Report: ISIS assassinations rise as Turkish-backed sleeper-cell groups launch new attacks

Turkish-controlled faction Ahrar al-Sharqiya claimed sleeper cell attacks in North and East Syria for the first time this month
  • April saw a 16% decrease in ISIS sleeper-cell attacks (48 to 40), whereas joint SDF and Coalition raids increased 100% this month (11 up to 22). Despite this increase, the rate of raids has consistently remained lower than the rates we were seeing prior to the war
  • Cells continue to specifically target individuals connected to the Autonomous Administration or SDF. Fatalities in general increased 21% this month, with 41% of these deaths being assassinations
  • In a new development, two attacks were claimed by Ahrar-al-Sharqiya, a Turkish-backed faction forming part of the Syrian National Army (SNA). Both of the attacks took place in Ain Issa
  • The 30km-deep ‘safe zone’ along the border with Turkey has remained untouched by sleeper-cell attacks

40 confirmed attacks took place in April, a 16% decrease from May (48 down to 40). 73% or 29 attacks were claimed by ISIS, leaving nine unclaimed and two attacks claimed by the SNA, as mentioned above.

RIC documented a total of 29 deaths in April, a 21% increase from March (24 up to 29). 41% of these deaths were assassinations specifically targeting village elders (Muhktars), or people claimed to be associated with the Autonomous Administration or SDF. In total 12 assassinations took place. This occurred after ISIS pamphlets were seen distributed throughout Deir-ez-Zor, threatening individuals connected to the Administration. At least 20 people were also documented as have being wounded, but not fatally, in April.

The rate of raids doubled this month (11 up to 22), but still remain lower than the rates we were seeing prior to the latest Turkish operation. 52 arrests have been documented, and three individuals operating with sleeper-cells were killed.

As throughout 2020, sleeper-cells have not targeted cities along the border with Turkey in the 30km-deep ‘safe zone’ (from Derik through to Dirbesiye and around Kobane).  75% of attacks occurred in Deir-ez-Zor, 15% in Heseke, 8% in Raqqa and 2.5% in Manbij.

In keeping with previous months’ trends sleeper-cell groups have continued to focus their energy on IEDs, attacks using small arms, and occasionally grenades – mostly with the purpose of direct elimination of an individual connected to the Autonomous Administration or SDF. There was also one instance of ISIS exploding an oil pipeline in the Heseke region.

Comment from Robin Fleming, a researcher with the Rojava Information Center:

“Unusually, two attacks this April were claimed by the Syrian National Army, specifically the Turkish proxy group Ahrar-al-Sharqiya. This group fought under Turkish command and control during operation Peace Spring, and infamously took the life of Hevrin Khalef, Secretary-General of the Syria’s Future Party and leading female Kurdish politician. These attacks show that following the Turkish invasion, these proxy groups still have a presence in NES outside of the occupied zones, and are still endangering the stability of the region.

Following a recent ISIS campaign distributing pamphlets throughout Deir-ez-Zor, threatening the lives of all those who associate themselves with the Autonomous Administration in any capacity, we saw the rate of both overall fatalities and specific assassinations rise. All of this indicates an ongoing evolution in ISIS’ tactics. It is no longer attempting merely to wreak havoc and claim as many lives as possible. Now instead ISIS is surgically targeting individuals connected to the Administration and SDF, using whatever remaining resources they have to the fullest effect.”

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.

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