Annual Sleeper Cell Report 2022

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While ISIS’ 2019 defeat in Baghouz, at the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Global Coalition, saw the former finally lose its territorial caliphate, the enduring activity of ISIS sleeper cells in North and East Syria (NES) remains a grave threat for the region as well as the wider world, and testifies to the group’s ability to preserve itself, adapting its modes of operation as needed. 2022 saw the number of attacks from sleeper cells stay roughly consistent with the year prior, however, the January attack on Heseke’s Sina’a prison was a grievous reminder of the manpower and organizational acumen that ISIS still hold.

All year, security actors, domestically and abroad, continued to emphasize the growing danger of al-Hol camp, as a site vulnerable to ISIS’ recruitment and mobilization efforts. Despite this, long-term, coordinated, international action to disband and resolve the issue of al-Hol camp remains merely a distant hope.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s attacks on NES in 2022 undermined security efforts in the region, triggering occasional rebuke from the United States. This came to a head at the end of the year when Ankara launched ‘Operation Claw Sword’, in which NES’ counter-ISIS security forces were directly targeted by Turkish warplane and drone strikes.

Key Trends:

  • Attacks from ISIS sleeper cells remained roughly consistent with 2021, but the number of casualties rose in 2022.
  • There was a huge spike in the total number of individuals arrested by the Asayish and SDF: over double that of any of the 3 years prior, even as the overall number of counter-ISIS raids only barely rose.
  • 2 significant SDF raid campaigns in al-Hol camp saw large numbers of ISIS-linked individuals arrested, as well as the seizure of weapons and communications devices.
  • Alongside killings and attempted killings, ISIS intimidated populations, targeted
    tribal and political leaders, and employed coercive measures to attack those
    perceived as affiliated with the AANES.
  • ISIS activity was concentrated in NES’ Arab-majority regions, in particular Deir ez-Zor.
  • Sleeper cells sought to stoke and take advantage of civilian grievances stemming from the deterioration of socio-economic conditions in many areas.