Monday, September 23, 2019

ISIS Prepares for Breakout in Prisons and Camps

Key Takeaway: The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is preparing to free its loyal fighters and followers from prisons and displacement camps across Syria and Iraq. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi signaled the start of this campaign in a speech released on September 16, 2019, in which he called on his fighters to liberate prisoners and save women in displacement camps. The Al-Hawl Camp in Northern Syria represents a particular risk. ISIS is already active in Al-Hawl Camp. It has been fundraising in the camp via encrypted channels (such as Telegram) since at least June 2019. It is likely organizing similar activity in other displacement camps in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is likely preparing to free its loyal fighters and followers from prisons and displacement camps across Syria and Iraq. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi commanded his supporters and soldiers to take action in a speech released on September 16, 2019, asking his followers how they could “accept to live while Muslim women are suffering in the camps of diaspora and the prisons of humiliation under the power of the Crusaders?”[1] ISIS is already active (and raising funds via encrypted channels) in displacement camps in Northern Syria. It is likely organizing similar activity in Iraq.[2] ISIS likely intends to mount a campaign of prison breaks and raids across Iraq and Syria. ISIS (then al Qaeda in Iraq) used a similar campaign called ‘Breaking the Walls’ to fuel its reconstitution in 2012-2013.

The Al-Hawl Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp in Northern Syria represents a particular risk. The UN established Al-Hawl Camp to hold refugees from Iraq in 1991.[3] The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reopened the camp in April 2016 to hold civilians displaced during operations against ISIS in Eastern Syria.[4] Al-Hawl Camp has since become severely overpopulated after more than 63,000 ISIS family members and civilians surrendered to the SDF in Eastern Deir ez-Zour Province between December 2018 and April 2019.[5] ISW warned in May 2019 that ISIS would attempt to aid its recovery by exploiting conditions in Al-Hawl Camp and engineering breakouts of detained fighters and displaced persons in Northern Syria.[6] ISIS loyalists are already actively recruiting and fundraising in Al-Hawl Camp.

Pro-ISIS social media channels (likely affiliated with individual supporters) began distributing propaganda materials from Al-Hawl Camp in mid-July 2019. Female ISIS members released a video pledging loyalty to Baghdadi inside Al-Hawl Camp on July 15.[7] Pro-ISIS social media channels later shared a video of female ISIS members and their children raising a homemade ISIS flag over Al-Hawl Camp on July 16.[8] The channels also shared videos of children inside Al-Hawl Camp chanting pro-ISIS slogans on July 22.[9] The exact origin of these channels is unclear. Their posts nonetheless allow ISIS to demonstrate the continued allegiance and unrepentant attitude of its local followers to its global audience.

Children chant pro-ISIS slogans in a video from Al-Hawl Camp on July 22.[10]

Female ISIS members and their children raised an ISIS flag in Al-Hawl Camp on July 16.[11]

Supporters of ISIS launched two campaigns on Telegram to raise funds and advertise the group’s presence in Al-Hawl. One of the accounts has also published calls to liberate the camp’s population.

Justice for Sisters. ISIS supporters created a Telegram channel titled ‘Justice for Sisters’ in June 2019 that posted in Arabic, English, and German.[12] The account called for donations to support women in Al-Hawl Camp via PayPal and provided tips to avoid detection. Telegram removed the channel in July 2019.[13] It is unclear if the campaign continues through other channels or social media platforms.

An image from 'Justice for Sisters' including a donation link on PayPal.[14]

Kafel. ISIS supporters created a series of Telegram channels titled ‘Kafel’ in English, Arabic, and French on July 15 with a stated purpose to “help families of the Mujahidin in the Sham.”[15] The channel claimed on August 10 that it provided new toys for children in Al-Hawl Camp.[16] The account published alleged letters from female ISIS members in Al-Hawl Camp. One such letter called for Muslims around the world to “wake up” and help their “sisters” on August 9. Posts also called for Muslims to break female ISIS members out of Al-Hawl Camp.[17] Kafel English released a propaganda image depicting an imprisoned female on September 18, citing religious text that calls for Muslims to “free the prisoners.”

An alleged report from a female ISIS member published on Kafel English on August 9.[18]

An alleged report from a female ISIS member published on Kafel English on August 9.[19]

Kafel English published an image depicting an imprisoned woman on September 18.[20]

ISIS’s propaganda has spread to additional displacement camps across Northern Syria. Kafel English released an alleged message from a supporter in Roj Camp in Northern Hasakah Province on September 17.[21] Kafel Arabic later posted another alleged message from a supporter in Ayn Issa Camp in Raqqa Province on September 17.[22] These channels continues to operate as of September 19.

Kafel English published an alleged message from a supporter in Roj Camp on September 17.[23]

Kafel Arabic published an alleged message from a supporter in Ayn Issa Camp on September 17.[24]

ISIS’s supporters are regenerating these channels in order to circumvent efforts to delete their accounts by Telegram. Telegram deleted the original channels for Kafel Arabic and Kafel French, but Kafel continues to publish on backup channels titled ‘Islamic Kafel for After Deletion’.[25] ISIS members have also taken steps to secure these communications. Kafel warned female ISIS members to avoid using internet cafes in displacement camps in order to maintain their security in a message posted on September 12.
Kafel warns supporters to avoid using internet cafes in displacement camps on September 12.[26]

Formal ISIS media channels have not directly shared this propaganda. ISIS may be attempting to avoid providing too much attention to Al-Hawl Camp to avoid provoking a response from the SDF and U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. ISIS did call upon its followers to “save” detained men and women in its latest Al-Naba on September 19.[27] The issue also called for individuals to conduct attacks in revenge for detained fighters.[28]

Competing al Qaeda Propaganda

The untenable security and humanitarian challenges at Al-Hawl Camp and other detention facilities across Iraq and Syria fuel jihadist threats beyond ISIS. Al Qaeda-linked accounts began using the plight of women and children in Al-Hawl Camp to fundraise in Syria even before ISIS. Al Qaeda likely seeks to compete with ISIS for the support of this population and other potential recruits. Al Qaeda supporters started a fundraising campaign called ‘Fukku al-Asirat’ [‘Free the Female Prisoners’] via Telegram in January 2019.[29] Pro-Al Qaeda individuals stated that the channel aims to raise money to work with smugglers to free all Muslim women from the camps, including ISIS members. Pro-Al Qaeda individuals claimed to have already freed one [“immigrant sister”] using donations from Fukku al-Asirat in July 2019.[30] The channel is still active as of September 19.

A report from the Fukku al-Arisat Campaign.[31]


The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition is operating on borrowed time when it comes to detainees in Syria and Iraq. The SDF has attempted to relocate some of its ISIS detainees to more formal – and fortified – prisons, but it still lacks the necessary funds, equipment, and manpower to secure this population according to the U.S. Department of Defense.[32] ISIS has reportedly already extracted small numbers of its fighters from these prisons, possibly using bribes derived from online fundraising.[33] Furthermore, humanitarian conditions remain dire in detention facilities and displacement camps alike.[34] The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition faces a high risk in coming months of successful prison breaks and raids on displacement camps by ISIS. These operations would reinvigorate ISIS’ festering insurgency in Iraq and Syria.[35]

[1] “IS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Orders Fighters to Redouble Efforts at All Levels, Promotes Religious Activism,” SITE, September 16, 2019,
[2] The Government of Iraq is reportedly closing down displacement camps near Mosul and transferring individuals with reported ties to ISIS to other camps in Northern Iraq. ISIS could exploit these transfers to reach new vulnerable populations and organize future operations. See: Hiwa Shilani, “Iraq Begins Closure of Displacement Camps in Nineveh Governorate,” Kurdistan24, September 16, 2019,
[3] “Deaths in Al-Hawl Refugee Camp after the Outbreak of Typhoid,” Syrians for Truth and Justice, August 30, 2018,
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Al-Hol Situation Report: Update Number 4,” UNFPA Syria, April 1, 2019,
[6] John Dunford and Jennifer Cafarella, “ISIS's Opportunity in Northern Syria's Detention Facilities and Camps,” Institute for the Study of War, May 13, 2019,
[7] Bjorn Stritzel, Twitter, July 16, 2019,; JihadoScope, Twitter, July 15, 2019,
[8] Mohammed Hassan, Twitter, July 16, 2019,
[9] JihadoScope, Twitter, July 22, 2019,; Hollie McKay, “Refugee Children Praise ISIS, Vow to ‘Crush’ Apostates, Videos from Syrian Camps Show,” Fox News, July 22, 2019,
[10] JihadoScope, Twitter, July 22, 2019,
[11] Mohammed Hassan, Twitter, July 16, 2019,
[12] Richard Hall, “ISIS Suspects in Syrian Camp Raise Thousands Through Online Crowdfunding Campaign,” The Independent, July 25, 2019,
[13] Ibid.
[14] Switched, Twitter, June 20, 2019,
[15] Kafel English started posting on August 8. See: Kafel English, Telegram, August 8, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en.
[16] Kafel English, Telegram, August 10, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/17.
[17] Kafel English, Telegram, September 18, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/142.
[18] Kafel English, Telegram, August 9, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/8.
[19] Kafel English, Telegram, August 9, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/11.
[20] Kafel English, Telegram, September 18, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/142.
[21] Kafel English, Telegram, September 16, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/136.
[22] Kafel English, Telegram, September 17, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/137.
[23] Ibid.
[24] [“Islamic Kafel After Deletion,”] Telegram, September 17, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel0/222.
[25] Kafel French, Telegram, September 16, 2019, https://t(.)me/kavel7fr/8.
[26] Kafel English, Telegram, September 12, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/130.
[27] “Al-Naba Newsletter: Issue Number 200,” Jihadology, September 20, 2019,
[28] Ibid.; Mina al-Lami, Twitter, September 19, 2019,
[29] Fukku al-Arisat, Telegram, January 28, 2019, https://t(.)me/assiraat/10; Faisal Irshaid, “Analysis: Jihadist Fundraisers in Syria Proliferate in 2019,” BBC Monitoring, August 9, 2019,
[30] Fukku al-Arisat, Telegram, July 10, 2019, https://t(.)me/assiraat/69.
[31] Ibid.
[32] “Defeat-ISIS Task Force Director Chris Maier Provides an On-the-Record, Off-Camera Press Briefing in the Pentagon Briefing Room,” U.S. Department of Defense, September 18, 2019,
[33] Ibid.; Shelly Kittleson, “Distrust of SDF, Unclear Future Divide Syrian Tribal Massacre Area,” Al-Monitor, June 10, 2019,
[34] “Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Ursula Mueller: Briefing to the Security Council on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria,” UN OCHA, September 19, 2019,
[35] Jennifer Cafarella with Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou, “ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,