an unmitigated counterterrorism disaster since. As one intelligence analyst grimly noted, "We just lost track of everyone we didn’t kill who was in al Qaeda during the surge."

It remains unclear how many escapees were extremists and how many were common criminals. Nevertheless, even prisoners convicted of criminal charges provide advantages to the terrorist group, because they could have been recruited during their incarceration. This extremist indoctrination occurs even under the best of circumstances. For example, when the United States ran detention facilities like Camp Bucca in Umm Qasr, hard-core extremist detainees were allowed for years to mingle with the regular prison population, radicalizing many and leading Bing West to call these facilities "jihad universities." Presumably, Iraqi-managed prisons are just as poorly run. And even if common criminals were able to resist jihadist persuasion efforts while in prison, they may now feel indebted to their "liberators."

The inability of Iraq to maintain its prison system suggests that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will have a hard time preventing the country from completely unraveling. For one thing, if Iraq can’t maintain and protect Abu Ghraib — renamed Baghdad Central Prison in 2009 and considered the best-run prison in the country — then there’s little hope that it can incarcerate any of these ISIS extremists if they are recaptured. And of course the new release of prisoners will likely cause crime levels to spike. Saddam Hussein opened his prisons a few months prior to the U.S. invasion, and many believe the organized criminal elements released into society were responsible for much of the looting that occurred as Iraq fell.

A mass prisoner release is also demoralizing for local leaders and security forces, because they know they will become targets for retribution. For instance, a month following the Abu Ghraib breakout, one death-row escapee led a group of militants to his brother’s house and murdered him. His brother was a police officer who had turned the convict in three years beforehand. One man, a tribal leader who participated in the U.S.-backed anti-al Qaeda Anbar Awakening, remarked: "Of course I’m afraid of retribution…. Their first targets will be leaders in the awakening like me." And on June 3, a suicide bomber killed Sheik Mohammed Khamis Abu Risha, the leader of the Awakening Council in Ramadi. If the state cannot protect its own friendly forces from violence, it should not be surprised when its security personnel abandon their posts en masse.

Jails and prisons are the clearest signs of some degree of law and order. As the late Professor Stephen Livingstone once wrote: "The existence of prisons is demonstrable proof that, in the end, the law does have some consequences, that it does exist." An Iraq without defendable prisons severely weakens the one of the three pillars of a competent justice system: law enforcement, judicial institutions, and the prison system. ISIS is shredding the very social contract of Iraq’s nation-state — one that was barely holding together in the first place. No civilization — Jeffersonian democracies, theocratic dictatorships, socialist collectives, and everything in between — can remain in this state of chaos for too long.

Iraq is confronting a mortal crisis. Even if its demoralized army rediscovers its backbone and actually battles ISIS (with assistance from Iranian and Shiite militias), Baghdad will still have to scramble to house its captured detainees before it can build permanent prisons up again.

This effort will take time, money, patience, and expertise — all of which are in short supply in Iraq today. Even the most peaceful democracies have prisons and guards in order to house criminal elements and preserve order; without order, there is no country.

An Iraq without prisons is very quickly heading down that path.

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