The Sina’a prison is located the Ghweiran District of Heseke city. It is often called Ghweiran Prison for this reason. It is housed in buildings on the old campus of Al-Furat University. It is unclear exactly when the buildings stopped being used as educational facilities, but by the time they began to be used as a prison the area had already been used as military housing for years. The Sina’a Prison saw an influx of prisoners after the fall of Baghouz when ISIS’ lost the last of its territory. At that point, the SDF became responsible for thousands of ISIS-linked prisoners. Since then, the prison has housed between 3,000 and 5,000 inmates linked to ISIS at various times.
The Sina’a prison has a history of riots, and escape plans, though none have been successful until the coordinated attempt on January 20th. Below, we detail the incidents and raids that received the most extensive media coverage at the time they occurred. This is not an exhaustive list of the riots in the prison- as the facility was plagued with security issues, and guards often had difficulty entering certain cells. Importantly, in the months leading up to the attack in Heseke, HAT (internal security forces) discovered the plan and arrested many connected to it, as well as the chief planner.
Major Incidents in Sina’a Prison
1) March 29 2020: ISIS members within the prison instigate a riot.
Duration: 24 hours
In depth: ISIS prisoners tried to take security officers hostage, but failed. Afterwards they inflicted large material damages inside the prison. International Coalition aircraft were spotted above the prison and the broader Heseke canton. The Autonomous Administration made a statement about the dangers ISIS linked prisons face to the region and requested more international support and repatriations.
2) May 3 2020: ISIS prisoners once again incite a riot and attempt to escape.
Duration: 24 hours
In depth: ISIS prisoners incited a riot and attempted to escape, and managed to take full control of the interior of the prison. The SDF released a statement that, “the situation inside the prison was controlled after a day-long insurrection that ended with joint negotiations between representatives of our forces and international coalition forces on one side, and ISIS detainees on the other hand.” Coalition jets and helicopters circled the area during the riot and residents of Heseke were told to stay in their homes.
3) June 29 2020: ISIS prisoners incite a riot and caused extensive material damage
Duration: 24 hours
In depth: The prisoners incited a riot and protest, and destroyed large sections of the interior of the prison. A security cordon was established around the prison and no civilians were allowed in the area. US Apache attack helicopters from the Global Coalition were reported above the prison.
4) May 14 2021: SDF raid uncovers preparations for escape attempts
In depth: The SDF launched a large scale raid on the prison during which they discovered destroyed surveillance equipment in strategic areas for escape, a large cache of hand made weapons, and what they describe in a statement as, “holes in the walls of cells of ISIS mercenaries connected with those of the leaders of the terrorist organization.”
5) September 10 2021: ISIS prisoners riot and are caught digging tunnels to escape
In depth: SDF security services arrested several prisoners while digging tunnels, attempting to escape from the prison.
6) September 20 2021: ISIS inmates launch another riot
In depth: Ten days after the end of the latest riot, prisoners launched another one and the surrounding areas of Heseke were put on high alert by security forces.
7) November 8 2021: HAT (internal counterterrorism forces) raid ISIS sleeper cells planning a coordinated attack and escape attempt plan on Sina’a prison
In depth: HAT discover a plan to attack and release prisoners from Sina’a prison. They raid ISIS sleeper cells in NES and confiscate 37 Kalashnikov rifles with 6,000 bullets, 2 PK machine guns with 5,000 bullets, 1 RPG and 42 rockets, 62 grenades and 11 explosive devices from ISIS sleeper cells. The raid itself resulted in violent clashes between the SDF and the sleeper cell, resulting in the death one ISIS member, and 4 arrests.
8) December 25 2021: SDF raids sleeper cells planning to attack the prison capturing the chief-planner of the attack
In depth: The SDF announced that they had conducted a multi-day raid against sleeper cells planning to attack the prison, which resulted in the arrest of Mohammed Abid al-Awad, an ISIS emir who was serving as the chief planner of the operation.
9) January 20 2022: ISIS launches a coordinated inside and outside attack on the prison
Duration: 9 days
In depth: ISIS sleeper cells outside the prison coordinated with prisoners to stage an inside-outside attack, beginning with a bomb outside prison gates on January 20th. It escalated into a weeklong battle, stretching out into the streets of Ghweiran district and the surrounding neighborhoods. Ultimately SDF was able to regain control of the prison, but it remains unclear how many prisoners were able to escape.