April Sleeper Cell Report: Bloodiest Month Yet Due To ISIS Ramadan Campaign

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The 7 victims of ISIS’ attack on the head of the Deir ez-Zor Civil Council Public Relations Office near Abu Khashab on April 27th
  • 54 sleeper cell attacks across NES (32 claimed by ISIS), a 184% increase on March
  • Violent ‘Two Sheikhs Campaign’ leads to high casualties: 52 killed & 32 injured over the past month
  • 9 people were assassinated in al-Hol camp, though no riots occurred
  • Major raid in March without success; in April raids more than halved, only 21 arrests reported

In-Depth

The holy month of Ramadan has long been ISIS’ favoured period to stage large-scale attacks. In 2021, the months of April and May (on which the Muslim month of Ramadan fell that year) saw a number of attacks several factors higher (36 and 30 attacks, respectively) than in the months following. Even so, the number and brutality of attacks this year shocked some observers. One reason for this is the perceived diminished capacity to stage such attacks following January’s bloody battle in Heseke, in which over 370 ISIS fighters were killed. Additionally, broad-sweeping raids by the SDF and the International Coalition arrested over 200 suspects last month, leading some to believe that ISIS could not possibly possess the manpower to ramp up their operations. Yet another reason for the shock is that the ISIS offensive began relatively late yet reached such a high tally – 84% of confirmed ISIS kills in April occurred in a two-week window between the 17th and the 30th.

Previous Sleeper Cell Reports pointed out the lack of violent reprisal following February’s Idlib raid by US forces and the SDF, which killed ISIS’ leader and its spokesperson. This uneasy calm came to an end on April 17th, when ISIS’ new spokesperson, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, declared the beginning of the ‘Revenge for the Two Sheikhs’ campaign through an audio message. Abu Omar called on ISIS’ adherents to strike at SDF targets while the “crusaders are fighting each other” – a reference to the ongoing Ukraine war. Furthermore, he stressed that ISIS would continue to attempt to free the more than 56,000 ISIS-linked individuals in al-Hol camp, as “it is a priority and the highest goal for the group and it needs time and patience.”

A photo shared by ISIS’ al-Naba news agency shows fighters in Syria preparing an Iftar meal during Ramadan

Following the spokesperson’s statement, North and East Syria saw sleeper cell attacks rise to 54 – 36 of which were conducted on or after April 17th. ISIS claimed over a dozen more attacks, though RIC has not been able to independently verify them, and they are thus not reflected in this report’s statistics. Of the 18 security forces and 34 civilians killed in April, 16 and 23, respectively, occurred after the campaign’s declaration. Excluding the January battle in Heseke, this is the highest monthly death toll since RIC began recording these statistics. In a worrying trend, ISIS has also ramped up its attacks against civilians working for the local AANES councils. At least 4 council members were attacked, 3 of them killed, this month. In the bloodiest attack, ISIS militants stormed the house of the head of the AANES Public Relations Office of the Deir ez-Zor Civil Council, Nuri al-Hamish, during an Iftar dinner and murdered 7 guests and injured another 4 (pictured above). More than half of the attacks in April were conducted in the region of Deir ez-Zor, yet Raqqa and south Jazira regions also saw an above-average number of attacks.

Surprisingly, al-Hol camp did not experience a proportional rise in violence. 9 camp residents, 6 of them Iraqis, were murdered by adherents of ISIS within the camp. This is more than double the casualties of last month (4), though far from the deadliest month in the camp’s history. Despite worrying news about ISIS’ shift towards attempting to launch a large-scale assault on the camp in the aftermath of the failed attack on Sina’a Prison, al-Hol has not seen a major breakdown in internal security. Precisely because camp security is on high alert, ISIS cells inside al-Hol may have less room to maneuver.

The high casualty count for April is in part explained by factors external to ISIS’ violence. Violent crime shook all corners of the region and not all of it may have been perpetrated by the group. A woman and her daughter were murdered in Tel al-Ahmar; an elderly man shot dead in Qamishlo; a fuel truck driver was killed during a robbery-gone-wrong close to al-Saghir (all in Jazira). In Darbasiyeh, on the border with Turkey, an IED was planted near a local Kongra Star office (though no-one was hurt). In Deir ez-Zor, the SDF had to contend with shootouts from both Damascus-linked sleeper cells and frustrated smugglers on the Euphrates’ banks. Tribal infighting was particularly prevalent across Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa this month and claimed up to 20 lives in April, injuring 21 others. In at least one case, ISIS attacks seemed to reinforce tribal violence.

For all the violence, anti-terror raids were few and far between in April. RIC only recorded 9 raids, down from 21 last month. Only 21 people were arrested, of whom 5 were later released. A large raid occurred in Raqqa, Tabqa, and the IDP camps surrounding the cities. In al-Rasheed camp, which hosts IDPs from Deir ez-Zor, at least 3 suspects were arrested. The International Coalition did not participate in this raid, though it did so in 3 others this month. The Coalition itself suffered an attack on April 7th against its military base in Green City, Deir ez-Zor. The attack was initially reported as a missile strike, but later corrected to an IED placement near the ammunitions holding area. SDF-Coalition training exercises continued to be carried out in the Deir ez-Zor countryside this month.