ISIS uses sleeper cells as its fortunes decline
Arrests of ISIS members in North and East Syria dropped to almost nothing in March, despite continued attacks
  • March saw decreases across the board – in terms of attacks, raids, deaths and arrests – suggesting COVID-19 has distracted SDF and ISIS alike
  • Though last month, February, we saw a spike in arrests by the SDF, Asayish and Coalition, arrests fell 97% to just 3 in March
  • With 48 attacks, there is a small decrease of 9% compared to the month before. As always the majority occurred in Deir-ez-Zor, with a significant amount in Heseke as well
  • Kurdish-majority cities along the border, such as Derik, Qamishlo, Amude and others, have once again remained untouched by sleeper-cells 

While both attacks and raids decreased in March, attacks only decreased by 9% (53, 48) and raids and other operations against sleeper-cells decreased by 31% (16, 11). Only 2 of these yielded arrests, the remainder all consisted of dismantling IEDS and mines. In total, the Rojava Information Center was only able to confirm 3 arrests in March, a drastic 97% decrease from February with 96 arrests.

Confirmed fatalities also decreased 8%, but unlike February when the majority of deaths were assassinations of Muhktars and council members only 33% (8 out of 24) of the deaths this month were assassinations. This is a 62% decrease in assassinations.

As has remained consistent the majority of attacks, 73%, took place in Deir-ez-Zor, 16% in Heseke, and 10% in the Raqqa and Tabqa region. Once again we documented 0 incidents, raids or attacks, in the  major cities along the border. 

February had no motorcycle or car bombs, and in March the number remains low with only one confirmed motorcycle bomb in Heseke. Mostly the attacks carried in March consisted of IEDs, and attacks with guns and knives, as well as a mortar attack in Deir-ez-Zor.

March also saw an attempted break-out and uprising in detention facility in Heseke, holding ISIS-linked individuals. According to the local Anti-Terror Forces, those participating in the revolt…

“…wrote messages on their blankets, calling on the coalition and human rights organizations. Two minutes later they broke the security cameras at the main entrance, and the walls and door.”

While a few individuals managed to temporarily escape, and a floor of the detention facility remained in the control of the detainees for a day, after the deployment of SDF and Asayish internal security forces SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel confirmed that no detainees escaped, and the prison is once again secured. “This confirms the SDF’s ability to secure ISIS, but also shows the need for more support from the international community and the Coalition,” Gabriel said.

Comment from Rojava Information Center researcher, Robin Fleming:

“Concerns about Corona virus in North East Syria, as in the whole world, are growing, and it is possible this has affected both the rates of joint SDF and Coalition raids on the one hand and sleeper-cell attacks on the other, which both saw a decrease this month. The attention of all residents of NES, and the military and political authoities, has been diverted towards COVID-19 and remaining safe and uninfected.

We can look at the attempted uprising in the Heseke prison as an example. The detainees, while not directly stating their cause of distress, were calling for international aid. It is likely the frequent lack of water in Heseke (700,000-1,100,000 people were cut off from the water supply in March, when Turkish-backed militias once again struck near the Allouk water station) the instability of resources, and the fear of Corona spurred this uprising and attempted escape.

In 2020, major cities along the border like Qamishlo, Amude, Derik; have not been targeted as they were in 2019. This could be because ISIS’s numbers and resources are dwindling and the sleeper-cells have taken refugee in their previous stronghold in Deir-ez-Zor, far from the border. 

Though assassinations did decline in March ISIS continued their campaign of targeting individuals connected to the Autonomous Administration or SDF. As of 4 April ISIS continued distributing fliers throughout Deir-ez-Zor, threatening all who continue their association with AANES and SDF.

In March, the RIC only managed to confirm 3 arrests of sleeper-cells which is a huge decline from February (96 documented arrests). This shows there is great instability and even when progress is made it can be undone, especially when the political situation and external factors like coronavirus inhibit the SDF, Asayish and Coalition efforts to stabilize the region. ”

Please contact us for the fully sourced data-set sortable by incident type and location, live map showing all ISIS and other sleeper-cell attacks since the start of the year, and further analysis. This data was produced in collaboration with OSINT researcher Caki, and can be explored on the live map here.

Get in touch if you have any questions or are interested in covering the database.

All the best,

Robin Fleming