March Sleeper Cell Report – Attacks doubled on previous month


Members of the SDF special forces Yekîneyên Antî Teror (YAT)

Key points

  • 20 sleeper cell attacks in March, up from February’s ten.
  • Eight people (four military personnel and four civilians) died in those attacks, eight (seven military personnel and one civilian) were injured. Additionally, two ISIS members were killed.
  • In four raids, seven ISIS members were arrested.
  • No killings or break-out attempts in al-Hol camp.


March saw 20 sleeper cell attacks of which five were claimed by ISIS. In those attacks four military personnel and four civilians died, and seven military personnel and one civilian were injured. One additional attack claimed by ISIS could not be independently confirmed. Compared to the previous month, sleeper cell attacks doubled from ten to 20, and the death count doubled from four to eight. In addition to the dead and injured, eight shepherds were kidnapped.
14 out of 20 sleeper cell attacks took place in Deir-ez-Zor, indicating the ongoing strength of ISIS in the region. Several ISIS activities took place in Deir-ez-Zor this month. The terrorist group sought funding by extorting oil investors, threatened bakeries and publicly threatened four individuals in a poster campaign. The threats towards bakeries are most likely attempts to gain sympathy among the population; the quality of bread has been a topic of dispute repeatedly.
ISIS is capable of carrying out attacks all over NES. Notably, two ISIS members died in a failed suicide attack on Heseke’s Asayish Headquarter this month, reportedly leaving no further casualties.

Al-Hol camp saw a quiet month: Despite being struck by a minor earthquake with a magnitude of 3.5, no remarkable incidents were reported; no murders or break-out attempts happened. Hosting still over 50,000 people, many of them ISIS affiliated, the children of al-Hol camp are considered to potentially be the next generation of ISIS.

This month US General Michael Kurilla visited Sinai prison in Heseke which holds around 5000 ISIS fighters. He referred to the imprisoned ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria as an “army in detention”. The US CENTCOM again expressed its concerns about the military threat Turkey poses to the SDF and its anti-ISIS mission:

US Gen. Michael Kurilla

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Stroul stated: “It does not change our concern that continued Turkish military operations or a ground incursion into northern Syria would detract from what is a shared global commitment and concern about ISIS,”

The SDF General Command renewed its commitment to its anti-ISIS mission in a statement on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the territorial defeat of the so-called Caliphate.

The statement stresses: “Our forces provided numerous opportunities for the terrorist organization to release the civilians and surrender themselves. Ceasefires were declared on several occasions, after which civilian convoys were allowed to pass through to our forces. As a result of these efforts, thousands of members of the terrorist organization ultimately surrendered to our forces.”

Many of those civilians were the foreign wives of ISIS fighters and their children who have resided at al-Hol camp since that time. The efforts to repatriate these foreign residents of al-Hol camp continued in march. Russia repatriated 49 children and announced plans to repatriate another 200 ISIS linked minors from al-Hol camp. Two Norwegian women and three children were handed over to a Norwegian delegation in Baghdad by the Department of Foreign Relations of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, and Sudan repatriated five ISIS linked individuals from al-Hol camp in March.

In Canada an ongoing discussion is held about whether foreign women, who are married and have children with Canadian ISIS members, should be allowed to come to Canada if their children are repatriated. The current case is about four women who will apparently not be allowed to follow their Canadian children to Canada. The case demonstrates the difficulties of western politics and justice systems to differentiate between voluntary ISIS support, victims of the group, and the gray areas in between.

The processing of the cases of ISIS-affiliated persons resumes in the homelands of these individuals. A German court decided to keep a man in custody for joining ISIS in 2013, and a woman will soon have her case heard in court. An Australian court sentenced the wife of a senior ISIS fighter to 10 years in prison this month and an US citizen was arrested in the US in March on the charge of supporting ISIS, illustrating the ongoing international dimension of the terrorist group.