February Sleeper Cell Report – US personnel injured in sleeper cell raid

Fire ablaze in NES’ al-Hol camp

Key points

  • 10 independently confirmed sleeper cell attacks, far down from January’s 20.
  • 1 military personnel and 3 civilians killed, significantly down from 15 deaths last month.
  • 7 arrests and 5 deaths of ISIS members during raids.
  • Fire in al-Hol camp and outbreak attempt.
  • UN report criticizing AANES’ handling of children of ISIS families is met with sharp rebuttal from the Autonomous Administration.


February saw a decrease in sleeper cell attacks, with the number of attacks halving from 20 to 10. ISIS also claimed responsibility for an additional 2 attacks, which RIC could not independently confirm. These 10 attacks saw 1 military personnel and 3 civilians killed; far down from last month in which the death count reached 15. In addition to this month’s 4 deaths, 3 military personnel and one civilian were injured in sleeper cell attacks. On several occasions this month, ISIS targeted oil investors in Deir ez-Zor who reportedly refused to pay zakat.

After two months in which increased sleeper cell activity in and around Raqqa could be observed, this month’s attacks were heavily concentrated in the Deir-ez-Zor region again, which remains a sleeper cell stronghold. Nevertheless on February 10th, ISIS demonstrated its ongoing capability to carry out attacks across NES, with an IED attack on a car in Heseke, in which 2 people were injured. 

Al-Hol camp saw a relatively quiet month. On February 23rd a fire broke out in the foreign sector, as some camp residents also attempted to flee. The cause of the fire is still unknown, but only material damage has been reported. The foreigners’ section in al-Hol camp is regarded by the camp authorities as particularly sensitive as many women there are ideologically committed to ISIS and actively work to spread the group’s ideology to children in the camp. With over 50,000 residents, most of them women and children, the US’ CENTCOM recognizes that “the children in the camp are prime targets for ISIS radicalization.”

This month, the United Nations Human Rights Office released a statement discussing NES’ Roj camp, which holds 2,246 ISIS-linked foreign women & children. The statement expressed concern at a “pattern of forcibly removing boys who reach the ages of 10/12 from the camp, separating them from their mothers & siblings & taking them to unknown locations”. The AANES responded, stating that separating children from their parents is part of their deradicalization programs: “From time to time, the camp administration takes out some adolescent children, which is the child age stage most responsive to extremism, by placing them in rehabilitation and reform centers”. AANES lambasted the “clear international inaction” regarding ISIS-linked foreigners in NES, stating this “leads to the escalation of the security challenge in these camps & prisons, as they have turned into a place for ISIS itself & children grow up in an extremist environment”. UNHCR also spoke of the responsibilities lying with the international community, saying: “Countries whose boy children are detained in the camps must ensure their immediate safety, prevent their separation from their mothers and other potential violations of their human rights”. AANES stated that its prisons, camps, & rehabilitation centers are open for outside organizations to visit, if they wish to document the reality on the ground, and said the accusation of “abduction, imprisonment or exploitation of children is baseless”. The importance of repatriation was also noted by UNHCR: “States must urgently repatriate them [detained boys], together with their mothers, a solution that we now know is absolutely feasible”. The risks posed by allowing children to grow up in an environment such as al-Hol and Roj camps was underscored this month when reports emerged that children were being sexually abused by ISIS women.

February’s repatriation efforts saw 59 people returning to Kyrgyzstan, 154 Iraqi families leaving al-Hol camp and taken to Mosul camp in Iraq, and 2 children and one woman repatriated to Slovakia. In a lengthy report, Human Rights Watch called on Trinidad and Tobago to repatriate over 90 nationals who reside in al-Hol camp. Meanwhile, Morocco’s foreign minister claimed to have no partner to negotiate with about repatriations from NES.

Kyrgyz delegation at the office of the Foreign Relations’ Department of the AANES in Qamishlo.

One key obstacle to swifter repatriation is that many countries are wary of repatriating ISIS-linked individuals if there is not clear evidence that can be used in court to prosecute them upon return. Governments who have pursued such legal channels have had varying results. Currently, 12 Dutch women are being sued for being involved with ISIS and recently a Danish-Bosnian woman had her Danish citizenship removed after being sentenced to 4 years of prison by a Danish court. In a widely-reported case, Shamima Begum, a former UK-Bangladeshi citizen, and current Roj camp resident, lost her appeal to gain back her UK citizenship after it had been stripped for her involvement in ISIS. The UK government now has no obligations to repatriate her. 

In February, the SDF conducted 8 raids against ISIS, at least 3 of them with US involvement, in which 5 ISIS members were killed and 7 suspects arrested. Among the arrested was the ISIS leader Khalaf Abdullah, also known as Abu Obeida al-Shami. He was arrested in Raqqa. The ISIS leaders Mohammad Al-Sari Al-Fadgham and Hamza al-Homsi were also killed in two different raids, after they refused to surrender to the coalition forces. 4 coalition military personnel and one dog were wounded in combat, making minor waves in the US, as critics questioned the viability of US forces in Syria, while Sinam Mohamad, the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council to the U.S., stated that, “the U.S. presence in northeast Syria is still essential to end ISIS.” Regarding the ongoing international dimension of ISIS, a US statement in February emphasized the need for greater international involvement in the defeating-ISIS mission.