Report: One year on from ISIS’ defeat, sleeper-cell attacks remain a deadly threat

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ISIS sleeper cell arrested in Manbij

It’s been a year since ISIS’ final territorial defeat by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and International Coalition in Baghouz on 23 March. But a comparison of the year-on-year data shows ISIS remain as potent a threat as ever, conducting increased numbers of sleeper-cell attacks and assassinations across North and East Syria.

Key Facts

  • NE Syria faces more sleeper-cell attacks (61) in February 2020 than February 2019 (53), up 15%
  • Sleeper-cell attacks were driven down to a record low in September 2019 (43 attacks), but shot back up following Turkey’s October 2019 invasion, with November and December seeing 83 and 84 attacks respectively
  • Rate of SDF and Coalition anti-ISIS raids down 100% year-on-year (32 down to 16), as a result of partial US withdrawal and Turkish invasion
  • February 2020 sees 21 assassinations of Mukhtars (tribal elders) and council members as part of ongoing ISIS campaign in Deir-ez-Zor region

NE Syria faces more sleeper-cell attacks (61) in February 2020 than February 2019 (53), indicating ISIS remain a potent threat. The number of those claimed by ISIS also rose slightly (51 to 53), while there were significantly more attacks by unknown actors this February (2 to 8).  Anti-ISIS raids, meanwhile, are down 100% year-on-year (32 to 16), as a result of the partial US/Coalition withdrawal and Turkish invasion.

You can see here for our month-by-month report on ISIS sleeper cell activity throughout 2019, and here for our report on the impact of the partial US/Coalition withdrawal on anti-ISIS raids.

A closer look at the data reveals what’s changed and what’s remained the same in the year since ISIS’ territorial defeat:

February 2019

The Turkish invasion has precipitated a significant increase in sleeper-cell activity, though the situation is still slightly better than the height of the insurgency in July 2019

In February 2019, raids increased 220% with 32 documented raids, while there were 53 total attacks – a 66% increase from January, as ISIS continued to lose territory and switch to insurgency tactics. ISIS claimed all but 2 of the attacks. Arrests rose dramatically by 394%, reaching 84. The use of IEDs and VBIEDs remained constant. ISIS also stepped up its efforts to target people connected to the SDF and the Autonomous Administration, in a trend that would continue throughout the year, for example assassinating two members of the internal security units in Raqqa.

February 2020

In February 2020, attacks were primarily confined to Deir-ez-Zor, which saw 41 out of 53 attacks, though Raqqa also faced a number of incidents. Raqqa saw 7 attacks, with 4 documented attacks in Heseke and only 1 in Manbij.  None of the 4 attacks in the region of Heseke took place in any of the major border cities, which have remained untouched by sleeper-cell attacks in January and February. 4 IEDs/ mines were dismantled in Raqqa and 2 in Heseke region, yielding no arrests.

February 2020 has no documented motorcycle or car bombs – a previously common tactic of ISIS and other sleeper-cells. This month their efforts seem to focus on the continuing assassinations and home invasions of Muhktars and council members, IEDS, and armed attacks on SDF checkpoints, which may reflect a decreased capacity and dwindling stockpiles of explosives. Their failure to strike Kurdish-majority border cities like Qamishlo, as they did during the Turkish invasion, may also indicate decreased capacity.

Though the number of deaths in sleeper-cell attacks is decreasing, the rate of SDF anti-ISIS raids has also plummeted

However, their campaign of assassinations – intended to drive Arab communities away from the SDF and the Autonomous Administration – is wreaking havoc in rural Deir-ez-Zor.

Comparing February 2020 to the previous month, attacks saw a slight increase of 6% (50 to 53). Raids also increased slightly (14 to 16) but are still far lower than the rate we were seeing previous to the latest Turkish operation. Arrests and raids reached an all-time low in December 2019, dropping 75% following the Turkish invasion.


Rojava Information Center researcher Robin Fleming said:

“One year on from their territorial defeat in Baghouz, the figures show that ISIS retains the capacity to conduct sleeper-cell attacks in North and East Syria. Sleeper-cell attacks shot up following ISIS’ defeat and were slowly being ground down by joint SDF and Coalition raids, but the Turkish invasion in October 2019 reversed much of this good work with the result that ISIS are conducting as many sleeper-cell attacks now as they were a year ago.

In recent months, however, ISIS and other sleeper-cells seem to have changed their tactics, focusing less on indiscriminate car – bombs in city centers, and instead specifically targeted individuals connected to the Autonomous Administration or the Syrian Democratic Forces. This may indicate decreased capacity, but is an effective way of using fear to drive Arab communities away from the SDF and the Autonomous Administration project of ethnic plurality.

Sleeper-cell attacks skyrocketed after the Turkish invasion, and are only now being driven back down. But the Coalition withdrawal and Turkish invasion have significantly set back the clock on SDF efforts to wipe out the ISIS threat in their former stronghold.”

Please contact us for the fully sourced data-set sortable by incident type and location, live map showing all ISIS and other sleeper-cell attacks since the start of the year, and further analysis. This data was produced in collaboration with OSINT researcher Caki, and can be explored on the live map here.

Get in touch if you have any questions or are interested in covering the database.