December Sleeper Cell Report – ISIS assassinates DAANES-linked civilians in Deir ez-Zor

Members of SDF Commando Forces during a counter-ISIS training exercise (Photo: Baderkhan Ahmad)

Key Points:

  • 16 confirmed sleeper cell attacks across NES in December; an increase from 11 in November
  • ISIS attacks kill 12 military personnel, injure 7 and kill 5 civilians, injure 7
  • SDF and Asayish kill a senior ISIS official in al-Hol camp
  • Sleeper cell assassinations target DAANES-linked civilians in Deir ez-Zor
  • Turkish intelligence claim responsibility for assassination attack that ISIS already claimed responsibility for almost 5 months prior

ISIS conducted 16 confirmed sleeper cell attacks in December, 14 of which occurred in Deir ez-Zor. Notably, these included 3 attacks on civil workers of DAANES, all occurring on December 15th: Deir ez-Zor Civil Council member Munir Abd al-Mahbash was assassinated in a gun attack in Abu Khashab, DAANES fuel administration official Ismail al-Laban was killed and municipal official Abdulkarim al-Jalud was injured during an attack in al-Kishkiyah town, and a member of a local commune in Abu Khashab was assassinated the same day. While ISIS did not directly claim the attacks, various local sources pointed to the group as the perpetrator. This wave of assassinations targeting DAANES-affiliated civilians in Deir ez-Zor exemplifies ISIS’ post-caliphate emphasis on dissuading people from cooperating with DAANES by instilling fear in the population.

Body of ISIS emir Abu Obeida al-Iraqi and captured equipment following the December 27th raid in al-Hol camp.

On December 29th, the SDF released their counter-ISIS operations data for 2023, claiming 73 operations and 352 arrests (including 6 ISIS emirs). It should be noted that this data includes only operations conducted by the SDF, not including those from the Asayish. December alone saw several notable operations targeting key ISIS members. On the 4th, the SDF arrested an ISIS weapons distribution official, Abu Khattab, in Raqqa. 10 days later, the SDF conducted another raid – in cooperation with Coalition forces – arresting ISIS strategist Abdulbasit al-Hajji, responsible for planning attacks in Raqqa. On December 27th, a joint SDF-Asayish-Coalition operation in al-Hol camp targeted a senior ISIS official, Abu Obeida al-Iraqi. When the latter refused to surrender, the Asayish opened fire, killing al-Iraqi and his wife, Umm Aisha. According to a statement from Asayish, the two were planning an attack on security forces of the camp.

On December 14th, U.S. Congress approved its annual 2024 defense budget, which includes $156 million for “fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.” Though a majority of this funding goes to anti-ISIS efforts in NES, a portion also goes to the smaller Coalition garrison in al-Tanf, southeastern Syria. The amount allocated is $27.6 million less than 2023’s budget.

This month also saw BBC Monitoring release a report detailing the patterns in ISIS activity globally this year relative to years past. Despite steadily decreasing activity in Syria and Iraq, the report asserts that ISIS has expanded in influence and strength in its Africa and East Asia branches. Though in numbers ISIS activity in NES may be smaller than before, DAANES and SDF figures continually point to the ongoing sleeper cell activity as a major obstacle preventing the development of stability and security in the region.

Roni Welat (center).

Another new development in December came when Turkey’s intelligence service, MIT, publicized that they are also active in the Deir ez-Zor area, claiming responsibility for the December 5th IED assassination of senior SDF commander, Roni Welat. This is the first time MIT has reported conducting an operation in Deir ez-Zor: Welat was killed over 200km away from the Turkish border. He worked coordinating with local tribes and the Coalition in the fight against ISIS in Deir ez-Zor. The strength of the presence of Turkish intelligence cells in Deir ez-Zor – and their relation with ISIS sleeper cells – is unclear, however on December 29th, the SDF pointed out that MIT newly claimed responsibility for an attack in Tabqa that ISIS had already claimed almost 5 months earlier.

RIC map: Turkish drone strike locations of December 25th and 26th close to Allaya indicated by red pins, Allaya Prison indicated with red arrow.

On December 25th and 26th Turkey carried out a string of aerial attacks on NES, including striking several locations in the vicinity of Qamishlo’s Allaya prison. Allaya is one of 2 main prisons in Qamishlo holding members of ISIS, the other being Jerkin prison. Turkey also systematically targeted Asayish checkpoints in these attacks, threatening city internal security. These attacks echoed those of November 2022, where Turkey targeted the vicinity of Jerkin Prison and al-Hol camp, leading to increased ISIS activity and the attempted escape of 20 women from al-Hol camp.

Furthermore, this month the UK-based information office SOHR reported that 7 ISIS prisoners escaped from al-Rai Prison, administered by the SNA’s Sultan Murad Division in the Turkish-occupied areas. SOHR noted that it is unclear if the escape occurred with the cooperation of the guards and prison administration.

In December it was announced that NES security forces rescued 17-year-old Yazidi teenager, Rojin Hedad, from ISIS custody near Idlib. Hedad was then able to return to his home in Sinjar, where he was reunited with his family after over 9 years of enslavement by ISIS. Many Yazidis are still missing, some feared to be in the custody of ISIS and SNA groups in the Turkish-occupied areas.

Kyrgyz delegation discussing repatriation during a meeting with the DAANES Foreign Relations Department this month.

December saw some movement regarding international repatriation from NES, with the UK repatriating 1 woman and 5 children and Kyrgyzstan repatriating 27 women and 69 children. In total, 692 foreign ISIS-linked individuals were repatriated from NES in 2023, as per RIC data, including 18 male ISIS prisoners from Saudi Arabia.