June Sleeper Cell Report – Trials of Foreign ISIS Fighters to Commence Amid Repatriation Woes, US Soldier Pleads Guilty to Aiding ISIS


A Danish delegation meets with the Autonomous Administration to repatriate a woman and two children from Roj Camp, June 22. (Photo: AANES)

Key Points:

  • 24 sleeper cell attacks in June, an 85% increase from 13 in May 
  • 11 military personnel killed, 5 military personnel injured, 4 civilians killed and 5 civilians injured in ISIS cell attacks
  • 1 member of ISIS killed, 18 arrested in 8 confirmed raids
  • ISIS cells prioritizing targeted assassinations
  • AANES announces trial of foreign ISIS fighters 
  • Iraq and Denmark repatriate from prisons and camps, Canada refuses
  • US soldier pleads guilty to aiding ISIS

In June, ISIS cells carried out 24 confirmed attacks in NES. These attacks resulted in 11 military personnel killed, 5 military personnel injured, 4 civilians killed, and 5 civilians injured. The month of June experienced an 85% increase in confirmed attacks from May and a notable increase in both military and civilians killed. The month saw a notably higher killed-to-injured ratio of military personnel targeted in ISIS cell attacks, unlike May which saw more military personnel injured than killed. This appears to be the result of a higher emphasis on targeted assassinations. Confirmed targeted assassination attempts on military personnel and civilians were at 13 in June, as opposed to only 2 in May. In general, ISIS activity increased in both frequency and lethality.

The SDF and partner forces executed 8 confirmed raids during the month of June, down from 16 in May. 3 raids were conducted in the Heseke region and 5 in the Deir ez-Zor region, leading to 1 ISIS member killed and 18 arrested. In a failed Coalition raid on the residence of a former ISIS commander near Koniko oil field on June 19, the suspect successfully escaped. In the al-Suwar desert of Deir ez-Zor, the body of an Iraqi ISIS commander and another ISIS member were reportedly discovered with a note reading in Arabic: “everyone who deals with them will face the same fate.” The circumstances surrounding this are unclear. Meanwhile, south of the Euphrates, clashes between ISIS cells and Iran-backed militias have intensified, increasing pressure on the SDF to contain the flow of ISIS cells attempting to cross the river.

Reports from SOHR claimed that ISIS prisoners detained in an SNA-held Sere Kaniye prison were smuggled into AANES-held territory. RIC found no evidence of this event and contacted Farhad Shami, head of SDF Press Media Center on the matter, who stated that the report was not true. SNA sources claimed that there was in fact an escape from the prison and that their forces were on high alert, but made no mention of their smuggling into AANES. Sources also give conflicting numbers of escapees, with SOHR reporting 37 prisoners and SNA sources reporting 25 prisoners.

With stagnant repatriation and the failure of the international legal system to try foreign ISIS fighters in an international court, the Autonomous Administration has announced the beginning of trials for the roughly 2,000 foreign ISIS fighters held in detention facilities. On June 10, AANES stated that it will begin “open, fair and transparent trials, in accordance with international and local terrorism laws.” While steps have been taken regarding the repatriation of women and children, only 74 male foreign ISIS fighters from outside Syria and Iraq have been repatriated from detention facilities in NES since 2019. If trials of foreign ISIS fighters materialize, this will be a major unprecedented step in the legal process.

Iraqi National Security Advisor Qassim al-Araji (left) and U.N. special representative to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert (right) at a conference on al-Hol camp which took place in Baghdad on June 12. (Photo: AP)

Iraq repatriated a significant number of its citizens from NES in June, with 658 residents of al-Hol camp, plus 50 male ISIS fighters on June 3. On June 22, Denmark repatriated a woman and two children from Roj Camp after sending a delegation to NES. Denmark has repatriated a total of 22 Danish citizens from NES since 2019. 10 known ISIS prisoners from Denmark still remain in NES. The Canadian government has refused to repatriate a woman being held in detention on grounds that she retains “extreme ideological beliefs,” according to her lawyer. A May 31 Canadian Federal Court of Appeal overturning of a ruling that allowed the repatriation of prisoners has made it increasingly difficult for Canada to cooperate in the repatriation process.

The US Department of State continues to call for international cooperation in the repatriation process. Responding to US pressure, states have often repatriated a negligible number of prisoners to appear in cooperation with the process then stall the remaining repatriations indefinitely or abandon them altogether, as seen this month with Canada.

On June 14, US Army Private First Class Cole Bridges pleaded guilty to terrorism charges related to aiding ISIS. According to the US Department of Justice’s June 14 report: “An Ohio man today pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization and attempting to murder U.S. military service members based on his efforts to help the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to attack and kill U.S. soldiers in the Middle East.”