May Sleeper Cell Report – Turkish Strikes Weaken Security of Al-Hol Camp, ISIS Cells Expand Extortion Efforts

Weapons, equipment, and documents captured from an ISIS cell during an SDF raid in al-Dashisha, Heseke region. (Photo: SDF Press)

Key Points:

  • 13 confirmed sleeper cell attacks across NES in May, a decrease from 20 in April
  • One military personnel killed, 10 military personnel injured, two civilians killed, three civilians injured in ISIS attacks
  • One ISIS member killed and 38 arrested in raids
  • ISIS attempts to expand its authority through extortion and psychological warfare
  • Turkish strikes continue to target security personnel of al-Hol camp
  • Denmark, New Zealand, Russia, and Tajikistan continue repatriation efforts

In the month of May, ISIS cells carried out a total of 13 confirmed attacks, resulting in one military personnel killed, 10 military personnel injured, two civilians killed, and three civilians injured. As raids continue with increased cooperation between the SDF and its partners, ISIS cells appear to be adjusting their tactics. Instead of targeting checkpoints with the same frequency as in April, ISIS made greater use of IEDs to inflict casualties and targeted SDF leadership and offices of the Autonomous Administration. ISIS also appears to be increasing its strategy of psychological warfare, using leaflets and posters to threaten women who do not wear the hijab and workers who do not pay zakat (taxes) to ISIS. This appears to coincide with an overall expansion of strategy in expanding authority and collecting zakat. Unlike in April when oil workers were the main target of roadblocks and attacks demanding zakat, ISIS did not stop at oil workers this month. Those with above-average salaries such as doctors were also targeted

ISIS activity remains particularly strong in the towns of al-Shuhayl, al-Busayrah, and Diban, an area known by some as the “Bermuda Triangle” of ISIS. ISIS remains highly functional and capable of organizing operations in territory it no longer controls, both in NES and government-controlled territories of Syria. Attacks on government targets west of the Euphrates River remain intense, which the Syrian Arab Army struggles to counter, consequently putting pressure on the Autonomous Administration to monitor the river closely.

SDF during a raid in May. (Photo: SDF Press)

SDF and Coalition forces carried out 16 raids, resulting in 38 arrests. One person arrested in a joint operation in Abu al-Natil, Deir ez-Zor region on May 16 was released a week later, reportedly due to lack of evidence of affiliation with ISIS. Raids were largely focused on ISIS mobility and intelligence. During a May 13 raid in Raqqa, a cell was captured that was “responsible for facilitating the movements of ISIS terrorists between the cities of al-Hasaka and Raqqa, in addition to their involvement in the smuggling of ISIS prisoners and families from the al-Hol camp to the Turkish-occupied areas (Ras al-Ain/Sere Kaniye and Tal Abyad),” according to SDF Press.

The security situation of al-Hol camp worsens as Turkish strikes continue to target the camp security apparatus. On May 5, two guards of al-Hol camp were killed in a Turkish drone strike in Tel Hamis. In November, eight guards of al-Hol camp were killed in a Turkish airstrike, resulting in the escape of multiple ISIS families. Sporadic attacks on the camp’s security apparatus from the air incrementally worsen the security of al-Hol and strengthen the capabilities of ISIS cells.

Though its main targets are cells of ISIS and al-Qaeda, the Coalition still inflicts casualties on civilians. According to local accounts, a Coalition drone strike in Idlib resulted in the death of a civilian on May 3, contradicting a CENTCOM announcement claiming the man was an al-Qaeda leader. Coalition operations have occurred within the countries of the Coalition as well, the German state having on May 31 arrested seven people linked to financing ISIS. The group, comprising four Germans, a German-Moroccan, a Kosovar, and a Turkish citizen, is thought to have raised 65,000 euro for ISIS members in NES detention facilities with the intention of aiding their escape. The Coalition suggested on Twitter that the ISIS branches of Syria and Iraq are experiencing a split, but provided little evidence or context.

Arab League normalization with the Syrian state may impact Arab League cooperation with the US in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. US Department of State official Vedant Patel stated in a May 11 press briefing: “One of the United States priorities in conjunction with our partners in the Arab world is to ensure that the steps that we are taking for the degradation of ISIS and the influence that they have in the region…We have been very clear that we do not seek to normalize relations with the Assad regime, and we would not support our allies and partners doing so either.” Arab League members of the Coalition include: Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Libya, Egypt, a total of 17 out of 22 Arab League member states being members of the Coalition.

Repatriation of ISIS members and families remains minimal but continues. According to the Danish Ministry of Immigration and Integration, Denmark is set to repatriate a woman and her two children from al-Roj Camp, but this has not yet occured. On May 4, a delegation from New Zealand received a child from an ISIS family. On May 17, the Russian state reaffirmed its plans to repatriate roughly 200 children from camps controlled by the Autonomous Administration “in the near future.” On May 21, Tajikistan announced its repatriation of 31 women and 73 children, five of them citizens of Kazakhstan, from camps in NES. Though Canada was on track to repatriate four men linked to ISIS, the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal on May 31 overturned the ruling that allowed their return. Repatriation of adult men who fought for ISIS remains close to zero. The international community, while slowly responding to the AANES’ calls to repatriate, has primarily focussed on the repatriation of women and children family members of ISIS fighters. Repatriation of male fighters remains domestically unpopular in most countries, therefore governments are reluctant to do it, particularly when it appears that they will not be able to have a successful legal case against the men due to lack of evidence. The AANES however, asserts that securely holding these fighters constitutes a huge burden. In this context, the proposal of an international tribunal system to find a fair and long-term mechanism to deal with these male fighters becomes ever-more pressing.