Prison Attack in Syria’s North-East Proof That ISIL/Da’esh a Resurgent Threat to Regional Stability, Counter-Terrorism Chief Tells Security Council
Russian Federation, United States Trade Blame over Origins of Chaos, as Turkey, Iraq Highlight Progress in Expelling Foreign Fighters
The recent prison attack in north-east Syria serves as a reminder that Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) still poses a grave threat in the region, across Africa and beyond, the Head of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism told the Security Council today in a late-breaking meeting called by the Russian Federation.
“We need consistent, coordinated and comprehensive efforts across countries, sectors and disciplines, anchored in human rights and the rule of law, to address terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” Under-Secretary-General Vladimir Voronkov told representatives of 20 nations who gathered in the Chamber for an update on recent events.
The attack — launched on 20 January and raging for several days — requires a swift, concerted response, he said. ISIL/Da’esh attempts to break its fighters free from the prison in Al-Hasakah underlines the need to bring them to justice as soon as possible, and ensure accountability.
“This incident was predictable; Da’esh has been highlighting and calling for jail breaks,” he said, citing warnings from the ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Monitoring Team of the precarious holding arrangements in Syria’s north‑east. One key lesson from the Council’s decades-long fight against terrorism is that military responses are necessary — but insufficient for addressing terrorism.
Against that backdrop, he underlined the importance of quickly resolving chronic problems such as the lengthy detention of individuals, including children, without charges and the pressing need for repatriation to their countries of origin. He urged the Council to address dire conditions in Al-Hol, Al-Roj and other detention centres in the north-east, stressing that over 56,000 people are being held in Al-Hol alone, most of them women and children. The prison attack, alongside another launched 11 hours later in Iraq that killed 11 soldiers, highlight two pressing concerns, he said: the attacks are not isolated incidents; and civilians pay the highest price for the degraded security situation.
In the ensuing debate, Council members roundly condemned the ongoing violence in Syria’s north-east, with many supporting the call to speed the repatriation of foreign fighters and advance the wheels of justice. Some provided examples of how their countries are affected by terrorism and highlighted their contributions to the fight against terrorist groups.
The representative of the Russian Federation said ISIL/Da’esh fighters stormed Al-Sina’a prison — the largest target in the area not controlled by the Government — in a carefully planned raid. The event triggered local armed groups to partner with the United States, who deployed intensive air strikes in the area, severely impacting civilian infrastructure, killing an unknown number of Syrians and causing 45,000 civilians to flee. United States forces ignored measures to protect civilians, he said.
Pressing the United Nations and its humanitarian partners to demand a full report from Washington, D.C., on the number of civilian casualties during the incident, he said those responsible for crimes against innocent Syrians must be brought to justice. Syrian forces with support from the Moscow will continue to seek out and target terrorist groups in Syria.
Countering those claims, the United States’ delegate said his country is steadfast and committed to the protection of civilians. While enormous progress has been made by the global coalition in the fight against ISIL/Da’esh, the group continues to pose a threat, which is why the global coalition has remained vigilant and engaged. The United States Armed Forces are present in Syria as part of the global coalition and he encouraged all nations to act alongside it in the fight against ISIL/Da’esh. Specifically, he called for supporting the Global Framework for United Nations Support on Syria/Iraq Third Country National Returnees, launched in 2021.
“The Council and relevant United Nations agencies must act with resolve,” said Kenya's representative, echoing a common call for counter-terrorism measures to be strengthened to ensure these groups are held accountable for their acts and denied the opportunity and resources to perpetuate them.
Syria’s representative attributed recent attacks in Al-Hasakah to ISIL/Da’esh and United States occupation forces, adding that members of the global coalition enrolled terrorist fighters to spread chaos and destabilize his country. The United States used terrorism to target schools and hospitals. Security Council resolutions must not be used selectively, he warned, calling on the United States and Turkey to withdraw their forces from his country.
Turkey’s representative pointed out that Turkish forces have eliminated thousands of ISIL/Da’esh members from Syria. He called for a three-pronged approach to defeat the terrorist group: genuine intelligence‑sharing, repatriating foreign terrorist fighters; and addressing the root cause of the problem while promoting constitutional rule, democracy and human rights. These actions will go a long way to stabilize Syria, he said, adding that there are no good terrorists.
Iraq’s representative welcomed international efforts to combat terrorist activities, whether through the United Nations, the coalition to combat ISIL/Da’esh or through bilateral avenues. Outlining Iraq’s progress in repatriating foreign fighters, he said 450 families have been repatriated since May 2021. He called on those supervising camps of detained fighters to hand over all Iraqi nationals for prosecution, noting that reluctance to do so elevates the risk of prison breaks that could help ISIL/Da’esh further regroup.
Some agreed that foreign fighters and uninvited forces should leave Syria, including Iran’s delegate, who said “what we are witnessing today in Al-Hasakah is the result of the continued illegal occupation of parts of Syria by foreign forces, including the United States”. The incident is also a reminder that the presence of foreign terrorist fighters and their families remains a growing source of insecurity in the region. Voicing regret that some countries continually fail to repatriate their own nationals, who remain trapped in deplorable conditions in conflict zones, she urged the Council to address that issue as a matter of priority.
Also delivering statements were representatives of India, Mexico, France, China, Ireland, Albania, United Kingdom, Ghana, Gabon, United Arab Emirates, Brazil and Norway.
The meeting began at 5:17 p.m. and ended at 6:51 p.m.
VLADIMIR VORONKOV, Under-Secretary-General, United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, briefing on the terrorist threat to international peace and security, especially in north-east Syria, raised deep concerns about the recent attack Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) launched at Al-Sina’a prison in Al-Hasakah, resulting in ongoing fighting affecting civilians and the escape of an unknown number of ISIL/Da’esh prisoners who used the 700 children in detention as human shields.
However, “this incident was predictable; ISIL/Da’esh has been highlighting and calling for jail breaks”, he said, citing warnings from the ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Monitoring Team of the precarious holding arrangements in the north-east. It also speaks to the urgent need for concerted international efforts to address — in an effective, sustainable fashion — the issue of prisons and camps in north-east Syria that hold suspected ISIL/Da’esh fighters and individuals with perceived links to the group, including children. Most of these individuals have never been charged with a crime, yet remain in prolonged detention, uncertain of their fate, he explained.
He said the attack is also a reminder of why ISIL/Da’esh continues to embed itself in Syria: “Challenges to stabilization in Iraq, as well as the continued conflict and elusive progress on the political track in Syria, make this a favoured arena for ISIL/Da’esh and other terrorist groups.” Indeed, only hours after the attack in Al-Hasakah, ISIL/Da’esh fighters attacked an army barracks located north of Baghdad, killing at least 11 soldiers, he said. These attacks highlight two pressing areas of concern. First, they are not isolated incidents, he said, citing the Secretary-General’s reports that have warned that the threat posed by ISIL/Da’esh is growing, including in Syria, across Africa, from Mali to Mozambique, since its territorial collapse and subsequent reconstitution through clandestine cells, with the majority of ISIL/Da’esh members based in Iraq. Rapidly evolving events in Afghanistan could have far‑reaching implications for peace and security around the world.
Secondly, civilians, especially women and children, pay the highest price from this deteriorating security situation, he said, urging the Council to turn its attention to Al-Hol, Al-Roj and other camps and detention facilities in north‑east Syria. In Al-Hol camp alone, over 56,000 people are held, mostly women and children, in dire humanitarian conditions. Ongoing and increasing physical and psychosocial violence is deeply troubling. The Secretary-General has consistently stressed the urgency of an adequate international response, with particular attention to children. Recalling his 2020 warnings to the Council of the urgency of leading the children in these camps out of harm’s way, he said some of these children may be among those whom ISIL/Da’esh has now used as human shields, which would not have happened had they been repatriated in 2019, 2020 or 2021.
Commending States that have worked on repatriating detainees, he recalled the Global Framework and Multi-Partner Trust Fund to support requesting Member States on the protection, voluntary repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals with suspected links to United Nations-designated terrorist groups returning from Iraq and Syria. Attempts by ISIL/Da’esh to break its fighters free from prison underlines the need to bring them to justice as soon as possible, and ensure accountability to break the cycle of violence, he said. For more than 20 years, the leadership of a united Security Council has been decisive for international counter-terrorism efforts, and one key lesson is that military responses are necessary but insufficient to address the terrorist threat. “We need consistent, coordinated and comprehensive efforts across countries, sectors and disciplines, anchored in human rights and the rule of law, to address terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, while ensuring respect for international humanitarian law,” he affirmed.
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation), recounting events that took place on 20 January at a prison housing some 500 ISIL/Da’esh-affiliated detainees in the city of Al‑Hasakah, said ISIL/Da’esh fighters stormed Al-Sina’a prison with explosives in a well-planned attack. About 100 ISIL/Da’esh members were able to enter the prison and nearby dormitories. Local armed bands, with the support of United States forces, then carried out intensive air strikes in the area, severely impacting civilian infrastructure and killing an unknown number of Syrians. “High-flung rhetoric from the United States is once again very different from what they do on the ground,” he stressed, noting that United States forces continue to ignore measures to protect civilians. Reports now indicate that some 850 children remain trapped in the area, and some 45,000 people have been displaced, with many running to seek shelter in Government territory.
Stressing that the United Nations and its humanitarian partners must demand a full report from the United States on the number of civilian casualties during the incident, he added that those responsible for crimes against innocent Syrians must be brough to justice. He expressed gratitude to Damascus for opening its checkpoints to fleeing civilians, as well as to the Syrian Red Crescent and all those humanitarian groups supporting civilians on the ground. Against the backdrop of those events, Syrian forces with support from the Russian Federation will continue to seek out and target terrorist forces in Syria. Meanwhile, Western States continue to embrace double standards, proof that they prioritize political goals more highly than the aim of ending terrorism in Syria, he said, noting that in non-Government-controlled parts of Syria, individuals associated with terrorist groups are permitted to live freely.
RAVINDRA RAGUTTAHALLI (India) said the international community was “caught off guard” by the resurgent terrorist threat in Syria, despite his country’s repeated warnings. Recent attacks in Al-Hasakah offer proof that United Nations-designated terrorist groups, such as ISIL/Da’esh and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, are gaining strength. Strongly condemning these attacks, he reiterated that global fight against terrorism cannot and should not be compromised for narrow political gains. The re-emergence of ISIL/Da’esh in Syria and Iraq calls for urgent action. Reiterating that terrorists can neither be defeated by forming alliances with non‑sovereign entities, nor by pushing narrow political agendas, he said regional Member States require support for their counter-terrorism measures. He called on United Nations agencies to assess the siphoning of humanitarian aid by terrorist groups and take steps to counter the strengthening of their networks across Syria. Also highlighting reports that ISIL/Da’esh uses internally displaced young boys as human shields, and attempts to recruit them, he called on countries of origin for these children and their families to take responsibility for them, and not to allow this problem to fester forever.
JUAN GÓMEZ ROBLEDO VERDUZCO (Mexico) said the recent attack by ISIL/Da’esh on the prison in Al-Hasakah shows that the group is regaining a foothold in parts of Syria. Voicing concern over the “barbaric” ongoing detention of children, he said they are victims of terrorism and must be urgently repatriated. “We must continue to work until all forms of terrorism are stopped,” he stressed, adding that, unless the drivers are addressed, “we will simply be cutting off the heads of hydra without addressing the root causes of terrorism”.
NATHALIE BROADHURST ESTIVAL (France), condemning in the strongest terms the attack carried out by ISIL/Da’esh against the prison in Al-Hasakah, said it reflects the resurgence of the group “which is sadly neither new, nor a surprise”. Pledging that France will continue to do its part in the international fight against terrorism, she said such attacks can constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, and must be treated as such. All jihadis who have made the deliberate choice to join ISIL/Da’esh must be brought to justice. However, it is important to note that most individuals affiliated with that group are Iraqi and Syrian nationals, with a small number of Central Asians. The question is therefore not one of repatriation, as only a very few number of terrorist fighters are foreign nationals, she explained.
RICHARD M. MILLS, JR. (United States) said enormous progress has been made by the global coalition in the fight against ISIL/Da’esh, with stabilizing communities being critical. But, ISIL/Da’esh continues to pose a threat, which is why the global coalition has remained vigilant and engaged. He commended the work of local authorities and humanitarian groups in providing assistance. The United States Armed Forces are present in Syria as part of the global coalition, he said, encouraging all States to act alongside it in fight against ISIL/Da’esh. Specifically, he urged States to support the framework to address the issue of repatriating detainees in Syria. In response to comments by his counterpart from the Russian Federation, and his lies about the United States role in Syria, he said Washington, D.C., is steadfast and committed to the protection of civilians. The United States Department of Defence is currently reviewing the tragic incident caused by an air strike on 29 March 2021. The situation in north-east Syria is part of a broader crisis requiring a political solution. The Council cannot discuss conditions in the north-east without discussing the broader situation, he said, noting that the Council already discussed humanitarian issues earlier today and related concerns at other recent meetings.
DAI BING (China) said the ISIL/Da’esh attack is likely to have even more serious consequences, stressing that the Council must pay close attention to such incidents. The international community should adopt a unified standard to jointly fight against all Council-listed terrorist organizations in Syria. Counter‑terrorism efforts are not a basis for foreign countries to station their troops in a particular country. Raising other concerns, he said the issue of foreign terrorist fighters must be addressed, as it represents a threat to countries of origin and destination, as well as regional States. As such, the Council must focus on the origin of terrorists being detained and when they will be brought to justice.
GERALDINE BYRNE NASON (Ireland) strongly condemned the ISIL/Da’esh attack in Al-Hasakah, the scale of which demonstrates the severity of the threat. The international community must remain committed to ensuring the group’s lasting defeat. Expressing grave concern over the scale of civilian displacement, she recalled that children in conflict settings must be treated primarily as victims and require the support appropriate to that status. It is vital need that humanitarian actors have full access and that donors respond to needs on the ground. She expressed concern about the broader security implications of the attack on the north-east overall, calling for accountability for all crimes committed in Syria. All parties must adhere to their international humanitarian and human rights law obligations, she said, affirming that substantive and meaningful progress must be made towards an inclusive political solution.
FERIT HOXHA (Albania) joined others in condemning acts of terrorism in Syria and beyond. The perpetrators must be brought to justice and he called for using all means to defeat terrorism. Stressing that military means alone are insufficient, he underscored the need to address the root causes driving youth to radicalization. He also pointed out that Albania repatriated 24 Albanian women and children caught in the conflict in Syria’s north-east.
JAYNE TOROITICH (Kenya) stressed that terrorism in whatever form is deplorable and should be condemned wherever and whenever it is perpetrated, recalling heinous acts perpetrated by Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaida affiliated terrorist groups in her own country. It is in that context that she condemned the recent terrorist incident on Al-Sina’a prison in Al-Hasakah, emphasizing the urgent need to address the threats posed by terrorist groups and their affiliates, whether they are listed by the Council or not. “The Council and relevant United Nations agencies must act with resolve,” she said, strengthening counter-terrorism measures to ensure that these entities are held accountable for their acts and denied the opportunity and resources to perpetuate them.
JAMES KARIUKI (United Kingdom) said that, to safeguard stability in Syria’s north-east, the Council should work with the wider international community to explore options to ensure coordination in responding to emerging challenges. In Al-Hol, the murder of four women in December 2021 highlights increasing threats against women and girls, who remain vulnerable to exploitation, prostitution and kidnapping. Humanitarian actors must be able to safely deliver assistance and he urged camp administration officials, security forces and humanitarian agencies to agree on urgent steps to protect all residents. For its part, the United Kingdom will continue to work with international partners to seek justice and accountability for those who fight alongside ISIL/Da’esh, through a mechanism that respects human rights and the rule of law, ensures fair trials and due process. As a leading member of the global coalition, the United Kingdom will continue to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, closely monitor the situation and fight against terrorism.
KHALILAH HACKMAN (Ghana) said the attack in Al-Hasakah constitutes a grave violation of international law, as it placed many civilians at risk. Urging authorities to secure the release of children in prisons across Syria to their countries of origin, she said the recent incident should remind the world of the need for stronger cooperation in counter-terrorism. Addressing the challenge of armed groups in Syria will be impossible without settling the conflict, she said, urging all parties to support a resolution on the political track, in line with resolution 2254 (2015).
MICHEL XAVIER BIANG (Gabon), strongly condemning the hateful attack that impacted civilian lives in Al-Hasakah, said that after having been broken up in 2009 ISIL/Da’esh has clearly continued to gain ground. “This blind violence should remind us of the urgent need to act with greater commitment in Syria,” he insisted, adding that the Council’s response must go beyond military measures. The international community must mobilize and act together to combat international terrorism, which remains a global threat, he stressed.
MOHAMED ISSA ABUSHAHAB (United Arab Emirates), strongly condemning the recent terrorist attack in Al-Hasakah, said the fight against ISIL/Da’esh continues. Emphasizing the need to cut off the group’s funding, drain its military capabilities and end the spread of rhetoric and recruitment, he said the United Arab Emirates will spare no efforts in combating all terrorist groups around the world, in accordance with international law. He also drew attention to the increased use by terrorist groups of advanced technology and weapons to target civilians and civilian infrastructure, as was witnessed recently in his country.
MELINA ESPESCHIT MAIA (Brazil) underlined the importance of repatriating children to their home countries and protecting them, an issue that the Council must keep in focus. Stressing that a political process is the only solution to the crisis, he said countering terrorism in a coherent manner is critical, and that decisions must not impede impartial humanitarian assistance to those in need nor cause more suffering than it intends to avoid.
MONA JUUL (Norway), Council President for January, speaking in her national capacity and condemning the recent violence, said children should not be in prison. The recent prison attack shows that ISIL/Da’esh still poses a serious threat and that the fight against terrorism must continue. She urged all parties to abide by international law in counter-terrorism efforts.
DMITRY S. CHUMAKOV (Russian Federation), speaking for a second time, responded to remarks made by his United States counterpart, saying that the freedom of press and oppression is not the topic of today’s meeting. The Council did not hear any substantive answers from the United States delegate.
BASSAM SABBAGH (Syria) attributed recent attacks in Al-Hasakah to ISIL/Da’esh and United States occupation forces, stressing that members of the global coalition enrolled terrorist fighters to spread chaos and destabilize his country. The United States used terrorism to target civilian installations, including schools and hospitals. The entire city of Raqqa was destroyed. United States occupying forces transferred ISIL/Da’esh terrorists from detention centres and “recycled” them, as demonstrated by recent events, attempting to provide an excuse for their presence in Syria, which only signals support for the separatist militias. Condemning some Western countries for refusing to repatriate their mercenaries, he said that Syria’s Government cooperated with the international community to repatriate nationals, including those from the Russian Federation and China. Security Council resolutions must not be used selectively, he warned, calling on the United States and Turkey to withdraw their forces from his country.
ÖNCÜ KEÇELI (Turkey) said a three-pronged approach is necessary to defeat ISIL/Da’esh. There is a need for genuine intelligence‑sharing, which requires a unified and coordinated strategy. The repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters is also crucial, as is addressing the root cause of the problem and promoting constitutional rule, democracy and human rights, which will go a long way to stabilize Syria. Clarifying that PKK/YPG [Kurdish Workers’ Party/Democratic Union Party] terrorists are not fighting ISIL/Da’esh, he said their aim is ethnic cleansing and that their acts are a “textbook example” of a violation of international humanitarian law. There are no good terrorists, he insisted. He urged the international community to engage legitimate actors when creating an accountability and justice mechanism, stressing that Turkey’s forces eliminated thousands of ISIL/Da’esh members from Syria.
MOHAMMED HUSSEIN BAHR ALULOOM (Iraq) said the attack in Al-Hasakah led to the escape of thousands of terrorist fighters, including dangerous ISIL/Da’esh leaders. “Terrorism, given its transnational nature, poses a significant, growing and consistent threat to international peace and security,” he said, noting that Iraq is one of the countries most affected. Commending efforts by the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, he welcomed international efforts to combat these activities, whether through the United Nations, the coalition to combat ISIL/Da’esh or through bilateral avenues. Outlining Iraq’s progress in repatriating foreign fighters, he said 450 families have been repatriated since May 2021. He called on those supervising camps of detained fighters to hand over all Iraqi national for prosecution, noting that reluctance to do so elevates the risk of prison breaks that could help ISIL/Da’esh further regroup.
ZAHRA ERSHADI (Iran) described the recent attack on the prison in Al-Hasakah as an “alarm bell” indicating once more that ISIL/Da’esh — backed by certain States — is still a real threat to regional security and stability. “What we are witnessing today in Al-Hasakah is the result of the continued illegal occupation of parts of Syria by foreign forces, including the United States,” she said, adding that the occupying force and its allies have clearly been unable to restore security and order to the occupied areas. The incident is also a reminder that the presence of foreign terrorist fighters and their families remains a growing source of insecurity and instability in the region, she said, voicing regret that some countries continually fail to repatriate their own nationals - including women and children — who are trapped in deplorable conditions in conflict zones. Urging the Council to address that issue as a matter of priority, she said fighting terrorism must never be used as a pretext to violate Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.