ISTANBUL, TURKEY —
More than 70 prisoners, including recently captured Kurdish fighters, broke out of an Islamic State jail Tuesday in which they were being held northeast of Aleppo, Syria, local political activists say.
The escapees made their bid for freedom a day after militants from Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, brutally executed nine captured Kurdish fighters in a public square in al-Bab, Syria.
The breakout coincided with an assault by militiamen from rival Syrian rebel brigades. The attack distracted the jailers, allowing local political activists to help dozens of detainees flee.
According to a statement from the Syrian National Coalition, a Western-backed umbrella group seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the “clashes left at least 10 ISIL militants dead” in al-Bab, a strategic town 50 kilometers (more than 30 miles) south of the border with Turkey.
IS responded by setting up checkpoints inside the town and on its outskirts in an effort to recapture the escapees, who included locals who had been detained for infractions of the strict Islamic law the militants enforce in territory they control across Syria and Iraq.
Activist Bari Abdelatif, who comes from al-Bab but is now based in Turkey, said residents in the town told him the jihadist militants mounted frantic house-to-house searches looking for the detainees in the biggest jailbreak to occur in Islamic State-controlled territory. "There are checkpoints all over,” Abdelatif said.
IS fighters were driving through al-Bab, calling over loudspeakers for townsfolk to hand over any prisoners they were sheltering.
The escape also came as Islamic State militants posted online a gruesome 13-minute video of the execution of a Palestinian man they accused of being an Israeli spy. The first half of the video titled "And Wretched Is That Which They Purchased” consists of a narration of how the man, Mohamed Sa'id Ismail Musallam, was allegedly recruited by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad; an account of the training that the militants alleged he received; and the story of his journey to Syria to spy on IS.
The second part shows the execution by a young boy decked out in camouflage who shoots the orange-jumpsuit-clad Palestinian in the back of the head and then fires several additional rounds into his body.
Just before the shooting, a French-speaking militant praises the terrorist attack in January on a Jewish supermarket in Paris and threatens that soon IS will be attacking the Jews' “lands and fortresses” and will “liberate Jerusalem.”
The video, first identified by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a nonprofit that monitors jihadist activity online, was the second the militants posted of a jihadist execution being carried out by a young boy.
Mutiny by foreign fighters
The breakout in al-Bab was the second indication in the past few days that the Islamic State’s hold on the town is not as firm as it has been since IS overran it last year. Several days ago, the militant commanders were faced with a mutiny by a dozen of their foreign fighters, including five from Gulf countries, according to locals. The fighters wanted to leave al-Bab, cross the border into Turkey and return to their homes. Local activists said at least half of the disgruntled fighters were killed in clashes and the others were likely to face execution.
More than 120 foreign fighters with IS have been executed since September in Syria for wanting to leave the terror group, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The challenges IS is facing in al-Bab have been seen elsewhere in the militants’ so-called caliphate in recent weeks. Activists in Raqqa, Islamic State's de facto capital, claim there is growing disaffection among some of the terror army’s foreign fighters, especially those from North African countries, who are paid less than recruits from Europe or the Gulf.
A Raqqa activist who goes by the name Hamood Almossa said IS militants were divided into several competing national and ideological groups, and even among Gulf Arabs there was growing resentment at the power held by Iraqi commanders, who form the inner coterie of the IS leadership around Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Increase in defections
Commanders with militias affiliated with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army said they had seen an increase in defections from IS ranks, especially by foreign militants selected for suicide-bomb missions.
The blowup in al-Bab came as Western-backed rebel groups and Islamist factions claimed they had managed to reverse some Syrian government advances to the west of Aleppo. Since December, the Syrian military, with support from Shia militias, including fighters from the radical Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, have mounted offensives to try to encircle the rebel-held districts in the city, once the country’s commercial hub. Several times, they've come close to doing so.
But rebel commanders said they disrupted Tuesday a government effort to complete the encirclement, recapturing an important crossroads at Handarat on the outskirts of Aleppo. “Dozens of pro-regime militiamen were killed or injured in a failed attempt to retake the Madafa hill north of Aleppo,” they said in a press statement.