Islamic State militants killed 11 Iraqi soldiers sleeping in their camp while dozens died after its fighters launched a prison break attempt in Syria, indicating how the extremist group remains a potent threat despite its territorial defeat in the region.
The attacks late Thursday and early Friday resulted in the worst day of Islamic State-related violence in a year and demonstrated the group’s enduring reach as an insurgency that operates in secret while carrying out deadly shootings and bombings.
Islamic State, which once seized control of huge swaths of Syria and Iraq and launched a global campaign of violent attacks, lost control of its territory in 2019 under assault from Iraqi and Syrian forces and the U.S. military.
The latest attacks highlight a dilemma in Washington over how to continue the battle against Islamic State as the Biden administration moves to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the broader Middle East and shift focus to confronting great power adversaries like Russia and China. Syrian and Iraqi partner forces on the ground have expressed concern about Washington’s commitment to the region following the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
In Syria, armed militants attacked a prison in northeastern Hasakah province in an attempt to free Islamic State fighters, sparking a gunbattle with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia group that controls northeastern Syria.
The attack began late Thursday, and armed clashes continued into Friday evening, according to the SDF. The group’s forces killed 28 Islamic State members, including a Chinese national and Iraqi nationals, and arrested at least 89 other fighters, according to SDF spokesman Aram Hanna.
“The situation is still complicated. ISIS attackers are using civilians as shields,” slowing the SDF’s efforts to retake control of the area, Mr. Hanna said in a text message to The Wall Street Journal.
Islamic State militants killed at least seven of their own fighters in the prison, the SDF said. The militants also trapped nearly 300 families in a neighborhood near the prison.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the prison break in a message on its official news agency, Amaq, saying it had launched a broad offensive on the prison aiming to free the inmates inside.
In Iraq on Friday, Islamic State fighters carried out an attack on a small military encampment in the country’s eastern Diyala Governorate, about 35 miles north of Baghdad.
An Iraqi security official said militants in cars approached the base from deserted farmland nearby, destroyed security cameras and then smashed through the entrance of the camp while opening fire at the soldiers inside. The militants managed to flee the area before Iraqi reinforcements could arrive, the official said.
A police official in Diyala familiar with the incident said that the soldiers were sleeping when Islamic State fighters descended on the camp. Only one soldier survived, because he happened to be in the bathroom at the time of the attack, the police official said.
“It’s shameful that terrorists continue to attack four years after we defeated them,” said Iraq’s former president, Haider al-Abadi, writing on Twitter.
Islamic State overran large sections of Iraq and Syria, including cities that were home to millions of people, in 2014. A vast military campaign by Iraqi, Syrian and U.S. forces drove the group out of territory under its control in 2019, but the extremists persist as an underground militant group. The U.S. has maintained forces in the region to continue pressure on the group.
Under an agreement with the Iraqi government, the U.S. ended its military combat role in Iraq at the end of last year while maintaining 2,500 troops in the country in training and support roles as a part of its mission to fight Islamic State.
The U.S. also has about 900 soldiers in Syria backing the SDF in their fight against the extremist group. The U.S.-backed Syrian militias have warned that they can’t continue to secure prisons holding thousands of Islamic State prisoners without international support.
U.S. military officials say they believe Islamic State persists as an insurgent threat but no longer has the ability to seize large cities as it did at the height of its powers. In the third quarter of last year, the group claimed fewer attacks than it did in the same period the year before, according to the most recent report by the Defense Department Inspector General on the campaign against Islamic State.
Islamic State carried out a double suicide bombing in Baghdad in January 2021 that killed at least 32 people.
In September 2021, Islamic State gunmen killed at least 12 Iraqi police in a separate attack that raised concerns that the organization could be regrouping.
—Nazih Osseiran contributed to this article.
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