November Sleeper Cell Report – the fight against ISIS in the shadow of Turkey’s military operation

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Key Points

  • 17 sleeper cell attacks in November, down from October’s 22.
  • 5 military personnel and 4 civilians killed, roughly similar to October.
  • 2 outbreak attempts and 2 murders in al-Hol camp.
  • 7 SDF counter-ISIS raids, 4 with US/Coalition involvement, saw 22 suspected ISIS members arrested – also down from October.
  • Turkish military operation in NES affected the fight against ISIS heavily and anti-ISIS raids from SDF were paused for a while.

In-depth

Sleeper cell activity decreased a little in November, with seventeen confirmed attacks, which left five military personnel and four civilians dead, and six military personnel and ten civilians injured. Despite this fall, ISIS sought to take direct advantage of Turkish attacks and SDF personnel say the group is waiting for an opportunity to make a larger-scale operation.

November was dominated by a high-intensity period of Turkish attacks, beginning at 00:00 on the 20th, when Turkey launched a string of air strikes across NES (and northern Iraq), using both warplanes and drones. The Turkish government named this ‘Operation Claw-Sword’. Across the following days, Turkey bombed places from as far west as Shehba, to as far east as Derik, striking civilian infrastructure and military posts alike. Schools, oil and gas infrastructure, electricity power stations, grain silos, and medical buildings were amongst the key sites Turkey targeted. The state of emergency caused by these attacks left an open gap for ISIS to exploit. As Newroz Ahmed, SDF General Commander, explained to RIC, “It is natural that we are made weaker against ISIS when we have to protect ourselves from the Turkish side. The first threat is Turkish. Our work against ISIS has to be second. And this makes ISIS ten times stronger, more powerful. ISIS gets a big opportunity from this situation, to strengthen their plans, prepare for attacks. […] We suffer because we are hit from two sides: Turkey and ISIS. How can our forces defend from two sides?”.

Within these days, Turkey also directly attacked SDF forces tasked with counter-ISIS security. First, on the 22nd, a Turkish airstrike on a joint US-SDF base killed two members of the SDF’s elite counter-terrorism force, YAT, and injured a further three. Then, on the morning of the 23rd, Turkey shelled the vicinity of Qamishlo’s Jerkin prison, which holds ISIS members. Finally, on the evening of the 23rd, Turkey carried out three airstrikes on a security checkpoint of al-Hol camp, killing eight SDF personnel responsible for guarding the camp. A military source told RIC that since the attacks on Jerkin prison and al-Hol camp, Turkish drones have been circling the areas unceasingly. RIC also released a longer report this month, unpacking the implications of Turkey’s military operation on global counter-ISIS efforts.

Al-Hol camp after the Turkish airstrikes, November 23rd.

There were two breakout attempts from al-Hol camp recorded. Following the Turkish airstrikes on a camp security checkpoint on the 23rd, which killed eight SDF camp security personnel, six ISIS-affiliated individuals made an escape attempt. All were later caught and detained. Then again on the 25th, another escape attempt was again thwarted by the security forces. This time both women and children were involved. US Central Command’s General Michael Kurilla has drawn attention to the high importance placed on children by ISIS cells in al-Hol camp. Children trained by ISIS members in the camp comprise the so-called Cubs of the Caliphate. During the SDF’s ‘Operation Humanity and Security’, back in August and September, the Asayish confiscated a range educational materials used to teach children ISIS ideology. In a CENTCOM statement this month, Kurilla declared, “The children in the camp are prime targets for ISIS radicalization [… and] al Hol camp is a fertile ground for the next generation of ISIS”. He continued, “there are thousands of women and children here who would embrace the chance to just go home, escape this squalor and misery and live a normal life. But the longer we leave them in these conditions, the greater the chance they will instead raise the next generation of extremists”.

In the aftermath of Turkey’s airstrikes on the camp security point, Jinan Hanan, al-Hol camp administrator, reported that over half the NGOs in the camp suspended their work. She added that the security situation was critical, with the security forces at risk of losing control of the camp if Turkey escalated its attacks. Sheikhmus Ahmed, co-chair of AANES’ Office of IDPs and Refugee Affairs, told RIC that he sees Turkey as aiming to create disorder inside the camp, where living conditions are already dire, in order to force SDF to divert resources to the camp in a critical period. After Turkey’s strikes on al-Hol camp security forces, and the subsequent breakout attempt, the SDF accused Turkey of siding with ISIS: “the Turkish occupation is trying to revive the terrorist organization ISIS. The bombing by warplanes on our forces charged with protecting al-Hol camp, in which thousands of ISIS members and families are housed, is a complete and clear proof of the relationship between Turkey and the terrorist organization”.

At the same time, on the 23rd, Mazloum Abdi, SDF General Commander, announced the suspension of all SDF raids against ISIS. Abdi declared that the SDF were forced to focus only on defending from the immediate threat of Turkish attacks. Journalists and politicians alike sought clarification from Abdi after these significant comments. Newroz Ahmed, also of the SDF General Command, confirmed to RIC that the SDF’s counter-ISIS operations were only being limited, rather than completely stopped. US Department of Defence spokesperson made a similar clarification during a press conference. However, following this, Reuters reported that a US military source declared all partnered operations with the SDF against ISIS has been stopped. Finally, clearing up the confusion, Mahmoud Berkhdan, speaking for the SDF, declared “we had to stop operations against ISIS cells for several days, but today, we started preparing a new schedule to start pursuing ISIS operations in coordination and participation with the Global Coalition”.

SDF Commander, Mazloum Abdi, stated that the SDF will halt anti-ISIS operations

The conditions in al-Hol camp were already difficult prior to the recent attacks. Medicins Sans Frontier (MSF) released a new report this month, detailing the humanitarian situation in the camp. They commented that the camp has always seen a high level of violence, and “almost everyone in the camp knows the story of a neighbour or relative who has been directly affected by […] killings. Some of the violence is clearly targeted”. MSF then said that the security situation deteriorated drastically in 2019, when “the wives, children and other relatives of thousands of killed or detained IS fighters were taken to al-Hol camp, with many of them reportedly continuing to maintain IS ideology”. This month, two Egyptian girls (known as Khadija and Hafsa, aged twelve and fifteen) were found dead in al-Hol camp. It was later confirmed they were sexually assaulted before being murdered. This comes after a two-month period with no murders recorded in the camp. Al-Monitor quoted a camp source who stated that the girls were killed after they refused to wear the Islamic veil. This event again brings to the fore the imperative that all countries with nationals in the camp hasten their repatriation missions; something security and counterterrorism experts have been repeatedly underlining. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report this month drew attention to the successes of child rehabilitation efforts following repatriation from NES. Based on three years of research, HRW showed how children of ISIS members from a range of countries have been able to reintegrate into their home country societies.

Of the seventeen ISIS sleeper cell attacks recorded this month, fourteen were in Deir ez-Zor; the part of NES where ISIS’ presence is strongest. ISIS also claimed an additional ten attacks via their Amaq News channel, which RIC was unable to independently verify. The pattern of ISIS attacks has not changed since last month. Most attacks employed the “hit and run” tactic, executed on motorcycles. Military checkpoints and personnel continue to be targeted at a time when the SDF is under massive military pressure from Turkey. 2 civilians were also shot dead in the Deir ez-Zor villages of al-Takihi and al-Zer respectively. While the SDF have upped security measures in some areas of Deir ez Zor, such as banning wearing face masks in markets and not permitting motorcycles in certain places, ISIS also seeks to stir resentment in local communities who feel unfairly affected by such measures. Aiming to erode trust in the SDF, ISIS takes advantage of any grievances people have. In the long term, the impact from ISIS’ continual low-level attacks in Deir ez-Zor is not insignificant. While destabilizing the area with constant “hit and run” shootings on the one hand, ISIS exploits people’s social and economic concerns on the other. ISIS also has been seen to directly respond to increased SDF security measures by asserting their presence more. After the SDF upped their mobilization in Suwaydan, al-Jarzy, and Abo Hardob villages, in the eastern Deir ez-Zor countryside, ISIS cells raised their flags on electricity poles and posted leaflets around the towns declaring those who ally with the SDF must repent.

Besides this, large-scale and well-prepared actions, such as the attack on Heseke prison this year, remain in ISIS’s arsenal. There have been several warnings that ISIS is indeed preparing a similar attack. SDF commander Sayel al-Zoba this month stated that the SDF “obtained information that sleeper cells of ISIS were preparing to attack prisons which house ISIS members”. On the 30th, AANES’ Justice and Reform Office announced a state of alert due to intelligence that sleeper cells were preparing for an attack on a prison in Qamishlo city which holds ISIS members. The attack did not materialize but the threat level remains high, SDF personnel report.

Outside of Deir ez-Zor, ISIS planted a bomb in one of Raqqa’s city markets, which exploded causing no casualties, and killed 2 SDF members in al-Karama town, Raqqa countryside.

SDF and Asayish anti-ISIS raids fell from eleven conducted last month to only seven this month. Four of those seven were carried out in joint operations with US forces. The number suspected ISIS members arrested also fell compared to last month, from twenty-nine to twenty-two. In one notable raid on November 27th, the SDF arrested a ten-man sleeper cell in Abu Khashab, Deir ez-Zor. They report seizing numerous weapons and ammunition, including eighteen AK-47s, forty-five IEDs, two hand grenades, and four hunting rifles. A further seven of the twenty-two total arrests came on November 5th in al Ezba town, Deir ez-Zor. SDF forces and the Internal Security forces dismantled an ISIS cell, different weapons and passports were confiscated.

Weapons seized from a sleeper cell in Abu Khashab

On the 30th, the US Central Command announced the death of ISIS’ caliph (the highest leader), Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. The US statement said he was killed by the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) in Daraa Governate. The SDF denied involvement. It was clarified that the Free Syrian Army referred to the faction of the FSA now reconciled with the Damascus government, not the former FSA which became the Syrian National Army (Turkey’s proxy force in northern Syria), nor the Syrian Free Army (Al-Tanf rebels) working with the US. This marks the third ISIS caliph killed in three years. The first caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in Idlib in October 2019. Then, during a US operation this February, his successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was killed.