January Sleeper Cell Report – Two large-scale raid campaigns from the SDF

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Key Points

  • No violent incidents in al-Hol camp.
  • 20 confirmed sleeper cell attacks, down from December’s 28.
  • 10 military and 5 civilians killed, 12 military injured, 1 civilian injured; broadly on par with last month.
  • 145 suspected ISIS-linked individuals arrested in raids; sharply up from last month’s 17.
  • Conflict Armament Research reports that ISIS uses weapons produced by the SNA.


January saw a decrease in sleeper cell attacks, going from 28 in December to 20 in January. Still, the number of deaths from these attacks remained almost on par. With 10 SDF members and 5 civilians killed and another 12 SDF personnel and 1 civilian injured, January witnessed only 1 death less than December, which had a total count of 16. ISIS claimed an additional 2 attacks through their Amaq News channel, which RIC was unable to independently verify. 

Interestingly, 13 out of the 20 confirmed sleeper cell attacks occurred neither in the usual hotspots of Deir-ez-Zor nor al-Hol camp; rather many of them were in or around Raqqa, the former so-called capital of ISIS. This coincided with a sustained high number of deadly attacks; a trend that has continued since the change in leadership following the killing of ISIS’ former leader at the end of last November. Meanwhile, the remaining 7 of the 20 attacks took place in Deir-ez-Zor, indicating the continued strength of ISIS in the region, which was the last area liberated from the latter by the SDF in 2019. 

Al-Hol camp was relatively quiet this month; one escape attempt was aborted by the security forces. However, 5 SDF members were reportedly arrested by the SDFs counter terrorism Unit (YAT) and stand accused of smuggling ISIS families out of al-Hol camp. Later in the month, another 6 Asayish members were arrested on the same charge. 

Regarding repatriation efforts, Iraq took home 584 individuals from al-Hol camp, and Spain 15 from al-Roj camp. Barbados also repatriated 3 of its citizens. The US’ CENTCOM emphasized the importance of the efforts of the SDF to reduce the number of al-Hol camp inhabitants, acknowledging the ongoing danger from the camp. Illustrating this point, local media this month reported the circulation of a video of children in al-Hol camp swearing their allegiance to ISIS’ new leader. The large minor population in the camp further underlines the pressing need to reduce its population through repatriation: the SDF, Coalition actors, and NGOs have stated that vulnerable children in a camp where humanitarian conditions are dire are easily exploited by extremist actors. US Colonel Joe Buccino describes how the spreading of ISIS ideology continues to “threaten to radicalize a new generation of fighters and fuel the group’s resurgence”.  

A repatriation delegation from Barbados meets with AANES officials.

This month, the SDF and Asayish conducted 22 counter-ISIS raids, 16 with the involvement of the International Coalition. These yielded the arrest of 145 individuals suspected to be members of or affiliated with ISIS. 2 ISIS members were also killed during a raid by the YAT in Deir-ez-Zor on December 10th; weapons and ammunition were confiscated in connection with the raid. 

SDF Press published an image of ISIS’ top leader in Raqqa, following his arrest.

The SDF’s ‘Jazira Thunderbolt’ campaign, which began in December, ended on January 6th. It was followed up on January 25th by ‘Operation Retaliation for Raqqa Martyrs’, the name of which refers to an ISIS attack on Raqqa’s Asayish headquarters last month which left 6 casualties. The SDF’s latter operation was concentrated on the region around Raqqa and continued into February. Within this, there were 32 arrests on December 27th in and around Raqqa. According to an SDF statement, 2 ISIS members who facilitated the aforementioned attack on the Asayish headquarters were among the arrested. Weapons, ammunition and documents were also confiscated in the raid. Also among the arrestees was ISIS’ top leader in Raqqa, according to the SDF. The Coalition’s engagement in Raqqa will likely be a longer-term thing, as this month saw them open a new military base in Raqqa, solidifying their presence there after a period of relative absence. The frequency of the counter-ISIS raids in Deir ez-Zor this month prompted some popular protests, as people declared that the SDF were making swathes of arbitrary arrests, and demanded the release of detainees.

The SDF’s ‘Jazira Thunderbolt’ campaign. 

ISIS’ regional operations in NES are enabled by global-scale fundraising and organizing. This month, the Indian authorities arrested 2 people on the charge of raising money for ISIS, while the US treasury department and Turkey imposed sanctions on individuals involved in a network partly based in Turkey  which “played a key role in money management, transfer, and distribution” for ISIS. Meanwhile, a UK citizen was also jailed for funding ISIS. 

This January also marked the one year anniversary of ISIS’ attack on Sina’a Prison in Heseke. A recent investigation of Conflict Armament Research in North and East Syria documented a total of 9 weapons recovered from ISIS forces used in 3 prison break operations, including that of Heseke in January 2022. Analyzing unique marks on the weapons, Conflict Armament Research concluded that the weapons recovered from ISIS were once held by 6 different SNA brigades.

Mazloum Abdi, SDF Commander in Chief stated mid-January that the SDF is preparing for a Turkish ground invasion in February, raising concerns about the likely effect on the fight against ISIS. The US state secretary Anthony Blinken emphasized at the end of the month that any military intervention from Turkey “potentially would disrupt the efforts to continue to keep Daesh at bay and take the focus off of that, where it needs to be.  And so it’s not, frankly, in anyone’s interests.” 

The reappraisal of ISIS’ crimes were on the agenda in Germany this month as well. The German parliament recognised the genocide of the Yazidi people conducted by ISIS in 2014. The recognition is important for further law enforcement in Germany, where the biggest Yazidi diaspora community worldwide lives. 



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