YAT Operator poses with captured suspects
  • 28 Attacks across NES
  • 30 Deaths caused by attacks attributed to sleeper cells
  • 22 Attacks claimed by ISIS
  • 16 Raids by the SDF producing 124 arrests
  • 19 Deaths in Al Hol camp, 9 from a fire that started

RIC Researcher Charles Flynn writes-

In the second to last month before the fall of the Caliphate in 2019, as President Donald Trump declared victory over ISIS, there were 53 total attacks recorded by the RIC credited to sleeper cells outside the dwindling territory controlled by ISIS. A year later, there were 61 attacks, hinting at a resilience of sleeper cell networks sprawled across the SDF-controlled North and East Syria that was still reeling from an American withdrawal in the northern border regions, and an uncertain diplomatic future with the Damascus government, Russia, and the United States. As of February 2021, the RIC recorded 28 attacks, all contained in the predominantly Arab southern regions. While the numbers show a smashing success at limiting sleeper cell attacks,  the attacks have become more channeled. The targets are those who are working with the AANES, SDF, tribal leaders, as well as civilians who are accused of not paying taxes to ISIS, a form of tribute that allows ISIS to finance its operations and exert muscle over local institutions. This month, through various ISIS publications and communications, ISIS declared that bakers were fair game for assassination if they failed to make contributions. This has damning repercussions in a region where bread is considered a daily staple, as well as North and East Syria being considered one of the world’s bread baskets. Coupled with destructive economic sanctions placed on the Al Assad government in Damascus and the plummeting Syrian pound, NES’s currency, the Islamic State continues to sow fear and fracture the hard won stability achieved under the AANES at any given point.

In early February, the SDF committed to a ten day long operation to comb the Der Ez Zor region for ISIS sleepers cells after the assassination of two politicians in the Dashisha countryside.

“Recently, the activities of ISIS have increased in the Der Ez Zor region. ISIS has been drawing its strength in particular from the attacks of the Turkish occupation and targeting the gains of the peoples of the region, and is trying to regroup and revive itself. For this reason, in recent times, especially in the Sawar region, in the Der Ez Zor region in general, many terrorist acts were carried out against civilians and against members of the Autonomous Administration, and among those activities was the assassination of two women activists, who were members of the Dashisha’s Tel Shire Council, Mrs. Saadah Al-Hermas and Hind Latif Al-Khader. Therefore, we launched a massive campaign in the Der Ez Zzor region on February 4, with the participation of QSD, YPG, YPJ and the Internal Security Forces, to avenge the two martyrs, and to prevent ISIS from strengthening its ranks. The campaign was completed on February 14th.”

SDF Press Release

Among the 87 people detained, the SDF claims to have captured the killers of Ms. Saada and Ms. Hind, along with weapons, bombs, and a high profile target sought by the SDF. As the month closed, the SDF had captured 124 persons suspected of sleeper cell activity, marking the second highest arrest for a given month since the RIC began collecting data in early 2019. February 2021’s arrest number is only surpassed by 136 arrested in July of 2019. In last quarter’s Inspector General’s Report to the United States Congress on Operation Inherent Resolve, the name of the US-led coalition’s operation to defeat ISIS, CJTF-OIR (Combined Joint Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve) reported that once the SDF receives targeting intelligence, they are able to effectively interpret it, take action, and coordinate with Coalition forces. CJTF-OIR also said that there has been an overall positive trend in the SDF’s time-sensitive target planning capabilities.

Inside Al Hol IDP camp, the residents have one thing in common: they had all lived under the control of the Islamic State. As the Caliphate diminished and lost its territory to the SDF, civilians found themselves with few places to go after their homes had been occupied or destroyed, and the Autonomous Administration was unsure of how deep their allegiances were to the retreating black banners. Making matters even more complicated were the amount of non-Syrians among the displaced natives, leading the AANES to plead to the rest of the world for an international court to try IS militants and nations to lend support in processing or repatriating their own. Even more worrying, more than half of the camp’s residents are children; sons and daughters of Islamic State civilians or its militants and supporters. To combat the 73,000 residents’ uncertain future, the AANES granted a general amnesty in October of 2020 for all residents who could not be connected to heinous crimes while living under ISIS, allowing Syrians to return to their home regions if they wanted to. Although since then the number of camp residents have been reduced to around 60,000 as of this month, many remain in the camp for a variety reasons. Chief among them is the fact Syria is a still a divided country- while the camp is a place of limbo and oscillating safety in the face of ISIS reprisals and the threat of COVID, it is preferable than to attempt to return to western Syria under control of Al-Assad, where ISIS affiliates have a dubious future. Also, some residents have no homes or livelihoods to return to after nearly ten years of civil war that brought mass property destruction. More so for the Iraqi and third nation residents, their countries of origin are reluctant to take them back, and prefer that they are held indefinitely.

Among these inherent issues, violence has begun to affect the camp. Last month, the RIC reported on 20 murders that occurred within the camp, all seemingly motivated by IS members, who are among the 60,000 current residents and seek to demonstrate the resolve of their organization even after its territory had been liberated. This month 9 people were killed by assassins, including one internal security force member of the AANES. In addition one member of the Doctors Without Borders organization was also killed while off duty. “During the night of 24 February, our colleague was off-duty with their family when they were killed,” says Will Turner, Doctors Without Borders emergency manager for Syria. “We are trying to better understand the situation and circumstances around their death. DWB is providing support to the family during this difficult time and we offer our sincerest condolences to our colleague’s family and friends.”  

Doctors Without Borders also released a statement condemning the overall situation in the camp, “The security and safety situation in Al-Hol camp has been unacceptable for the past two years.  This year the situation has deteriorated further, with more than 30 killings since January. Most of those killed were targeted by gun violence, with others caught in crossfire, killed in knife attacks or dying in avoidable accidents.”

The SDF also performed a raid within Al Hol, discovering a money transfer operation and swiftly confiscated all material.

From RIC sources, most attacks in Al-Hol are being carried out by young men between the ages of 17 and middle 20’s.

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.