Sleeper Cell Report: Idlib Raid Has Little Effect On ISIS Operations, High Number of Arrests As Heseke Fallout Continues

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Qamishlo residents mourn relatives on February 2nd

Key Points

  • Major coup in joint US-SDF raid on Idlib which killed ISIS leader
  • 17 sleeper cell attacks across NES (excluding in al-Hol camp), of which 8 were claimed by ISIS
  • Main target were local security forces: 12 SDF soldiers were killed, 13 injured
  • SDF/Asayish conducted 24 raids, yielding 89 arrests and killing 8 ISIS fighters
  • Only 2 attacks in al-Hol camp, both on security forces. No assassinations recorded
  • Yet al-Hol camp remains on high alert: SDF claims large-scale attack on al-Hol planned by ISIS


Even as the people of NES continued to bury their relatives killed in the Heseke Battle (January 20th-30th), the International Coalition, with the assistance of the SDF, was able to mount a major coup against ISIS on February 2nd by killing its leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi, in a night-time raid on Atma, Idlib. According to initial reports, 12 people inside the ISIS head’s house were killed during a prolonged shootout, including women and children. US President Joe Biden thanked the SDF for their cooperation in the killing of the person he deemed “responsible for the Heseke prison attack.” The raid seems to have had little effect on ISIS’ operations in NES – neither for worse nor for better – as the number of attacks and assassinations in February roughly equal those recorded at the end of 2021.

Sleeper cell attacks in February, particularly those claimed by ISIS, were almost exclusively based in Deir ez-Zor. 15 sleeper cell attacks were launched across the region, while only 1 was recorded in Tabqa, 1 in Heseke, and 2 in al-Hol camp. Here, ISIS seems to be carrying on the war it launched against the SDF in Heseke, as all but 2 of its attacks in Deir ez-Zor targeted military personnel. All of the SDF’s 12 deaths and 11 of 13 combat injuries this month were inflicted in Deir ez-Zor. A particularly gruesome series of attacks on SDF positions between the 9th and 10th of February left 7 soldiers dead and 6 wounded. According to Ibrahim al-Jassem, SDF commander of the Hajin Military Council in Deir ez-Zor, “the recent period has witnessed an increase in the pace of operations as the level of daring of ISIS operations has risen to the point of attacking military units.”

Nonetheless, NES’ other Arab regions are not to be discounted. Unknown gunmen shot and injured a sheikh of the Bu Khamis tribe in Tabqa. Furthermore, multiple ISIS operatives were arrested in Manbij and Raqqa. At least 5 raids in Raqqa yielded 12 arrests, including a high-ranking ISIS financier. A Raqqa warehouse raided on the 20th uncovered a major storage of explosives and ammunition. Additionally, 3 raids in Manbij led to 11 arrests. Raqqa, in particular, is rumoured to have become an escape route for ISIS militants fleeing Heseke. The arrest of 27 ISIS-linked individuals at the end of January, as well as the high-profile arrests this month, have made Raqqa a focal point for the SDF’s anti-terror effort.

Arrests in February also laid bare the links between ISIS and Turkey. At least 4 of those arrested were ISIS militants on their way to the Turkish border. Furthermore, the SDF claims to know the identities of many more ISIS escapees who now reside in Turkey or Turkish-controlled territory in Syria. During his taped interrogation, the aforementioned ISIS financier claims he received funds from Turkey for ISIS women held in al-Hol camp, a claim which the Turkish government itself substantiated in a recently-leaked report.

An Iraqi and an underage Uyghur arrested by SDF in Dhiban, Deir ez-Zor, on February 5th

Combing operations in Ghweiran, Heseke, continue – however, the number of reported arrests has dramatically decreased. Though official arrest figures are not published by the SDF, RIC was able to confirm the arrest of 12 ISIS suspects and the killing of 3 others, including a suicide bomber, over the month of February. The number of ISIS escapees is still unknown; on February 16th local media reported that the Swiss Foreign Ministry claimed it had lost track of 2 Swiss ISIS fighters who were being held in Sina’a. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on February 2nd that the Asayish are arresting Sina’a prison staff and guards in relation to the attack in January, though these allegations are unconfirmed.

Al-Hol camp saw its calmest month since October 2021. Only 2 attacks on security forces were recorded in February. On February 7th, ISIS-linked women in the foreigners’ annex of the camp set fire to a number of tents and attempted to capture 2 Asayish officers who responded to the disturbance. In the consequent assault, 2 security forces were lightly injured, while a child was killed and 6 other camp residents injured, when Asayish gave warning shots. No casualties were reported during a second shootout between Asayish and al-Hol residents in the camp’s first section on the 28th. Yet the low number of attacks should not be cause for complacency. According to North Press Agency, a high-ranking security source claimed they had received information that ISIS was planning to launch a major attack against the camp.