Sweeping SDF and Coalition raids drive fall in ISIS sleeper-cell attacks

, ,
Material damage to the Mala Jin (Women’s House) in Deir-ez-Zor caused during an ISIS sleeper-cell attack
  • Sleeper-cell attacks fall 46% in North and East Syria as SDF conducts week of raids arresting 110 ISIS suspects
  • Assassinations nonetheless increase 63% and injuries 41%, but number of deliberate crop-fires drops 60% as harvest is collected
  • ISIS attack on Women’s House in Deir-ez-Zor compounds Turkish drone-strike on female activists

June was marked by the joint ‘Deterrence of Terrorism’ campaign launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and International Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The largest anti-ISIS campaign since the terror organisation’s territorial defeat in March 2019 swept through the Deir-ez-Zor region up to the Iraqi border, netting a reported 110 arrests of ISIS suspects. Combined with a number of arrests elsewhere in North and East Syria (NES), this means June saw a 118% month-on-month increase in arrests (55 to 120).

The week-long campaign in Deir-ez-Zor means that sleeper-cell attacks across North and East Syria fell off significantly, from 84 to 45 – a 46% decrease. Those attacks which did take place were largely IEDs and shooting attacks or assassinations, with 66% of these armed attacks claimed by ISIS and 33% left unclaimed. As ever, these attacks were focused in Deir-ez-Zor, which faced 73% of total sleeper-cell attacks despite the SDF raids.

Those sleeper-cell attacks which did occur were effective, with a claimed 12 successful assassinations of individuals linked to the SDF and Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) – a 63% increase – though overall deaths caused by sleeper-cell attacks fell 38% from 36 to 22.

The zone of SDF’s week-long campaign against ISIS sleeper cells is marked in yellow

The majority of these attacks were claimed by ISIS, who this month also released a propaganda video targeting Arabs and others working with the AANES. The video featured footage of numerous ISIS assassinations, raids and beheadings across the past 18 months, and promoted ISIS’ campaign of targeted assassinations of village chiefs (mukhtars) and others working with the AANES in Deir-ez-Zor.

Other incidents, such as the failed assassination of Manbij Military Council spokesperson Sherwan Derwish and a pair of subsequent bombings in Manbij, occurred far outside ISIS’ recent zone of operations and bore the hallmarks of attacks launched by agents linked to the Turkish intelligence services.

The month also saw an ISIS-claimed bombed attack against a ‘Mala Jin’ or ‘Women’s House’ in Deir-ez-Zor. These all-women structures, which provide a safe space for women-led community mediation, discussion and conflict resolution, have previously proven a magnet for terror attacks. The Women’s House in question had previously received death threats from the Turkish-controlled militia Ahrar-al-Sharqiya, while June also saw the assassination of three women’s activists in a village in Kobane in a Turkish drone strike.

The month also saw at least ten confirmed instances of crop fires being deliberately set by the Turkish Armed Forces and their proxy militias united under the banner of the Syrian National Army – a 60% decrease on last month, as the harvest has now mostly been collected despite these destructive and ongoing arson attempts. 

A new ISIS propaganda video targets Arabs working with the SDF and AANES

RIC researcher Robin Fleming said: “SDF’s campaign of arrests put a dent in the constant sleeper-cell threat in North and East Syria, though a spike in assassinations indicates that the ISIS threat remains high. Arson and attempted assassination attacks linked to the Turkish intelligence services and Turkish-controlled militias mean the Autonomous Administration faces security challenges on multiple fronts, even away from the active frontline around the zone of Turkish occupation.

A recent propaganda video indicates ISIS, just like Turkey, Russia and the Syrian government, are trying to drive a wedge between Kurdish and Arabic populations living and working together in NES by singling out Arabs for assassination. Women are another key target, with the bombing of the ‘women’s house’ in Deir-ez-Zor coming in the same week as Turkey’s assassination of three civilian female activists in a drone strike near Kobane. ISIS is just one of multiple actors seeking to destabilize NES and undo the progress that has been made in the region.“

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, the full interview with the fire-fighter, 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.