The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center: Nigeria's Kuje Prison break as another ISIS activity to liberate prisoners
- On the night of July 5, 2022, ISIS operatives attacked Kuje Prison, southwest of Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. There were hundreds of jihadists held in the prison, many of them ISIS and Boko Haram operatives. Most of the prisoners were liberated in the break-in stage, but the majority were caught. Several dozen of the prisoners are still at large. Although it is evident that the Nigerian security forces have recently expanded their counterterrorism activity against jihadist terror elements in the country, they failed to secure the detention facility which is close to the government center in the capital Abuja.
- The break-in to the prison has demonstrated that ISIS’s West Africa Province is capable of carrying out complex actions in Nigeria’s government center and that its operatives possess high operational capability which includes planning, gathering of intelligence, command and control, and sending hundreds of fighters to carry out an operation at the same time. In this context, it should be noted that ISIS’s West Africa Province has recently expanded its activity beyond the northeast of Nigeria.
- Breaking into prisons to liberate its own prisoners is a known ISIS modus operandi. ISIS has already attacked prisons in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere. ISIS’s leaders, in their audiotapes, encourage their operatives to carry out operations to liberate prisoners. In addition, ISIS’s organs often publish calls for the liberation of prisoners.
- ISIS presented the attack as part of its campaign entitled “Breaking the Walls.” The campaign, initiated at the inception of ISIS, has been gaining momentum over the last two years. It is intended to underscore ISIS’s commitment to its prisoners and leverage the liberation of prisoners to glorify ISIS’s activity. The liberation of its prisoners also allows ISIS to expand its ranks in view of its recruitment difficulties and the detention of many of its operatives in recent months in northeastern Nigeria, as part of the activity of the Nigerian security forces and the African Coalition against ISIS.
- ISIS draws on the attack for propaganda, self-glorification, and as means to garner support and recruit operatives. Furthermore, it appears that the attack has raised the morale of ISIS’s operatives and supporters, and it is possible that in view of its success, similar break-ins to other prisons in Nigeria and elsewhere will follow.
Details of the attack
- On the night of July 5, 2022, several dozen ISIS operatives broke into Kuje Prison, about 25 km southwest of Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. There were 994 inmates in the prison at the time, including operatives of ISIS’s West Africa Province, operatives of Boko Haram, and possibly also of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization Ansaru. The attack was carried out in three parallel efforts. The attackers fired and activated IEDs. According to the prison authorities and eyewitnesses, over 100 terrorist operatives took part in the attack (Premium Times, July 7, 2022).
- Over 800 inmates fled. The following day, Nigerian Prison Services Spokesman Umar Abubakar announced that over 400 of the inmates who escaped had been apprehended while 443 were still at large. Subsequently, the personal details of 68 escaped prisoners were published in the media. Later, it was reported that there were 64 escaped prisoners (Premium Times, July 7, 2022).
A prison employee and four inmates were killed in the attack. A total of 16 prisoners suffering from various types of injuries were evacuated for medical treatment.
ISIS’s West Africa Province claimed responsibility for the attack. ISIS concluded the claim of responsibility with the following sentence: “Tyrants in the east and west should know that the campaign entitled Breaking the Walls [of prisons where ISIS operatives are held] is still going on, Allah willing” (Telegram, July 6, 2022).
- According to a detailed statement by ISIS’s Amaq News Agency, the attack on the prison was carried out in three concurrent efforts. ISIS noted that each of the three squads had carried out its mission accurately (Telegram, July 6, 2022):
- The attacking force at the prison gate neutralized the security guards and activated IEDs at the entrance gate.
- Break-in forces blew up one of the side walls, broke into the prison, exchanged fire with the prison security guards, and threw hand grenades.
- Other forces blocked the roads leading to the prison to prevent reinforcements from arriving on the scene and to secure the retreat routes.
- According to ISIS, the break-in took about 50 minutes, and most of the prisoners whom they intended to liberate were indeed liberated. Local sources noted that the clashes lasted for about two hours. In addition, ISIS noted that some members of the Nigerian security forces were killed or wounded, their assault rifles were seized, parts of the prison were destroyed, and eight vehicles were set on fire. ISIS’s Amaq Agency also released a video documenting part of the attack (Telegram, July 6, 2022).
Importance attributed by ISIS to the liberation of prisoners
- In 2012-2013, ISIS (still in its previous form as the organization of the Islamic State of Iraq) launched a campaign entitled “Breaking the Walls” (Hadm al-Aswar), in which it called on its operatives to break into prisons where its operatives were incarcerated. As part of its campaign, ISIS attacked several prisons in Iraq: in Tikrit, Kirkuk, Taji, Abu Ghraib and other facilities in Iraq. A noteworthy break-in occurred in July 2013, when the organization liberated about 500 inmates from Abu Ghraib Prison.
- In 2019, the campaign was relaunched, following ISIS’s defeat in Al-Baghouz, in southeast Syria, after it lost territory under its control and needed operatives. In light of this situation, a prisoner liberation campaign was critical for the organization. ISIS’s calls on its operatives to use force to liberate its prisoners were published, inter alia, in its weekly Al-Naba and in audiotapes by the organization’s leaders (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi). These calls subsequently led to similar operations around the world: in Afghanistan (August 2, 2020), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (October 20, 2020), and Syria (January 20, 2022). Like his predecessors, ISIS’s current leader aspires to continue the campaign, this time in Nigeria. It should be noted that the liberation of detainees or prisoners enabled ISIS in the past to gain momentum by hundreds of experienced operatives returning to the cycle of terrorism.
- The campaign reemerged on January 21, 2021, in an infographic published in ISIS’s Al-Naba weekly under the title “Prisons whose walls have been torn down by soldiers of the Islamic State – we have not forgotten you.” It included a list of prisons that ISIS attacked, liberating operatives incarcerated there, between 2012-2020 (ISIS’s Al-Naba weekly, Telegram, January 21, 2021). In addition, it included a message from ISIS Spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, asking ISIS’s male and female prisoners to be patient and stand firm because the organization’s operatives had not forgotten them and were doing everything in their power to liberate them, and were ready to die on the prison walls (ISIS’s Al-Naba weekly, Telegram, January 21, 2021).
Break-ins to prisons as part of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign
- ISIS operatives’ takeover of the prison in Al-Hasakah, Syria: On January 20, 2022, about 200 ISIS operatives broke into Al-Sina’ah-Ghuwayran Prison in the Al-Sina’ah neighborhood of Al-Hasakah, where over 4,000 ISIS operatives were held by the Kurdish forces (SDF). The attack, which was the largest action carried out by ISIS since its defeat in Al-Baghouz (March 2019), began with the detonation of two car bombs at the checkpoint at the prison gate. Then, dozens of armed operatives stormed the prison. There were heavy exchanges of fire and prisoners started to escape. The SDF forces announced that the death toll stood at 121 among their fighters, prison guards, and civilians, as well as 374 ISIS operatives. At the same time, the Kurdish forces claimed that about 1,000 ISIS operatives had turned themselves in and 3,500 prisoners had surrendered in the prison.
- Break-in to a prison in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: On October 20, 2020, operatives of ISIS’s West Africa Province attacked a prison in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Hundreds of ISIS operatives escaped during the attack. According to ISIS, its operatives melted down the prison gates and liberated the inmates (Al-Naba weekly, Telegram, October 22, 2022). The modus operandi of this attack is different from the other attacks mentioned.
Attack on the main prison in Jalalabad, Afghanistan: On August 2, 2020, ISIS operatives carried out a combined attack on the main prison in the city of Jalalabad, the capital of the Nangarhar Province. In the attack, ISIS intended to release about 300 operatives incarcerated in the prison (along with other prisoners). The attack began on the afternoon of August 2, 2020, with the detonation of a car bomb and IEDs at the prison gates. Then, a group of ISIS operatives stormed the prison compound and exchanged fire with Afghan security forces for several hours. According to one report, the attackers were ISIS foreign fighters who did not speak local languages. Attaullah Khogyani, the spokesperson for the Nangarhar governor, reported that at least 29 people had been killed in the attack and more than 50 had been wounded. Among those killed were prisoners, members of the Afghan security forces, ISIS operatives, and three Taliban operatives incarcerated there. According to Khogyani, the Afghan security forces detained more than 1,000 prisoners who had tried to escape, but apparently, several hundred successfully escaped in the wake of the attack (an Afghan army source reported that 338 prisoners had escaped).
- Liberation of jihadist operatives from Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq: The Abu Ghraib Prison break-in was carried out on July 21, 2013, and was the culmination of ISIS operations to free its prisoners. This jail, the biggest and most secure in Iraq, notorious as long ago as during Saddam Hussein’s regime, was used to incarcerate the rebels who fought against the US army while it was deployed in Iraq. After the pullout of the US army, the prison was used by the Iraqi government to hold hundreds of jihadist operatives. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi planned the break-in to the prison. It started with artillery softening-up at the prison. Afterwards, the prison walls were destroyed by two car bombs placed nearby. About 50 ISIS operatives, armed with machine guns and hand grenades, entered the prison, opened the prisoners’ cells, and released about 500 jihadist operatives. The operation, which lasted for about an hour, proceeded without significant resistance on the part of the Iraqi guards, who fled the scene upon the beginning of the artillery softening-up phase. The operatives boarded ISIS vehicles awaiting them and escaped. The liberated operatives, who had a substantial terrorist-operational record, represented an addition of major force to ISIS and helped in its successes in the years after their liberation.
 This is a reference to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), consisting of forces from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Benin and Niger. ↑
 See a study on this issue: https://ctc.usma.edu/breaking-walls-goes-global-evolving-threat-jihadi-prison-assaults-riots/ This study points out that the Taliban and other Islamic organizations also use a similar strategy of liberating prisoners.
For further information about the “Breaking the Walls” campaign, see: https://ultrairaq.ultrasawt.com/%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%8A%D8%AC%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%87%D8%AF%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%84%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%BA%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%8A/%D8%AD%D8%B3%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B7%D8%B1%D9%82%D8%AC%D9%8A/%D9%82%D9%88%D9%84 ↑
 For further details, see the ITIC's Information Bulletin from February 1, 2022, “ISIS’s takeover of the prison in Al-Hasakah, which it presents as an achievement, may bring about additional such actions” ↑