May Sleeper Cell Report: attacks down but intensity of SDF anti-terror raids threatens tribal relations in Deir ez-Zor

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  • Sleeper cell attacks more than halved compared to April
  • 6 assassinations in al-Hol
  • 2 large security operations in al-Hol saw 31 arrested in total
  • Outside of al-Hol, 51 people with links to ISIS were arrested
  • Anti-terror raids in Deir ez-Zor greatly increased in response to threats, yet SDF’s heavy-handed approach created tensions with tribes


In May, attacks from sleeper cells totalled 26, compared to 54 in April, which had been particularly bloody. However, the security situation remained difficult across east Deir ez-Zor in particular. In total, 6 military personnel and 14 civilians were killed, whilst 4 military personnel and 6 civilians were also injured. The civilian victims included a child who was shot dead in front of his house in Al-Hawayij town, east Deir ez-Zor. ISIS also claimed an additional 7 attacks which RIC has been unable to independently verify.  

Targeted assassination of key military personnel continued to be a tactic employed by the sleeper cells. An SDF commander was left in a critical condition after ISIS militia opened fire on his car, whilst an Asayish commander was found killed in a separate attack. The ISIS-run Amaq News Agency also released a statement claiming responsibility for an attack on an SDF checkpoint in Dhiban, in which machine guns and grenades were used. The SDF stated that they recorded no losses from this. Other episodes this month showed ISIS continuing to assert their presence in SDF-held areas. In Al-Busayrah city, eastern Deir ez-Zor countryside, two ISIS members fired bullets into the air in order to disperse a crowd of men and women mingling together in front of a house, after informing the civilians that their activities violated Sharia.

Violent incidents continued in al-Hol camp, with 6 residents assassinated and 1 injured by ISIS affiliates. In addition, a group of three gunmen inside the camp targeted several humanitarian organizations there, ordering the centers to close their operations with the threat of burning them.  Camp security remained high as the SDF sought to neutralize the ongoing threat from ISIS’ ‘Revenge for the Two Sheikhs’ campaign, which was launched in April. Notably, Special Operation forces within the Asayish arrested 23 al-Hol detainees suspected of cooperating with ISIS cells. The 23 men had been under surveillance for 2 months in the camp since they were identified as being part of the sleeper cell network. In a later raid a further 8 suspects were arrested. 
The SDF greatly increased the frequency of their anti-terror raids outside of al-Hol this month, carrying out 19 operations as part of a large-scale security campaign. Several houses and also some oil refineries across Deir ez-Zor were targeted, often in tandem with International Coalition forces. One operation saw 21 people captured with rockets and IED materials in their possession, after SDF received information about a planned attack on the International Coalition base at the al-Omar Oil Field. In another successful raid, 5 ISIS affiliates were detained and a number of weapons and documents were seized.

A photo shows 4 of those 21 arrested alongside their IED materials near the al-Omar Oil Field.

However, the prevalence of the raids created tensions in the eastern Deir ez-Zor countryside area, particularly between SDF forces and the al-Kubaysah tribe. This culminated in some tribe members taking control of an SDF Military Council post in al-Sabhah, seizing a military vehicle and some weapons. Following a series of SDF arrests within the tribe, a number of detainees escaped and attacked SDF checkpoints, alongside other al-Kubaysah relatives. Furthermore, al-Kubaysah members set fire to public facilities and SDF military posts in Basirah village, as well as deploying themselves in various villages and towns in order to protest against raid campaigns. SDF also conducted raids in the villages of Tawamiya, Harizeh, and Barshim in order to search for wanted persons, which resulted in an exchange of fire between the latter and the SDF members. 2 SDF personnel were killed and others wounded. In response to these growing antagonisms, a group of dignitaries from the countryside region established dialogue with the Deir ez-Zor Military Council in order to discuss the situation and seek calm. Balancing the pursuit of individuals linked to ISIS with the maintenance of good relations with tribes in the Deir ez-Zor countryside will continue to be an important challenge for the SDF. Sustaining cooperative and mutually trusting alliances here can only enhance the security of the area. 

Various tribes were also themselves directly targeted by sleeper cells in kidnapping operations. A dignitary of al-Mo’amra tribe was taken hostage on the highway between Heseke and Tel Tamir. 100,000 USD was demanded for his release. In a separate event, a dignitary of the Shimr tribe was also held for ransom and then released following payment.

The wide range of activities conducted by sleeper cells this month reflect ISIS’ multi-pronged approach, applying pressure on many different fronts: ensuring their presence in urban civilian life is felt, directly targeting military posts and personnel, and also attacking tribes. This serves to destabilize the region and stoke tensions between the different concerned parties.