August Sleeper Cell Report – unrest in Deir ez-Zor takes headlines.


Deir ez-Zor Military Council leaders in al-Kasra town, Deir ez-Zor.

Key Points

  • 22 confirmed ISIS sleeper cell attacks occurred in NES; more than double that of July.
  • 10 military personnel were killed, 14 military personnel were injured, and 6 civilians were killed in ISIS attacks.
  • In 10 SDF and Coalition raids, 6 members of ISIS were killed and 23 were arrested. 1 civilian was also killed.
  • The UN Secretary-General’s 17th ISIL report was released, alongside rising concerns about situation of children in the Al-Hol and Roj camps.
  • There was an episode of violent unrest in Deir ez-Zor, amidst an SDF “Security Enhancement Operation”.

Chief in August was the SDF’s “Security Enhancement Operation”, and subsequent upsurge in violent clashes in Deir ez-Zor, that took place at the end of the month. While these clashes were not directly instigated by ISIS cells, there is no doubt that the organization was able to reap benefit from the situation. Connections between ISIS and some militiamen in the Deir ez-Zor region were reported, yet the attacks and the casualties they caused cannot be directly attributed to ISIS. Similarly, although evidence surfaced of ISIS affiliates amongst the SNA faction members attacking NES along the Manbij contact line at the same time as the Deir ez-Zor unrest, these attacks are not counted as ISIS attacks, as they were not planned, organized, and carried out by the group. Hence, this report only counts those attacks specifically attributed to ISIS.

Throughout the month, ISIS sleeper cells conducted destabilising actions, confirming their retention of some strength in NES. 22 attacks were carried out, almost all in the Deir ez-Zor countryside (which remains, as it has been since its liberation from ISIS in 2019, by far the most sensitive region, accounting for almost 80% of attacks), resulting in the deaths of 6 civilians and 10 SDF personnel, with 14 others injured. This month also saw 1 civilian injured and 5 killed by the explosion of old mines that had been laid by ISIS during the time of the caliphate. These mines have claimed many lives across NES and although most areas are now assumed to be mine-free after years of de-mining efforts, old mine explosions still continue up to the present day. This victims are often minors, as was the case this month.

The monthly toll of ISIS personnel killed (6) and arrested (23) in SDF raids rose from last month. These included two reportedly senior members of the organisation. A civilian was also killed in a raid by Coalition forces on a house in which a wanted ISIS member had taken refuge. In addition, at the beginning of the month, ISIS finally acknowledged the death of its former leader, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi, and announced the appointment of Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Qurashi as the organization’s 5th caliph. ISIS said he was killed by HTS in Idlib, contradicting Turkey’s claim to have killed him some months earlier.

The UN Secretary-General’s 17th ISIS report was released, which stated: “ISIS continues to command between 5,000 and 7,000 members across Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, most of whom are fighters”. Vladimir Voronkov, head of the United Nations Office on Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), presented the conclusions of this report to ministers meeting at the United Nations Security Council on August 25th, explaining that: “ISIS has adopted less hierarchical and more networked decentralised structures, following in the footsteps of al-Qa’ida, with greater operational autonomy for its affiliated groups”. US officials have reportedly expressed concern that, with the US shifting its intelligence resources away from the Middle East, the Biden administration may find it difficult to keep up with the threat posed by ISIS, which continues to operate primarily in the tough-to-govern Badia area in Syria and Iraq. Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordanian researcher specialising in terrorism issues, believes that, “the absence of a political solution in Syria, the decline in international interest in ISIS and the change in its tactics are all subjective and objective reasons that indicate that ISIS has begun to recover and will carry out further attacks”.

The reality on the ground underlines these concerns. The number of attacks and victims in August more than doubled from July. Most attacks were directed at individuals – SDF personnel and civilians. As is generally the case in the region, the preferred method of attack is a hit-and-run shooting from a motorbike. Two separate attacks in Deir ez-Zor also saw a bakery and a petrol station respectively set on fire due to the business owners refusing to pay “zakat” (one of the 5 pillars of Islam, supposed to be a measure of charity in solidarity with the poor). Meanwhile, ISIS continue making efforts to enforce their ideology in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor in particular, where the SDF’s security efforts are struggling. This month, ISIS cells again hung leaflets in the town of Al-Tayana (including on some houses), threatening to “punish” any women in the town who do not comply with their understanding of the Islamic dress code. These leaflets list strict rules for wearing the niqab, specifying the need to differentiate oneself from men and infidels, the imperative of total coverage, the width and opacity of the fabric, the absence of eye-catching elements and the ban on using perfume.

ISIS leaflet – rules of Islamic dress code for women.

The issue of repatriation of ISIS-linked foreign nationals and their family members from NES has gained a little more attention from international bodies and governments, with a Canadian delegation visiting NES this month to discuss the issue. While presenting the aforementioned UN report, Natalia Gherman, Executive Director of Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), commended the efforts made so far and referenced the ongoing need for states to take responsibility for repatriating their citizens. However, concrete steps to accelerate the process of lifting the burden of securing these foreign individuals from the shoulders of the AANES and SDF have not been seen. In August, the only repatriation mission to come to NES was a Kyrgyzstan delegation, which took home 94 people: 30 women and 64 children.

Most of those in need of repatriation are children. In NES’ al-Hol camp, where dire living conditions and a poor security situation make fertile ground for ISIS affiliates to enforce their rule, children are victims of ISIS recruitment.  The UN report also referenced this danger, stating that, “Da’esh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] has maintained its ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’ programme, which had involved children recruited in the overcrowded Hawl camp between 2014 and 2017”, but that the program is now “characterized as more operationally experienced and more organized”, and is assessed to “pose a heightened threat in the short term”, adding that “children continued to be recruited within the camp for Da’esh suicide operations”.

Khaled Ibrahim, of the AANES’ Foreign Relations Department, acknowledged that the children living in al-Hol and Roj camps risk exposure to sexual and domestic abuse. “Children of the age of 12 and above are sexually exploited to increase ISIS offspring based upon fatwas issued by their emirs, they claim”, he said. These are key reasons why the AANES has tried in some cases to remove children from the camps and integrate them into de-radicalisation programmes. These measures have not failed to arouse the indignation of international rights organizations and representatives such as Fionnuala Ni Aolain – UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism – who expressed her “deep concern over the distressing treatment of children being held apparently indefinitely in prison-like conditions in northeast Syria, where they are forcibly separated from their mothers”. While there is no doubt that living conditions can be improved – if the international community are willing to provide the much-needed funds – it is equally clear that a good solution to this problem is not simple. Foreign women in al-Hol camp are those most committed to upholding and practicing ISIS’ ideology within the camp. To allow their children to grow up in such an environment would also be an abject failure. If the AANES and the SDF are to successfully grapple with this challenge, the Global Coalition and the rest of the international community need to actively partake in finding solutions. The safest long-term option for foreign children is swift repatriation.

The month of August saw no murders reported in al-Hol camp. Indeed, the number of murders  has been lower in the past 12 months since the SDF conducted a large security operation there in August and September 2022, which saw mass confiscation of weapons from within the camp.

Throughout August, movements of reinforcements by both the SDF and Coalition on the AANES’ western side of the Euphrates River, and pro-Iran militias stationed on the Syrian government’s eastern side, had been reported, and tensions were hot in the region. The SDF then announced a “Security Enhancement Operation” in Deir ez-Zor on August 27th, purporting to target both ISIS sleeper cells and drug dealers. This operation rounded off a month during which 10 raids had already been carried out, in collaboration with the Coalition. The operation continued into September, involving different raids on numerous villages.

Yet, this operation spiralled into a 2-week long episode of violence in Deir ez-Zor, following the SDF’s arrest of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC) leader, Abu Khawla, on the 27th, as reported by RIC. Some fellow tribesmen of Abu Khawla, widely despised for his criminal and corrupt governance in Deir ez-Zor, attacked SDF HQs along Deir ez-Zor’s Khabur line (the string of villages and towns along the Khabur River) in retaliation for his arrest. Some individuals harbouring grievances towards the SDF – mainly related to ongoing poor security and living conditions – took the chance to express their frustrations by joining in. A select few influential tribesmen made efforts to steer the situation into an anti-SDF uprising, making inflammatory calls for entire Arab tribes to participate, which were, by-and-large, not responded to. Some media activists also made efforts to politicize the fighting and push an “Arab versus Kurd” narrative – despite the SDF itself being majority Arab. Numerous sources linked the rapid rise in violence witnessed to the involvement of Iranian-backed militias crossing from the government-held western bank of the Euphrates, noting the rapid proliferation of large numbers of weapons. The places that witnessed the most fighting are home to both ISIS sleeper cells and Syrian government affiliates. For them, as well as for Iranian militias, this was an opportunity to demonstrate power and get a better foothold in these areas. While ISIS did not have a direct hand in leading the fighting, it was a precious opportunity for the group to strengthen itself, since the SDF and its DMC were intensely occupied and under pressure.

At the same time, villages along the Manbij contact line in northern NES saw several ground attacks and intense shelling from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA). The areas targeted by the SNA on the 31st had also been the target of Turkish drone strikes the day prior. While RIC has previously documented the presence of ISIS members within the SNA, this phenomenon was again made evident when a video emerged of an SNA band preparing to attack the SDF along the Manbij line, featuring one fighter wearing an ISIS badge.

An ISIS insignia on the chest of an SNA fighter.

Coalition members noted that both Turkey and the Government of Syria continue to hamper the SDF in the heavy task of combatting ISIS sleeper cells in NES. They expressed regret at this situation at the beginning of the month in their quarterly report, stating: “Third party forces operating in Iraq and Syria—particularly Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian regime—complicated the progress of the OIR mission. Their activities increased Coalition force protection needs, distracted partner forces, and escalated the risk of further conflict”.

In Germany, the trials of former ISIS members Taha A.J. and Jennifer W. were back in the news, as the latter’s 14-year sentence was extended by 4 years. The former had already been sentenced to life in 2021. The pair were found responsible for the death of a 5-year-old Yazidi girl, whom they had bought as a slave. Taha tied the girl to the bars of a window in mid-summer in Iraq, where she died of thirst. Jennifer was convicted of failing to help the girl. Their trial was a world first, as never before had ISIS members been convicted of crimes against the Yazidi people.