Annual Sleeper Cell Report 2021 – Sleeper Cell Attacks Decreased but Security Forces Remained Weary

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The attack on Sina’a prison in Heseke at the end of January 2022 proved an explosive bookend to 2021, a year that had seen a decline in sleeper cell attacks in Northeast Syria (NES). Though ISIS activity in general stayed low this year, security actors in the region were not beating any victory drums. The US Defense Intelligence Agency report in September suggested that ISIS was, “poised for increased activity”, after a period of “consolidating” outside of AANES territory in the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) controlled Baadia desert. See the report above for more details and analysis of the year leading up to the attempted prison break.

Key Trends

  • Attacks dropped significantly from 2020, especially in the second half of the year.
  • Attacks were characterized by assassinations of SDF and AANES affiliated personnel and IED attacks on infrastructure and SDF targets.
  • Arab majority regions in NES saw the majority of ISIS activity. This was especially true in Deir ez-Zor, where ISIS continued to intermittently exercise power over civilians by imposing taxes, setting up moving checkpoints and trying to impose Sharia law on an ad hoc basis.
  • SDF increased their arrests and raids this year, and continued to collaborate closely with the International Coalition, especially with air support.
  • NES security forces uncovered the massive prison break and attack on Sina’a prison at the end of the year.
  • SDF raids continued to uncover activity from Turkish and Syrian-government linked cells.