March Sleeper Cell Report: Major Attack in al-Hol; Deteriorating Security as Widespread Protests Plague Deir ez-Zor

ISIS sleeper cell in Syria pledges allegiance to new leader ‘Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi’. Throughout March, sleeper cells throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have filmed similar videos and distributed them online.
  • 19 sleeper cell attacks across NES (excluding in al-Hol camp), at least 12 of which can be attributed to ISIS
  • Major decrease in SDF fatalities: 5 killed and 7 injured, although at least 6 soldiers were reportedly kidnapped, of whom at least 3 were killed
  • SDF/Asayish conducted 21 raids including a major sweep in south Jazeera; over 200 suspects were arrested, at least 1 ISIS member was killed
  • Al-Hol camp saw 4 attacks including 1 major ambush; 4 civilians were killed, 14 others injured, as well as 4 security forces. 249 people were arrested in the camp alone.
  • Unrest in Deir ez-Zor has mushroomed in ISIS’ main area of operations

In March, ISIS sleeper cells from as far away as the Philippines and West Africa pledged their allegiance to ISIS’ new caliph with innumerable photos and videos posted on their social media channels. Masked ISIS militants in Syria also heeded the call (see above), likely from within the pockets of territory they control in the Syrian Desert west of the Euphrates. The pictures of Syria-based fighters show just over 50 militants, though many more are embedded in sleeper cells across the country.

On the ground in NES, ISIS seems emboldened to step up its attacks against the SDF. While the rate of SDF deaths decreased considerably this month (from 12 down to 5), attacks have remained steady. One of ISIS’ assassinations in March targeted an elder of the al-Dawaghinah tribe in Boshams, Deir ez-Zor. Moreover, sleeper cells succeeded in kidnapping 6 SDF soldiers in Deir ez-Zor. In one case the soldier was killed, while the two others managed to escape. In a second instance, close to the Iraqi border, 3 soldiers were kidnapped, 2 of whom were found dead days later. According to ISIS media, the third soldier was killed as well, though no evidence exists to confirm this. A large arrest campaign followed after the latter incident, with no indication of how many suspects were arrested. In 2 cases in Heseke city, civilians were kidnapped for ransom. It is unclear whether these crimes are related to ISIS activity.

Violence against SDF forces in Deir ez-Zor this month was not limited to ISIS: at least one deadly casualty of NES security forces came as a consequence of Asayish officers attempting to forcefully disperse a protesting crowd; a vehicle of the Hajin Military Council was torched by an angry mob as it drove through Darnaj. In at least one case, near Dhiban, a mob flew ISIS’ black standard at a protest, yet most protests throughout the month were not violent, nor did protestors seem to have any ties to the terrorist group. Instead, citizens in Deir ez-Zor protested a lack of diesel and bread, while some teachers went on strike over low wages. Towards the end of the month protestors in Darnaj and Swidan Jazira took to the streets to reject the dismissal of a Deir ez-Zor Civil Council member and his replacement by a member of the Future Syria Party.

On the one hand, the at times violent response against NES’ security forces by protestors and particularly the SDF’s indiscriminate reaction to them has blurred the lines between anti-terror and anti-dissent securitization. ISIS’ long-term strategy – not of militarily defeating the SDF but destabilizing the region – seems to be bearing fruit. In its areas of operation, AANES funds that could go towards reconstruction and development instead have to be spent on further militarization. The consequent popular discontent creates a ripe breeding ground for further jihadist recruitment, while also blurring the distinction between warranted discontent and violent dissent. As the below map shows, this is particularly true in areas of Deir ez-Zor, but also Raqqa, Tabqa, and the Sheddadi region, the latter of which usually also sees ISIS attacks (see below). The aforementioned protests in Darnaj and Swidan Jazira, and the week-long curfew imposed on the towns, ended on April 1st after SDF-tribal elder conciliation. Yet the AANES’ strong suit – grass-roots mediation – can only be a temporary solution and will not be a panacea to the region’s ills.

Overlap of sleeper cell attacks (black) and popular protests (red) throughout NES in March.

While SDF raids were less numerous in March, they included large raids in the Heseke, Arisha, Markada, Shaddadi, al-Haddadiyah, & Dashisha areas. The March 12 raid, carried out with the help of Coalition aircraft, targeted mainly ISIS sleeper cells, though Shivan Selmo, SDF Commander in Sheddadi, confirmed to RIC that groups linked to the Damascus government were also swooped up. Selmo also revealed that roughly 1,200 ISIS prisoners from al-Kam Prison near Sheddadi were transferred north around the same date. March saw at least 4 joint SDF-Coalition raids, as well as joint on-the-ground training exercises. On the 28th, US President Joe Biden requested a budget of $541,692,000 for the anti-ISIS mission in 2023, with $183,677,000 earmarked for the SDF (and the remaining funds going to Iraq-based forces). The $183 million is an increase on 2022’s request of $177 million – likely a reaction to the Heseke prison escape attempt – though still below the $200 million Syria-based forces received in 2020 and 2021.

Al-Hol camp once again resurfaced as a major flashpoint of ISIS violence. 2 gunfights opened and closed the month, killing 3 camp residents, injuring 5 security force members and 10 camp residents, and killing 1 ISIS member. A major ambush on the 28th involved Kalashnikov rifles and RPGs – one of the largest-scale attacks in recent memory. At least 46 residents were arrested in its wake. Security officials at the camp continue to worry that a major ISIS offensive will target al-Hol. The camp has also been plagued by a series of tent fires, which killed 3 residents, including 2 children, and injured 4 others in March. These fires are likely to be arson attacks by ISIS-linked women in the camp. Last month, ISIS women setting fires attempted to draw in and kidnap responding Asayish forces.

Additionally, a youth was shot near the March 12 Martyrs Stadium in Qamishlo. It is unknown who the perpetrator is. Near the Tel Tamir frontline, close to the Abdul Aziz Mountain, a man was killed by his own equipment as he attempted to mine a road. Security forces say he was likely part of a sleeper cell connected to one of the Turkish-backed factions operating in the M4 Strip.