September Sleeper Cell Report – information gained through ‘Operation Humanity and Security’ helps SDF uncover huge ISIS weapons cache

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SDF anti-terror units conduct a raid in Heseke.

Key points

  • ‘Operation Humanity and Security’ concluded in al-Hol camp, with a further 105 arrests, following on from the 121 people already arrested during the operation in August. 
  • Violence inside al-Hol camp was low, the same as August. 
  • Frequency of recorded sleeper cell attacks (23) remained similar to August (25).
  • Outside of ‘Operation Humanity and Security’, 19 raids conducted by the SDF and Coalition saw 63 suspected ISIS members arrested, and one particular raid uncovered a huge weapons cache.
  • Figures within and outside of NES renewed calls for repatriation. 


Following on from heightened activity during August, ISIS sleeper cells continued to launch attacks throughout September, particularly in the Deir ez-Zor area. This month, RIC recorded a total of 23 attacks conducted by ISIS sleeper cells, killing 19 military personnel and 10 civilians, and injuring 16 military personnel and 2 civilians. 

On the 17th of September, ‘Operation Humanity and Security’ concluded in al-Hol camp, after 24 days. In a final statement, NES’ internal security forces (Asayish) announced that a total of 226 suspected ISIS members had been arrested, 36 of whom were women. 105 of these arrests took place in September; the rest were from August. A total of 25 tunnels/trenches were found, and 3 AK-47s, 10 magazines and 388 bullets, 2 RPGs, 2 pistols, 25 grenades, 25kg of TNT explosives, 9 assault vests, various torture tools, and communications devices were seized. As well as this, the Asayish uncovered educational materials appearing to be for the purpose of spreading ISIS ideology.  During the operation, YPJ freed 2 Yazidi women from the camp, who had been forced to hide themselves and their identities for protection. They also found several women chained up in tents, with torture marks on their body, testifying to the brutality of the activities of ISIS affiliates in the camp. 

In their final statement the Asayish elaborated on what they had learned regarding the tactics and methods of sleeper cell activities, based on information gained from communication devices confiscated, as well as confessions of arrested ISIS militants. Firstly, they noted that ISIS relies heavily on women to spread its ideology in al-Hol camp. Women affiliated to ISIS hold frequent ‘educational’ sessions, carry out violent revenge attacks and intimidation within the camp, and organize children in preparation for combat roles. These women also play a crucial role in terms of transferring both information and material resources within and outside the camp. Secondly, they stated that weapons entered al-Hol camp through three main channels. [1] Employees of the humanitarian organization Bahar were helping smuggle weapons, money, as well as people, in and out of the camp. Bahar is based in Gaziantep, Turkey. [2] When the population of the camp swelled following the defeat of ISIS in Baghouz (2019), many weapons entered the camp hidden under peoples’ clothes, because the logistical and security conditions were difficult at that time. [3] Crude weapons are manufactured inside the camp, such as daggers or torture devices. 

The Asayish also stated that one of the women arrested, Rowaida Hamoud Salem from Iraq, confessed information about her role in the camp as part of the ‘Ansar al-Afifat Brigade’ which carried out numerous killings, burying corpses in sewage canals. According to the Asayish, she had weaponry smuggled in for her and other ISIS women with whom she shared a tent, in order to carry out executions and torture. She also collected information on opponents of ISIS in the camp.

From the outset of ‘Operation Humanity and Security’, it was clear that many residents in the camp reject ISIS and its ideology. Yet the persistence of the terrorist organization, and the challenges the SDF face in removing its presence, was clearly shown when, not 10 days after the completion of ‘Operation Humanity and Security’, the ISIS flag was raised from a water tower in the 5th section of the camp.

The ISIS flag, seen on a water tower in al-Hol camp.

Inside al-Hol camp, violent incidents were relatively few this month. The body of an Iraqi man was found in the camp’s 4th section, marking September’s only in-camp murder. During ‘Operation Humanity and Security’, a 7-person group of ISIS affiliates attempted an armed escape from the camp, and 2 SDF members were killed in the resulting clashes. There was also a separate 2-man breakout attempt from al-Hol camp – both persons were caught and arrested. 

Y.A.T. (anti-terror units of the SDF) in al-Hol camp during ‘Operation Humanity and Security’.

Outside al-Hol camp, recorded attacks from sleeper cells numbered 21, and were particularly concentrated in Deir ez-Zor. 15 of these attacks targeted SDF personnel directly, through machine gun or IED attacks on cars or checkpoints. In one particular attack, ISIS militants captured 6 SDF soldiers while they were traveling back from al-Omar oil field and then proceeded to shoot them whilst filming on camera. After ‘Operation Humanity and Security’ was initiated, ISIS issued a statement asking its supporters outside the camp to respond: on their news channel, ISIS claimed this attack was one such ‘retaliation’. 

SDF also reported one incident where their units were able to dismantle an IED planted on a car, thus preventing its explosion.

Aside from military casualties, a total of 10 civilians were killed and 2 were injured from sleeper cell activities across NES. In one attack in Tayyib al-Fal village, Deir ez-Zor, sleeper cell militants murdered a man and woman, leaving a note next to their bodies declaring that they were killed for “practicing witchcraft and committing heresy”. In addition, on two occasions ISIS cells hung written threats to AANES employees on public building walls in al-Basira city, Deir ez-Zor. A similar incident happened last month. Furthermore, on one occasion suspected ISIS affiliates destroyed gravestones in al-Sousah and al-Shafah towns, eastern Deir ez-Zor. 

On their Amaq news channel, ISIS also claimed they carried out an additional 12 attacks, which RIC was unable to independently verify. 

Image from ISIS’ Amaq News – ISIS militants after killing 6 SDF soldiers in a ‘retaliation’ attack.

Based on information gained through confiscated communication devices during ‘Operation Humanity and Security’, as well as confessions of arrested ISIS-linked individuals, the SDF carried out 19 security raids across NES this month, in collaboration with the US-led Global Coalition. 8 of these raids took place in Deir ez-Zor. Previously, SDF anti-terror raids in Deir ez-Zor have triggered resentment amongst some local people, particularly on occasions when mass arrests are made, and most people are later released as they have no connection to ISIS. At the same time, local people in Deir ez-Zor suffer greatly at the hands of ISIS terror activities, therefore demand higher standards from the SDF, with regards to stamping out sleeper cells. Zaeam al-Mahmoud, a notable from Deir ez-Zor’s al-Mashor tribe, recently stated “we demand the SDF to intensity their security campaigns to spread security and stability in the region and to eliminate terrorist cells”. 

Across the 19 raids, the SDF arrested a total of 63 suspected ISIS members and reported that 6 of those had particular work financing the activities of sleeper cells, through arranging money transfers and providing communications aid. One raid in Qirewan village, Tel Hamis, saw the SDF uncover a huge store of weapons, ammunition, and explosive materials. 200 RPGs, 58 AK-47s, 19 grenades, 19 mines, and extensive quantities of TNT were amongst the items confiscated. In the months preceding ISIS’ attempted prison outbreak in Heseke in January of this year, SDF raids uncovered similar weapons’ caches, though none of this scale. Such weapons stores suggest ISIS is making preparations for another large-scale attack. 

In a raid in Tel Hamis, the SDF found a huge cache of ISIS weaponry.

This month also saw notable Asayish activities outside of formal raids. On the 20th of September, the Asayish attempted to stop a suspicious car. An ISIS Emir (top commander) was inside. The resulting clashes saw the Emir shot dead and several members of the Asayish injured. Later that day, the Asayish reported thwarting an attempted attack on al-Hol camp. A sleeper cell had prepared 2 car bombs for the attack. Asayish report intercepting the cell near um-Fakik village, where the cell detonated 1 of their car bombs. In the ensuing fighting, Asayish claim 4 cell members were killed, whilst 1 was injured and subsequently arrested. Asayish dismantled the second car bomb & seized 3 AK-47s. 

Throughout September, political and military figures from both within and outside of NES called for greater action regarding repatriation. Commander of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Claude Tudor, stated: “we call on all states whose citizens are present in this camp […] to come and receive their citizens and support the humanitarian activities carried out here. There is no military solution to the Syrian crisis and to the camps here.” Ali al-Hassan, of the Asayish General Command, stated: “the dilemma of al-Hol camp is not local but international, requiring support & solidarity from all countries, by transferring their nationals from the camp or by providing support to our forces.” 

If certain women in al-Hol camp are central to ISIS’ mobilization in the current period, it is children in the camp who are central to ISIS’ future mobilization. The commander of US operations in the Middle East, Michael Kurilla, made an urgent appeal to the international community on the 9th of September after his visit to al-Hol camp, saying that, “with approximately 80 births in the camp each month, this place is a literal breeding ground for the next generation of ISIS. […] Young people are vulnerable to radicalization”. Kurilla directly stated, “there is no military solution to the threat posed by the al-Hol camp. I am certain of that. The most durable solution is for countries of origin to repatriate, rehabilitate, and reintegrate their citizens.” He then directly called out Iraq, noting that around half of al-Hol residents are Iraqi, therefore Iraqi efforts to repatriate, rehabilitate, and reintegrate its citizens needed to be much faster. 28,118 out of 54,696 Hol camp residents are Iraqi. 

Siamand Ali, director of the YPG Media Center, said in an interview that, “children in al-Hol camp will be a big threat in the future if ISIS ideology and mentality stay in their minds. Given that half of the children in the camp are younger than 12, ISIS can easily plant its ideology in their heads”. He added that, “camps are like an academy, where ISIS can do training, planning, and reinvent itself, so that with time the danger will increase if we don’t take a stand against this. If each country does not take care of their citizens and take their prisoners back to stop this ideology being imposed on these children on a daily basis, we will see a more dangerous ISIS project in the coming years, not only against North and East Syria, but against the whole world.”

Commander of the NATO Mission in Iraq, General Giovanni M. Iannucci, also publicly recognised the grave humanitarian and security challenges within al-Hol camp. 

Politicians have also been active in calling for the international community to fulfil its obligations with regards to its citizens. Siham Daoud of the Future Syria Party stated that, “this camp [Hol], which constitutes a fertile ground for the return of ISIS and the dissemination of its ideology […] poses a great danger to humanity and to all countries, not only to the North and East of Syria, and for that, international organizations and their countries that have citizens who joined ISIS must take back their citizens and try them in their countries.” Daoud called on the countries within the Coalition to assume their responsibilities towards this dangerous camp. Bassam al-Hamad, of NES’ Democratic Union Party, stated that, “the ‘Humanity and Security’ campaign has created a partial solution to the systematic extremism within the camp” and lamented the lack of international repatriation, saying, “we have previously called for the establishment of an international court for these elements and to prosecute them legally, but there is no response to the matter.”

Following a meeting between the Spanish Ambassador to Iraq and the Iraqi National Security Advisor, Spain declared that it would try to repatriate its nationals. Such statements need to be met by action; however, many countries purport to have domestic difficulties in bringing their nationals home for prosecution. In this line, the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) could prove important in the coming months. The ICRC has just appointed a new Special Coordinator for Syria, stating that they aim to “facilitate sharing of experiences and learning among states for returns/repatriations” from Hol camp. Furthermore, two US Senators, Jeanna Shaheen and Lindsey Graham, recently introduced the Syria Detainee and Displaced Persons Act to the senate, which proposes a senior official from the US State Department to lead US government efforts to close the camps in NES, through coalescing international support and establishing an interagency strategy to address the challenges related to repatriation and prosecution. This came after a visit to Hol camp this summer, where Shaheen described the situation as “unnerving and growing more dangerous”. Such plans, which seek to address the issue of al-Hol camp in a coordinated, international framework, rather than leave individual countries to do as they see fit, are crucial steps. 

The Asayish also called on international concerned parties and observers to see the relationship between Turkish government and intelligence, and ISIS sleeper cells inside and outside al-Hol camp, including the movements of ISIS leaders in the Turkish-occupied areas. A range of events this month also lend weight to claims that Turkey aids ISIS sleeper cell activities. During ‘Operating Humanity and Security’, 2 of those arrested were Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah and Mahmoud Mikhlif Talib Shaaban, both originally from Iraq. Following arrest, they reportedly gave information to the SDF, revealing that there were special guest houses for ISIS mercenaries in Turkey, and that most wounded ISIS militiamen are taken to Turkey for hospital treatment. Furthermore, following one particular raid in Raqqa on the 26th, which resulted in the arrest of 4 men who were found in possession of IED devices and equipment, the SDF reported that 3 of the arrestees entered NES from SNA-controlled Sere Kaniye, and that they confessed to having received training in the Turkish-occupied areas concerning use of IEDs for terror attacks. In addition, after the SDF’s aforementioned Tel Hamis raid, which saw a huge stash of ISIS weapons seized, the SDF reported that some of the weapons were sent from Turkey to Turkish-occupied Sere Kaniye, and from there arrived to ISIS cells in NES. 

Perhaps spurred on by the anti-terror activities of its SDF neighbours, on the 3rd of September, Iraq launched the 7th phase of its ‘Operation Solid Will’ against ISIS, specifically targeting the governorates of Saladin and Diyala, aiming to clear ISIS cells from the areas. September also saw the Iraqi National Security Advisor, Qasim al-Araji, meet with the Syrian ambassador in Baghdad, Sattam al-Dandah, to discuss several security issues including al-Hol camp. According to a statement released, the two parties stressed the importance of joint work to abolish the camp as it has become a suitable environment for extremism and terrorism, as well as persecute ISIS militants. On this matter, cooperation between Iraq, the KRG, the Autonomous Administration, and the Syrian government will be key to overcoming ongoing threats from ISIS. One recent development here was that the Iraqi Joint Operations Command announced it would cooperate with the SDF with regards to intelligence, as well as enhanced Syria-Iraq border security activity, in order to pursue sleeper cells.


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