July Sleeper Cell Report – ISIS Psychological Warfare Remains Strong in Deir ez-Zor, UN Joins Calls for Repatriation


Children of ISIS during training. Screen capture from a video report of YPJ Information which includes footage collected from foreign women affiliated with ISIS.

Key Points:

  • 10 confirmed ISIS sleeper cell attacks in July, a decrease from 24 in June
  • 3 military personnel killed, 1 military personnel injured, 1 civilian killed, 1 

    civilian injured in ISIS attacks

  • In 7 SDF raids and strikes, 4 members of ISIS were killed and 12 were arrested
  • Strong psychological warfare of ISIS leads to rise of impersonation in Deir ez-Zor
  • UN representative visits NES and renews calls for repatriation
  • France ends its repatriation process, leaving many French ISIS members in custody of the Autonomous Administration

The month of July saw 10 confirmed attacks by ISIS sleeper cells, resulting in 3 military personnel killed, 1 military personnel injured, 1 civilian killed, and 1 civilian injured. ISIS continued its campaign of psychological warfare in Deir ez-Zor by postering on the walls of mosques. This month, posters were put up on the walls of mosques in al-Hassin village of northern Deir ez-Zor calling for the death of 39 residents of Deir ez-Zor for “deviating from the truth.” ISIS often publicly names those who it threatens in order to re-establish authority through the psychological spread of fear.

There has been an increase in reports of individuals taking advantage of this intangible authority of ISIS by pretending to be members of ISIS. In one case this month, local sources suggest that two men killed in a raid in Deir ez-Zor were not actual ISIS members but rather men pretending to be ISIS for the purpose of blackmail and extortion. On July 19th, the two men impersonated ISIS and raided a house in Zaiban, Deir ez-Zor demanding money from the owner.

Leaked documents from ISIS regarding their propaganda strategy show a difference in strategy and procedure among different branches of ISIS. This may also be part of a broader schism on propaganda usage in ISIS. The leaks show that many attacks are not self-publicized on ISIS’ channels due to security purposes. Thus, it is important not to rely on official ISIS claims for reliable information about the frequency and location of their attacks.

4 members of ISIS were killed and 12 were arrested in 7 confirmed raids and strikes. On Jul 7th, ISIS commander Usamah al-Muhajir was killed in a Coalition strike in “eastern Syria” and an unnamed emir was arrested by Asayish on July 22nd in Deir ez-Zor. Cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan-based Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG) continues against ISIS sleeper cells. On July 19th, a joint raid between CTG, SDF and Coalition forces resulted in the death of two members of ISIS and the arrest of one, as well as the capture of 3 rifles, 2 cellphones, 1 pistol, 1 grenade, 8 rifle magazines, 3 pistol magazines, and 1 holster.

Jingoistic tensions between Russian and US forces hampered the effectiveness of anti-ISIS operations in July. There were at least six instances of Russian Air Force disruption of Coalition anti-ISIS operations this month. On July 23rd, Russian Air Force Su-35S jets intercepted 3 Coalition MQ-9 drones and launched flares at them, which damaged the propeller of an MQ-9

On July 28th, YPJ Information released a video report on the behavior of ISIS sleeper cells titled “Raising Tomorrow’s Mujahideen,” which includes footage collected from the phones of detained foreign women affiliated with ISIS in detention camps. YPJ Information stated: “Foreign ISIS women are often depicted as naïve wives who follow their husbands into Syria. However, they play a crucial role within the Islamic State. In detention camps in North and East Syria many are educating their kids in order to keep the ‘caliphate’ alive.” Footage shows how children are trained by ISIS and how they are used for violent acts. “Desensitizing children to violence in early ages changes their moral conception of what is right and wrong. It turns them into obedient soldiers, willing to do everything and guarantee the ideological continuation of ISIS,” the report included.

UN Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin arrived in NES on July 16th, where she visited camps and detention facilities including al-Hol camp and Gweiran prison. Ní Aoláin criticized the Autonomous Administration for “indefinite and arbitrary detention in Northeast Syria.” Ní Aoláin remarked on the significance of repatriation: “The dire conditions of detention for all categories men, women and especially children, which I witnessed first-hand, make such returns absolutely imperative.” Some objections to the criticisms conveyed by the UN can be found in the The Kurdish Center for Studies’ May 2023 report, “The Children of ISIS: KCS Reports From Roj Camp”.

France announced the repatriation of 10 women and 25 children from detention facilities in NES. Subsequently, an unnamed French government official  announced that France is ending its repatriation efforts, stating to AFP: “Having repatriated all of the mothers who wanted to leave Syria, there will not be any more of these types of operations.” 80 women reportedly chose not to return to France. The latter has been particularly slow with its repatriation process relative to other states, taking a case-by-case approach and making lengthy investigations before picking individuals to repatriate while leaving the burden of dealing with the most radicalized members – those who choose not to leave – to the Autonomous Administration.

Canadian delegation with representatives of the Autonomous Administration in Qamishlo on July 6th. (Photo: North Press Agency)

Canada has resumed its repatriations despite a May 31st ruling which impeded repatriation efforts. On July 6th, 2 women and 3 children were handed over to a Canadian delegation.

The US state continues its legal campaign against ISIS within its own borders. The month of July saw a sharp uptick in American nationals prosecuted for affiliation with ISIS. In July, 2 ISIS suspects were sentenced and 1 was arrested in the US. On July 13th, Muhammad Momtaz al-Azhari of Florida was sentenced to 18 years in prison for “attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.” According to the US Department of Justice: “In or around April 2020, Al-Azhari began to plan to carry out an attack in support of ISIS. Around the same time, Al-Azhari began to acquire multiple firearms. Al-Azhari also researched and scouted potential locations for an attack in the Tampa Bay area. Since at least May 2019, Al-Azhari also consumed ISIS propaganda and spoke favorably about ISIS, to which he eventually pledged his allegiance through a bay’ah (an Islamic oath of allegiance).”

On July 14th, Kosovar-American ISIS affiliate Mirsad Kandic was sentenced to life in prison at the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, New York. According to the US Department of Justice: “As proven at trial, Kandic had multiple responsibilities within ISIS, including recruiting foreign fighters, trafficking foreign fighters from the West through Turkey and into Syria, and obtaining weapons, military equipment, maps, money, and false identifications for ISIS fighters.”

Davin Meyer in a photo he unintentionally sent to an FBI informant before attempting to travel to Iraq. (Photo: North Press Agency)

18-year old Davin Meyer of Castle Rock, Colorado was arrested by the FBI at Denver International Airport on July 14th after expressing his will to join ISIS in Iraq to an FBI informant online.

These developments follow a trend of increasing ISIS cases in the US over the summer. On June 14th, US Army Private First Class Cole Bridges pleaded guilty to terrorism charges related to aiding ISIS. Outside the US, former British citizen Abdul Majid Abdul Bari, a member of the “Beatles”, was tried in Spain on July 12th for joining ISIS. He was subsequently found dead in his cell on July 26th. The cause of death has not yet been released. Bari had been arrested in Almeria, Spain in April 2022.