July Sleeper Cell Report: Low Number of Attacks, Major Events
A major Asayish raid on the 22nd in Hol camp yielded at least 19 arrests. Security forces remain on high alert over a possible attack on the camp despite low number of murders this month.
- Sleeper cell attacks down from June; confirmed ISIS attacks decreased from 18 to 14
- Major Coalition strike against ISIS provides best evidence yet of ISIS-Turkish collusion
- Attacks only half as deadly this month, yet fears of attack on Hol increase
- Major raid in Hol camp, though murders lowest since February
- Major SDF raid against Turkish “spies” targets journalists, activists
In July, 21 sleeper cell attacks outside of Hol camp killed 10 people – 6 security forces and 4 civilians – and wounded 8 and 3 others, respectively. This is a major decrease from June, when 16 people died outside of Hol camp. Raids, too, were sparse, with only 6 raids outside of the camp. A major raid targeted Turkish agents in NES at the end of July; only 17 ISIS suspects were arrested in the remaining raids. Deir ez-Zor has remained a flashpoint for ISIS violence, with 15 out of 23 attacks in July occurring in the region. At least one oil refinery worker in Deir ez-Zor was threatened by ISIS sleeper cells and zakat (or Islamic almsgiving) demanded from him. According to a Crisis Group report released this month, “SDF officials claim that oil investors and refinery owners pay thousands of dollars per month to avoid ISIS attacks on their businesses.” Yet it is unknown how many of such blackmail cases are perpetrated by genuine ISIS sleeper cells and how many are simply criminal gangs, as they are “nearly indistinguishable,” according to Crisis Group.
ISIS attacks in Deir ez-Zor have recently surpassed those in all other regions of Syria, according to Crisis Group.
Clashes between smugglers and the SDF in Deir ez-Zor have been especially violent this month. At least 2 SDF soldiers were killed and 9 people have been injured during SDF attempts to clamp down on cross-river contrabandists on the 125km stretch between Jadeid Aighadat and the Iraqi border. These casualties are not reflected in RIC’s Sleeper Cell statistics, yet the importance of smuggler networks in Deir ez-Zor to ISIS was laid out by the same Crisis Group report: ISIS sleeper cells travel along these routes from the relative safety of the government-controlled Badia, west of the Euphrates, into the SDF-controlled Deir ez-Zor region. SDF commander Mazloum Abdi has called these networks “a major threat to our economy and our security.” Yet, according to the Crisis Group report, local security forces have found it difficult to close these routes, as “contraband is a reliable alternative source of income for many SDF members.”
ISIS’ Amaq News Agency released rare pictures of their fighters in Syria (the Badia) this month.
Outside of Deir ez-Zor, at least 4 attacks took place by sleeper cell groups. Near the city of Yaroubiya, in the Jazira region, a car transporting al-Sanadid forces of the Arab Shammar tribe was targeted, though no casualties were reported. In June, 3 of the group’s soldiers were killed and 4 others injured during the largest attack that month. In Qamishlo, a politician of the local Left Party was attacked and threatened. It is unknown who the perpetrators were. Raqqa saw 2 attacks, only one of which was claimed by ISIS. However, this does not mean ISIS lacks a sufficiently-strong presence in the region. As Crisis Group reports, different areas of Syria serve different purposes for the group. Opportunities for training and refuge are provided by the vast expanse of the government-controlled Badia (as well as Iraq), while in SDF-controlled Deir ez-Zor ISIS can recruit embittered locals, press the well-off for funds, and stage attacks against the SDF. Raqqa, on the other hand,
“appears to be central to logistics and financing for ISIS in the north east. According to regime and SDF security sources, ISIS uses Raqqa as a corridor for transporting fighters and supplies to and from its various insurgent theatres. It brings veteran fighters, but especially new recruits, into the city via smuggling routes. Once they arrive near the regime-SDF line of control, the recruits blend in by posing as civilians and wait until they can head for the training camps in the Badia’s vast desert and mountains. SDF and U.S.-led coalition officials indicated that such movements became common after U.S. troops withdrew from Raqqa in late 2019.”
According to Crisis Group, ISIS is able to recruit fighters from Raqqa’s IDP population, mostly outside of the city. It is unknown how many sleeper cells ISIS maintains in the Raqqa region, however,
“both SDF intelligence officers and Raqqa internal security commanders said ISIS has only about ten fighters active in each of the five sectors that make up Raqqa city, but that more sleeper cells may exist. They believe that many more ISIS fighters are lurking in the Raqqa countryside than the number of attacks would suggest, though the cells’ inactivity makes it hard to know for sure.”
The Crisis Group report concludes that, while ISIS sleeper cells permeate central and eastern Syria, much of the group’s leadership resides in Syria’s northwest – in HTS-controlled Idlib and Turkish-occupied territory. The most damning evidence yet for this claim came on July 12th, when Maher al-Agal, ISIS’ Syria leader, and his close collaborator were killed by a Coalition airstrike near Turkish-occupied Jinderes, in Afrin. The two men had been living under aliases in the region and had obtained identification cards from the Turkish-established local council. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 48 jihadist commanders have been killed by the Coalition in the “hotbeds of terrorism” of Idlib and Turkish-controlled Syria since 2019. Only last month, the Coalition killed an ISIS commander who was hiding near Turkish-controlled Jarablus. A RIC report on the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army and local police forces, which appeared this month, found that many of these groups employed former ISIS fighters.
ISIS propaganda picture from July 2022.
At a rare press conference on July 15th, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi accused Turkey of abetting ISIS, saying “investigations revealed that the [January 2022] attack on Ghweiran prison was launched from the Turkish-occupied areas. […] the are a safe haven for terrorists, from which they launch attacks against our areas.” As Turkish threats against the region continue, Abdi warned that the SDF “cannot fight ISIS & Turkey at the same time.” US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, Dana Stroul, said that in the event of a Turkish attack there would “only be so many SDF to go around,” and added that her government “strongly opposes” a Turkish invasion for the benefit it may bring ISIS. A US delegation, including Senator Lindsey Graham, Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan and Brig. Gen. Claude K. Tudor, visited both the Ghweiran prison in Heseke and Hol camp.
Despite warnings by both the SDF and the US government that ISIS is preparing a large-scale attack on Hol camp, violent events in the camp are down from June, with only 3 murders recorded in July. Nonetheless, several non-lethal attacks occurred throughout the month. On July 5th, children of ISIS families ransacked the in-camp offices of Blumont (an NGO which administers the camp) and the Norwegian Refugee Council. In the week prior, both organizations had let go employees they had hired from within the camp population among suspicions of collusions with the jihadist group. Moreover, a video emerged of a child in Hol camp sabotaging solar panels. These acts are reflective of the ongoing indoctrination children in the camp are submitted to by their mothers. On the 23rd, ISIS-linked women set fire to the tent of a more moderate French woman in Roj camp, which houses mostly European ISIS-linked women and children. No casualties were reported as a result of the fire. Moreover, sources within the SDF say that Yusuf Zahab, a 17-year-old ISIS-linked Australian who was being held by the SDF in Ghweiran prison, died of tuberculosis. Zahab had been within Ghweiran prison when ISIS took over the building in January. He had sent pleas for help from the prison to Human Rights Watch.
Asayisha Jin members line up during a July raid on Hol camp.
The enduring danger of ISIS as a transnational actor was proven on July 5th, when ISIS’ Nigerian offshoot, Boko Haram, stormed Kogi prison, freeing roughly 600 prisoners (of which 300 remain at large). In a near-carbon copy of ISIS’ January prison break attempt in Heseke, the attackers were divided into a frontal attacking group, a storming group, and a flanking group, which approached the prison from three different directions. According to ISIS’ own Amaq News Agency,
“the first group managed to rig the prison gate with explosive devices after neutralizing its guards, followed by the second group storming the prison after blowing up one of its side walls, and then clashing with the forces inside it with machine guns and grenades, while the third group spread in the perimeter of the prison to secure the withdrawal routes and repel any possible enemy help. The sources confirmed that the storming operation, which lasted about 50 minutes, was successful, as the fighters were able to free most of the prisoners who came for them, destroying parts of the prison and burning 8 vehicles, in addition to killing and wounding a number of Nigerian forces and seizing their guns.”
The enduring ability of attacks in Syria to inspire ISIS offshoots across the planet should give pause for thought. Moreover, the Kogi prison break should not be treated merely as a chilling scenario of what a successful Heseke raid would have looked like, but rather as a learning experience for ISIS and a possible blueprint for a larger attack on NES.
The month of July closed with the find of 29 bodies in the city of Manbij, near the ‘Manbij Hotel’ building. According to local media, the bodies were found by construction workers while they laid a pipe. The dead, including two minors, were handcuffed and blindfolded, leading commentators to believe that this was a mass grave dug by ISIS militants between 2014 and 2016. In a month with relatively few ISIS attacks on NES, the discovery is a salient reminder of the destructive power of the would-be caliphate.
Workers exhume the skeletal remains of 29 individuals, including two children, in Manbij city on the 22nd.