October Sleeper Cell Report – quiet inside al-Hol camp, while ISIS targets AANES-affiliated individuals outside
SDF arrest an ISIS militant in al-Sabha, Deir ez-Zor.
- 22 sleeper cell attacks, one fewer than September.
- 5 military personnel and 8 civilians were killed, down from 19 and 10 respectively in September.
- 11 raids saw 29 suspected ISIS members arrested, much lower than September’s 19 raids and 63 arrests.
- Yet another prominent ISIS figure was found hiding in Turkish-occupied territory.
- No violent incidents were recorded inside al-Hol camp.
Sleeper cell activity fell a little in October (as did that of the SDF’s counter-ISIS raids), after two months of relatively frequent events in August and September, yet the threat from ISIS militants remains worryingly large, particularly in Deir ez-Zor. While al-Hol camp was unusually quiet, some notable attacks occurred outside. The US-led Coalition also reported killing 4 high-level ISIS figures across the month.
22 attacks from ISIS sleeper cells were recorded throughout October. An additional 5 attacks were claimed by ISIS, through their Amaq news channel, which RIC was unable to independently verify. Those 22 attacks saw 5 military personnel and 8 civilians killed, and 6 military personnel injured.
21 of the 22 attacks occurred in the SDF-controlled Deir ez-Zor area, while 1 attack occurred in al-Shaddadi, Heseke area, with tribes or individuals perceived as being close to AANES as the primary targets. On October 4th, sleeper cell militants targeted the car of a Deir ez-Zor Civil Council member with an IED. Previously, the council member had seen his name on an ISIS ‘hit list’ posted to civil council building walls. On the same day, ISIS killed a member of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council in al-Haraqat. On October 10th, a sleeper cell captured and killed an SDF soldier, publicising his execution on their Amaq news channel. On the 13th, Mohammad Buzan, a PYD member and member of Shaddadi District Council’s Protection Committee, was assassinated by ISIS militants whilst heading to his home in Alous village, Shaddadi. On the 14th, ISIS members attempted to assassinate the son of the sheikh of Shamr tribe, regarded as AANES-loyal, using a car bomb. On the 17th, an ISIS member stabbed the imam of a mosque in al-Hajna village, Deir ez-Zor. On the 19th, two brothers were shot dead by suspected ISIS militants in al-Busayrah, Deir ez-Zor. The pair were formerly SDF members but had left the SDF over a year ago. Through such attacks, ISIS seeks to drive a wedge between local communities and AANES/SDF by engineering an atmosphere of fear that prevents people participating in socio-political or defence structures. Sleeper cells also actively exploit the grievances local populations might have with AANES at any particular time, such as perceived responsibility for economic hardships.
ISIS publicised their execution of an SDF soldier on Amaq News
Throughout October, Deir ez-Zor business owners were intensively harassed by ISIS sleeper cell militants demanding ‘zakat’ – voluntary money contributions. On October 3rd, ISIS members blew up a money exchange office in al-Azbah village, as the owner had refused to pay, and then again targeted the same owner with an IED later in the month.
The SDF and Asayish conducted a total of 11 raids this month, which saw 29 suspected ISIS members arrested and 6 killed. 17 of those arrests came on the 17th of the month, in al-Chatunijja and al-Mansura villages, near Tabqa, where a joint Asayish-SDF group targeted two sleeper cell hideouts. They also confiscated a collection of weapons and passports. In a later raid in al-Loizyia village, Deir ez-Zor, the SDF surrounded a sleeper cell and called for surrender. The cell refused; in the resulting clashes 2 cell members were killed and 2 were arrested. On the 8th, the SDF made an arrest in Hawi al-Hawa village, near Raqqa. They reported that the man was directly facilitating sleeper cell activity through financial and logistical support. Lately, SDF Media has taken to filming certain anti-ISIS operations to publicise the work of their anti-terror units (YAT) and show how raids and arrests unfold, such as this one on October 2nd, which saw an ISIS weapons supplier arrested.
SDF arrest a man in Hawi al-Hawa village, Raqqa
6 of October’s 11 raids involved the Global Coalition or US directly. The Coalition has continued to vocalise its support for the SDF in the fight against ISIS and offer some military and logistical aid. On October 11th, large military reinforcements from the Coalition arrived in Heseke and Deir ez-Zor: 100 military trucks with weaponry and logistical supplies, as well as fire trucks and ambulances, entered from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, travelling to Coalition bases in NES. Again, on the 16th and 17th of October, two more convoys entered NES, with a total of over 60 trucks arriving at bases in al-Shaddadi.
Coalition military supplies arriving
The US Central Command reported killing 3 significant ISIS figures on the 6th of October, releasing two slightly unclear statements. Firstly, they stated that a helicopter raid in Qamishlo targeted “Rakkan Wahid al-Shammri, an ISIS official known to facilitate the smuggling of weapons and fighters to support ISIS operations”. The raid actually took place in the village of Milouk Saray, south of Qamishlo, which falls within the small section of land in the Jazeera region controlled by Syrian government forces (SAA). This is the first known such strike by the US in the SAA-controlled NES and it is unclear if it was conducted with or without the Syrian government’s approval. In a following statement, they declared that a “successful airstrike” took place in “northern Syria” – without giving more information regarding the location – which killed Abu Hashum al-Umawi and another senior ISIS official associated with him.
On October 10th, the Global Coalition carried out a drone strike near Hammam al-Turkman village – Turkish-occupied territory, under SNA control – killing Mustafa al-Arouda, a significant figure within ISIS. This marked yet another occasion whereby an ISIS leadership figure was targeted in a strike after being located in one of Syria’s Turkish-occupied areas, showing that ISIS continues to feel comfortable moving through, staying in, and operating from these places. ISIS leaders have been found hiding out close to the Turkish border in the three areas controlled by SNA factions following Turkey’s three invasions (Afrin, ‘M4 strip’, and the Jarablus/Azaz/al-Bab area), as well as HTS-controlled Idlib. All areas have a significant Turkish military and political presence. A different relationship exists between Turkey and SNA factions compared to Turkey and HTS, as explained in RIC’s recent report. Whilst SNA is clearly a Turkish proxy militia, HTS is protected militarily and diplomatically by Turkey, but less obviously. The presence of former ISIS members in SNA factions is well-documented. Turkey is aware of and tolerates the ISIS presence within its proxy militias. Former ISIS fighters have also been found within HTS and a 2022 UN report described Idlib as being a “limited safe haven” for ISIS. RIC documented over 40 ISIS members who joined the Turkish-controlled forces in north-western Syria, whilst Syrian Observatory of Human Rights recorded over 70 former ISIS members who joined the Turkish-controlled forces in the occupied territories east of the Euphrates. Two of ISIS’ previous top leaders – Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – were both killed by Coalition operations in HTS-controlled Idlib, where they were hiding within several kilometers of the Turkish border.
In total, in the past year alone, 6 significant ISIS members have been found in the occupied territories through US-led operations.
Abu Abdullah al-Raqqawi, killed in SNA-controlled Suluk town, near Tel Abyad.
Abu Hamza al-Shuhail, killed in SNA controlled al-Adwaniya, near Sere Kaniye.
Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, killed in HTS-controlled Atmeh, Idlib, close to the Turkish border.
Hani Ahmed al-Kurdi, captured in al-Humayra, only 4 km from the Turkish border, close to SNA-controlled Jarablus.
Two senior ISIS officials, killed just outside SNA-controlled Jindires, Afrin.
Mustafa al-Arouda, killed near SNA-controlled Hammam al-Turkman village.
In an interview on the 2nd of October, Nuri al-Khalil, a commander in Deir ez-Zor’s Military Council, stated that he sees Turkey as covertly supporting sleeper cells, through practices like facilitating ISIS’ movements and logistics, or turning a blind eye to their presence, in the Turkish-occupied territories, in order to further its own ambitions in NES.
Al-Hol camp was unprecedentedly silent throughout October, with no violent incidents or break-out attempts. This could optimistically be seen as a sign of the success of August and September’s ‘Operation Humanity and Security‘, which saw the SDF and Asayish mobilize to locate and remove ISIS elements from the camp. However, those responsible for ‘Humanity and Security’ repeatedly have emphasized that the operation was not in itself a solution to sleeper cell organization and activity; rather just a short-term necessity in the face of rising in-camp violence. Furthermore, an absence of recorded violent incidents this month does not indicate that sleeper cells are no longer active in the camp. A more likely explanation is that those ISIS affiliates who remain in the camp are taking time to plan, recruit, and organize.
7 foreign repatriation delegations visited AANES to take home ISIS-linked foreign nationals held in Hol camp – the third highest number of delegations seen in one month since repatriations began in 2018. Yet, most repatriation delegations only repatriate a select few individuals. Almost half of all repatriation delegations that have visited NES have only taken a mere 1-4 of their citizens. Therefore, despite delegations arriving to NES not infrequently, the rate of repatriation stays slow. The SDF has repeatedly called for coordinated, international, rapid political effort to disband al-Hol and the other camps holding ISIS-affiliated individuals and family members, citing breakout possibilities and spread of ISIS ideology amongst children in camps as a regional and global threat. The sluggish, piecemeal approach many countries are adopting with regards to receiving their own nationals, shows a failure to take seriously SDF’s continual assertions that the presence of foreign, ISIS-linked individuals in NES’ overburdened camps is a heavy security risk. This month, Kamal Akef, spokesperson of AANES’ Department of Foreign Relations, stated that practical steps are needed to close all camps that house ISIS members and their families, explaining that Hol camp is “a burden for us as AANES, and the world should discuss it at an international level”.