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Attacks by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq stoke concerns of a resurgence

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A series of attacks by the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq is causing fear that the violent extremist group is resurging. The largest attack was a brazen siege on a prison in northern Syria less than two weeks ago. IS militants carried out multiple car bombs. Inside, they used child detainees as human shields. After days of clashes, the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces regained control of the prison with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and limited ground support. The deadly prison siege appears to be over now. But it was the most sophisticated attack by IS militants since the fall of the group's so-called caliphate in 2019. Sarah El Deeb, a reporter for the Associated Press, has been reporting on all of this. And she's on the line from Beirut. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH EL DEEB: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: Sarah, what about this prison made it a target for IS militants?

EL DEEB: This is probably the largest detention facility in northeastern Syria where IS militants have been held for the last three years - or suspected IS militants, I must say. It also is one in the city that is controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces, like you said. And while they have been a great partner for the U.S. in the fight against IS in the last few years, they also are not a state. They have limited capabilities in securing and preventing such attacks on a facility like this. They've been complaining about what a tremendous job it is to secure thousands of IS militants who were held in about a dozen facilities around northeast Syria. So this was not a complete surprise. They were expecting something like this. They foiled a prison break before. But like you said, this one was the most sophisticated by far.

FADEL: Now, this prison has about 3,000 detainees, including hundreds of children and teens. During the siege, Human Rights Watch released audio messages from a 17-year-old inside that prison who described what he was seeing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I saw a lot of bodies of kids 8 years, 10 years, 12 years. My friends got killed here. I'm very scared. I'm by myself.

FADEL: Do we know what happened to the detainees, including these children?

EL DEEB: We've been told that they freed most of them. We haven't seen them. We haven't had a final count of the injuries or death among the children. But we definitely know that some of them have been killed in the fighting.

FADEL: Now, this prison attack came just hours after another in neighboring Iraq on an army barracks. Are there signs - are these signs that the Islamic State is regaining power in the region?

EL DEEB: I mean, I think this is what was also really interesting about this attack, Leila, is that we've had small and low-level attacks by IS throughout in the last three years. They have thousands of fighters melted in the population in Syria and Iraq and the area. But this was the most spectacular. And I think it's the one that made it to the headlines. There are a lot of raids now going by the Syrian forces and the Iraqi forces to try to arrest whatever they - militants they know. But I think this is what we hear from residents in both countries, is that the militants are hiding among them.

FADEL: That was Sarah El Deeb, a reporter for the Associated Press based in Beirut. Thank you so much for your reporting.

EL DEEB: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "GLASS AND STONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.