November Sleeper Cell Report – SDF Commander Says ISIS Benefits From Iran-Backed Militias-U.S. Tensions

Personnel from the anti-terror branch of NES’ Internal Security Forces (HAT) during an operation briefing this month.

Key Points

  • 11 confirmed ISIS sleeper cell attacks across NES in November, a decrease from October’s 17
  • 4 military personnel killed and 5 injured, 7 civilians injured in these attacks
  • 10 raids conducted on ISIS sleeper cells, resulting in 17 arrests and 1 ISIS official killed
  • Cryptocurrency exchange company Binance faces penalties over ISIS financing
  • Wives of detained ISIS fighters hold protest in al-Hol camp
  • After clashes between Iran-backed proxy forces and the U.S. military, SDF Commander in Chief Mazloum Abdi states that such tensions benefit ISIS
  • Australian court rules against further mandatory repatriation of its citizens from NES’ camps

In the month of November, ISIS sleeper cells launched 11 confirmed attacks in NES, killing 4 SDF and Asayish personnel and injuring 5, and injuring 7 civilians. Due to the volatile situation in Deir ez-Zor, with Iranian-backed militias close to the Government of Syria increasingly active, some attacks that occurred on SDF posts in that region were not confirmed as either an ISIS sleeper cell attack or an attack by a local armed group. For this reason, the actual quantity of ISIS sleeper cell attacks may have been higher. With this continued violence in Deir ez-Zor – which began in earnest in September – ISIS is able to operate with an added layer of security distractions for the SDF.

The SDF and Asayish conducted 10 raids on ISIS sleeper cells this month, resulting in the arrest of 17 members and affiliates of ISIS, as well as the killing of a high-ranking official. Numerous other key officials of ISIS were captured in raids, including Muhammad Sakhr al-Bakr, reportedly a major coordinator of the January 2022 al-Sina’a prison break, Muhammed Mahmoud Homadah, reportedly responsible for trafficking ISIS families and children into the Turkish-occupied areas, an ISIS armaments director in Deir ez-Zor, an official responsible for ISIS sleeper cell activity in Heseke, and an unnamed leader of the organization. Iraqi ISIS commander Emir al-Zakaa was killed during a raid in Shaddadi.

Also in November, the cryptocurrency exchange company Binance was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury for “terrorist financing” related to ISIS, among other violations. According to the US Department of Treasury’s report: “Binance failed to report to FinCEN transactions associated with terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigades, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).” U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen stated: “Binance turned a blind eye to its legal obligations in the pursuit of profit. Its willful failures allowed money to flow to terrorists, cybercriminals, and child abusers through its platform.” ISIS used Binance as a donation resource through cryptocurrency exchange, where funding is less easily tracked.

Pentagon Press Secretary Pat Ryder in a November 1 press conference.

Since the current ongoing war in Gaza began, Iran-backed militias and the U.S.-led Coalition have been exchanging strikes in NES. The former began greatly escalating its missile and drone attacks targeting U.S. bases across Syria and Iraq following Israel’s intense bombardment and siege of Gaza. Between October 17th and November 28th, Iran-backed proxies in Iraq and Syria targeted U.S. positions on 74 occasions. The U.S. military responded with three rounds of airstrikes in Syria and one in Iraq.

In an interview with al-Monitor, SDF Commander in Chief, Mazloum Abdi, said: “we do not want our region to become a battlefield between the United States and Iran-backed militias, and we have told them that. We are trying to reduce these tensions because we all know who ultimately benefits: Daesh [ISIS].” Abdi revealed that Iran-backed militias had also attacked the SDF directly, with a kamikaze drone strike on an SDF ammunitions depot in Deir ez-Zor, causing injuries and extensive material damage. He also argued that groups such as ISIS could be emboldened thanks to Israel’s actions in Gaza, saying: “this disproportionate force currently being deployed by Israel is creating a fertile breeding ground for extremism. It’s early days, but the risk of a new cycle of extremist terror that could set the region on fire and spill over to the West is very real. The conflict in Gaza is providing terror groups like Daesh the opportunity to boost their propaganda and recruitment efforts, and we fully expect to see new terror groups emerge using Gaza to legitimize their existence and already see existing groups act in concert under new labels.”

The heightened activity of Iran-backed militias and the threat this poses to the roughly 900 U.S. troops stationed in Syria has again raised questions over the purpose and sustainability of the U.S.’ presence in the region.

In a press conference, the Pentagon Press Secretary Pat Ryder underlined that U.S. “forces are in Iraq and Syria for one purpose, which is the enduring defeat of ISIS. That’s why they’re there, that’s what they’ll stay focused on. So, this is separate and distinct from the situation in Israel, between Israel and Hamas. And so again, our message is, we will take whatever necessary actions to protect those forces, to deter future attacks, and if and when we need to respond, we would do so at a time and place of our choosing.”

Al-Hol camp.

Violent activity in al-Hol camp has been at record lows for several months. While this is a testament to the SDF and Asayish’s security operations within the camp – which have seen weapons seized, ISIS members arrested, and torture tools discovered – the presence of ISIS affiliates in the camp endures. On November 14, women in al-Hol camp – the wives of ISIS fighters held in NES’ prisons – organized a protest demanding the release of their husbands.

In November, Iraq repatriated 776 of its citizens from al-Hol camp in NES. 24,147 Iraqis remain in the camp; almost half of its 49,432 population. There are 7,257 third-country foreigners and 18,028 Syrians, according to RIC data.

Back in October, the Syrian Democratic Council and the AANES’ Deir ez-Zor Civil Council held a conference in Deir e-Zor, inviting tribal and political figures in the region to discuss the security, economic, social and political situation. One outcome of this was the decision to ensure periodic and orderly returns of those individuals and families in al-Hol camp who originate from Deir ez-Zor. While all Syrian individuals in al-Hol camp can apply to return home if they wish, the AANES’ departure procedures require identification documents for security reasons. Many camp residents do not have such papers, as they were lost or left behind during years of war, complicating their situation.

In contrast to the Iraqi and Syrian sections of the camp – which include some people supportive of ISIS and some actively rejecting the group – the third-country foreigners annex section of the camp contains a high proportion of women who are ideologically committed to ISIS and impose ISIS rules on those living with them, including children.

Due to the security risk presented by the growth of ISIS within the camp, the possibility of a break-out from the camp, or an attack on the camp by ISIS sleeper cells, the SDF and AANES have pushed countries with nationals in the camp to take responsibility for their citizens and bring them home. Many Western governments have been reluctant to do so, fighting this obligation and dragging their feet. An Australian court ruled on November 3 that Australia has no legal obligation to repatriate its remaining citizens in the detention camps, adding a barrier to repatriation efforts for the country. Australia’s last repatriation occurred in October 2022, which included 4 women and 13 children. 11 women and 20 children from Australia remain in NES camps, most of whom are residing in Roj camp.