Sleeper-Cell Report: Attacks Remain High in May, Targeting Armed Forces and Civilians, Especially in Deir ez-Zor

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Arrests carried out by HAT (Asayish special forces) in response to an IED attack on a military vehicle in Kibar, Deir ez-Zor

Key Points

  • May 2021 has seen 42 sleeper cell attacks across North and East Syria, a slight rise as compared to April (40)
  • 30 of these attacks were claimed by ISIS
  • 13 people died through these attacks, and over 40 were injured. The number of fatalities is significantly lower than previous months, only half that of April (26)
  • In Hol camp, 5 people were killed. 3 were Iraqi, while 2 attacks injured one Iraqi worker in the camp (with knife), and an Iraqi camp resident resulting from a gunshot. Smuggling activities out of the camp additionally caused the death of a teenage girl.
  • 13 raids by Asayish and SDF were carried out, leading to 77 arrests. Additionally, a large scale operation in Deir ez-Zor led to the arrest of 100 people, most of which have been released since
  • SDF realized a 4-days combing operation in the northeastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor with the support of the Coalition in order to track smuggling routes

Map of sleeper cell attacks and SDF/Asayish raids across NES in May 2021

In Depth

The past month has seen a high number of sleeper cell attacks, mostly in the region of Deir ez-Zor (29 out of 42). The other attacks happened in Raqqa (8) and Heseke (5). Most attacks are carried out with IEDs (15) or Automatic weapons (12).

Half of the attacks (21) targeted Asayish and SDF members, checkpoints and headquarters. Headquarters have been set on fire, or SDF staff caught in an ambush. For example, a bus carrying SDF soldiers was attacked by unknown assailants, dressed as shepards. They cut off the roads, opened fire on their bus in Deir ez-Zor. 1 SDF soldier was killed and 7 others wounded, 6 critically. This attack happened shortly after SDF had started a vast security operation in the region.

Civilians are also targeted by the attacks, especially community figures accused of working with the AANES. For example, sheikh Youssef Khalifa Abu Bilal was shot down in the village of Al-Junaina in the western countryside of Deir ez-Zzor. Muayad Al-Rayyash, a member of the Legislative Council in the AANES was also killed by unknown gunmen in the town of Al-Jazra, west of Deir ez-Zor.

Muayad Al-Rayyash

In both Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor region, ISIS is spreading leaflets warning civilians from approaching SDF headquarters, and more generally from working with “apostates”. Posters were spread on the doors and walls of shops in the areas of Al-Jazra, Al-Kibar, Al-Kasrah and Al-Harmousiah, in the western countryside of Deir ez-Zor, through which the organisation threatened to intensify its operations against the SDF and their “collaborators”, including civilians and tribal sheikhs.

As part of attacks against civil society, ISIS also claimed the bombing of a school in the town of al-Busayrah and the burning of a local council building in the town of al-Susah, both in Deir ez-Zor region.

In response to the high number of attacks, SDF carried out a large scale security operation in az-Zir, al-Busayrah and al-Kuber area in Deir ez-Zor region. During the operation, a curfew was imposed on the area. The operation lead to around 100 arrests but many were released. Yet, hours after lifting the curfew in al-Busayrah, 2 members of the SDF and one civilian were killed after being targeted in the market place with automatic weapons.

The SDF press office told RIC that the operation was conducted “in order to not let ISIS territorially expand, especially since they have recently changed their military command. The regime is also a problem, they target our security forces, civilians, and AANES employees.” They explained that the the large presence of ISIS sleeper cells in Deir ez-Zor is due to Russian-Syrian operations across the Euphrates, forcing many ISIS members into NES.

SDF also realized a 4-day combing operation in Wadi Al-Ajeej in the northeastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor, with the aim of revealing smuggling routes used by ISIS to move inside north and east Syria, and to and from Iraq. The operation benefited from air and ground support by coalition forces. Also, a number of caches were discovered in which members of the organization were hiding, and they were also used to hide weapons and equipment during their movement between Iraq and north and east Syria. 12 of them were destroyed.

Killings in al-Hol camp are up from only one in April, though remain low as compared to the months before the large-scale operation in March and April. 5 people were killed and two others injured. A majority of these casualties were Iraqi. Upon visiting the camp, RIC found many Iraqi refugees in al-Hol living side-by-side with their former tormentors. The high proportion of Iraqis is not only due to their high numbers, but also to these unsafe living conditions. For this reason, NES and Iraq have agreed to repatriate these citizens. 100 families left the camp for Iraq in late May. According to camp management, this is the first batch of five.

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.