September Sleeper Cell Report – UNSC Sets End Date for UNITAD ISIS Accountability Mission

Key Points

  • Violent unrest during the SDF “Security Enhancement Operation” during the first half of September sees fewer raids but also fewer explicitly ISIS-claimed attacks.
  • 6 confirmed ISIS sleeper cell attacks occurred in NES; killing 4 SDF personnel and 7 civilians.
  • In 10 SDF and Coalition raids, 7 members of ISIS were killed and 30 were arrested, including the Emir of the Bank of ISIS.
  • The UN Security Council adopts resolution 2697 (2023) which sets an end date for UNITAD mission for accountability of ISIS members.
  • Repatriations remain limited internationally, though 268 families were returned to their homes in Iraq and Syria in coordination with local authorities and stakeholders.

September was dominated by the Security Operation in Deir ez-Zor which saw clashes between SDF and militiamen loyal to “Abu Khawla”, former head of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (which is under the SDF’s umbrella) who the SDF arrested on the 27th August, 2023. He was accused of “communication and coordination with external entities hostile to the revolution, committing criminal offenses and engaging in drug trafficking, mismanaging of the security situation, his negative role in increasing the activities of ISIS cells, and exploiting his position for personal and familial interests that violated the internal regulations of the SDF”. Seizing upon these clashes, a scattered collection of tribal actors joined in the attacks on SDF posts in the region, expressing their frustrations with the security and economic situation.  The violence was soon exacerbated by the attempts of Iranian-backed militias to stir up sectarian tensions and the crossing of hundreds of gunmen from the Syrian-government’s side of the Euphrates to attack SDF positions.

The violence lasted several weeks and saw the deaths of 118 people including 10 civilians as well as at least 146 injured.

Although this was not a direct conflict between the SDF and ISIS, the vast majority of ISIS attacks and arrests do take place in the Deir ez-Zor region, as documented in previous reports.  The unstable situation, as well as numerous different actors taking the opportunity to attack the SDF and SDF positions during this time, means the motivations of those involved elude clear differentiation.  Interference from the Government of Syria and Iranian backed militias prolonged the instability. Such chaos stymies the fight against ISIS.  In a briefing on September 5th, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder noted that “distractions from this critical work does create instability and increases the risk of an ISIS resurgence.”  He also called for all parties to “cease fighting and to stay focused on the mission because, again, the only winner here is ISIS.”  This sentiment echoes the CJTF-OIR Public Affairs who in a statement on the 2nd September reaffirmed their support for the SDF and called on local leaders to “resist the influence of malign actors who promise many rewards but will deliver only suffering to the peoples of the area. This poses dire consequences and only allows for a situation that nobody welcomes—the resurgence of our common enemy—Daesh.”

Al-Hol camp remains a source of tension and danger due to the well organized recruitment of children by ISIS in the camp as documented by the UN.  Indeed numerous UN and NGO missions have stated that the best solution for the tens of thousands of foreign women and children being held in Al-Hol is repatriation.  Natalia Gherman, secretariat for the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee repeated the call for all countries to increase efforts at repatriation of their nationals from NES and also emphasized “the responsibility of Member States to bring terrorists to justice, and to demonstrate international cooperation in efforts to do so”. A recent CTC report on the management of violent extremist prisoners (VEP) investigated the specific needs and nuances of female VEPs as well as children and situations where people are potentially both perpetrators and victims.

“Female VEPs may have needs that are distinct from those of male VEPs. In the management of violent women prisoners, the agency of women, their potential to have committed serious terrorism offenses, and the possibility that they may continue to pose a significant security risk need to be taken into consideration. At the same time, however, female VEPs, and female prisoners more broadly, may also be victims of serious crimes, including sexual and gender-based crimes. Approaches to female VEPs, and to female prisoners in general, require a tailored framework of action, which takes into account their needs and risks as both victims and perpetrators, as applicable.”

Women and children make up more than 80% of al-Hol internees and the overcrowded and squalid conditions make it impossible to deliver the kind of care and justice that is required.  Despite this long-running problem, the international community has been slow to take responsibility for their nationals.  In September the United States merely announced their intention to repatriate 1 family consisting of a woman and her 9 children.  In Australia, court proceedings to force the federal government to repatriate 12 women and 21 children from the camp are being brought by Save the Children Australia.  Mat Tinkler, the chief executive of Save the Children Australia said: “The government cannot allow these innocent children to suffer further – they must do what is legally and morally right, before it’s too late.”

Although many nations continue to shirk their obligations to their nationals – rendering meaningless their professed commitment to the fight against ISIS – there is slow progress on the local scale.  In September, almost 635 people from 174 families left al-Hol and returned to Iraq in a coordinated effort between the Iraqi government and the Autonomous Administration.

The process of rehabilitation and community justice saw the return of 94 families to Raqqa city and surroundings thanks to tribal mediations and close collaboration with the Autonomous Administration.  

Indeed, relations between tribal leaders and AANES and SDF leaders, marked by disagreements, discussions, negotiations, and compromises, have mostly held strong in this period. Tribes populate local councils and tribal figures take their place within the AANES workforce. Simplistic assessments of a ‘tribes versus AANES’ conflict are unhelpful and inaccurate. A recent statement of solidarity from the tribal sheiks and notables of the Al-Hol region proclaimed support for “our sons and daughters in the SDF, the People’s Protection Units, and the Women’s Protection Units” and called on “our people in Deir ez-Zor not to be drawn into the sedition sought by the enemies of the homeland.”

Tribal notables of Al-Hawl make a statement 

Violence within the camp has notably decreased in recent months. The issue of ISIS smugglers helping ISIS-linked people escape al-Hol and reunite with the wider ISIS networks in Syria remains, however. On September 8th, 19 women and children were detained by the Internal Security Forces while attempting to escape in a van which had entered the camp using forged documents. 

Notable this month was the recent decision of the UN to set a non-extendable deadline for the UNITAD project, which is responsible for the investigation to promote accountability for crimes committed by ISIS.  The resolution sets “a non-extendable one year extension of the mandate of the Special Adviser and the Team contained in its letter dated 5 September 2023 (S/2023/654); and decides accordingly to extend the mandate of the Special Adviser and the Team until 17 September 2024 only.”

By so hobbling UNITAD, it makes it extremely difficult to pursue justice for the many victims of ISIS or even hope for a fair trial of those currently in al-Hol and other facilities.  A group of 50 human rights organizations, many from Yazidi communities and victims of Daesh released a statement saying: “Many survivors and the undersigned organizations see UNITAD as the only hope to achieve meaningful justice in Iraq. For its work to stop so abruptly, when not a single ISIL member has been tried in Iraq for core international crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes), would be a disaster for survivors, Iraq, and the international community. It would send the signal that justice is not a real priority, that trust with survivors was built for nothing and that their testimonies and continuous calls for justice were in vain.”  Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nadia Murad called the decision “a step backwards in the pursuit for justice” for the victims of ISIS.  Although these statements are mostly focused on Iraq, the sentiment that local structures are ill-suited and under-equipped to deal with the thousands and thousands of detainees applies even more so to NES, operating with a fraction of the support and funding to be found in Iraq.

Yahya Ahmed Al-Hajji (Image from SDF Press)

Although the unrest in Deir ez-Zor drew resources away from the ongoing struggle against ISIS, there were some significant arrests of high ranking members of the ISIS terror networks.  Several arrests struck the financing network of ISIS, arresting Yahya Ahmed Al-Hajji, aka Abu Bara’a Al-Hasan, a financier and arms smuggler with a position on the ISIS military council as well as Abdulghafour Taber al-Diyab, aka Abu Amir, the so-called “Emir” of the Islamic Bank of ISIS.  Though it is believed that funds of ISIS are being depleted, they still have cash reserves of $25-50 million according to the 17th report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIS to international peace and security, which makes targeting the financial network as happened in September an essential part of the fight against ISIS.  The 2022 report from the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre on Assessing the Key Gaps in Countering the Financing of Terrorism states;

“The Monitoring Team consistently reports that Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Da’esh, relies most heavily on unregistered hawala networks and cash couriers. Cash payments are said to be regularly couriered into the Syrian Arab Republic from neighbouring States, with ISIL cells receiving reduced payments monthly. While transfers in previous years to ISIL provinces may have been in the range of $90,000 per month, they are now closer to $40,000, or less in some cases. Several hawaladars (brokers) are reported to operate in Hawl [camp in NES]”

Further arrests this month included Abu Halil al-Fad’ani, an ISIS Syria Operational and Facilitation official, was captured during the raid. Al-Fad’ani was assessed to have relationships throughout the ISIS network in the region.  Five days later on 28/09/23 Mamduh Ibrahim Al-Haji Shaykh, an ISIS Facilitator was arrested in a helicopter raid.