February Sleeper Cell Report – ISIS attacks up, Turkiye targets YPG/YPJ veterans

YPJ forces participate in “Operation Humanity and Security” in Hol camp.

Key points

  • Sleeper cell attacks up 62% from January
  • 6 military personnel killed, 11 military personnel injured, 6 civilians killed in ISIS attacks – roughly consistent with January
  • 2 ISIS members killed and 101 arrested in 13 SDF/Asayish raids
  • Asayish and SDF conclude the third phase of “Operation Humanity and Security” in Hol camp
  • Kyrgyzstan repatriates 27 women and 72 children of ISIS-linked families
  • ICCT report draws attention to challenges, strategies and developments regarding European prosecution of women who joined ISIS then returned or were repatriated to Europe
  • Turkiye escalates targeted assassinations of YPG/YPJ veterans who fought against ISIS


The number of recorded sleeper cell attacks rose 62% from 16 in January to 26 in February. These attacks killed 6 military personnel, wounded 11 and killed 6 civilians. The SDF and Asayish conducted 7 raids, plus continued “Operation Humanity and Security” in Hol camp for 6 more days, bringing the total number of February raids to 13, in which a total of 101 suspected ISIS members were arrested. 56 of those were arrested within “Operation Humanity and Security”, bringing the total number of arrests from the operation to 85 (adding the 29 arrested in January, as documented in last month’s sleeper cell report).

At the beginning of the month, the SDF and Asayish concluded the third phase of “Operation Humanitarian and Security” in Hol camp, which had begun in January. In a statement, the Asayish and SDF said they combed the camp, arrested 85 people, confiscated a range of weapons and located and destroyed 5 tunnels. During this operation, YPJ also announced the rescue of a Yazidi woman from the camp: Kovan Aidi Khourto from Sinjar region. This again put a spotlight on the issue of the more than 2,600 Yazidi women whose whereabouts are still unknown after being kidnapped during ISIS’ attack on Sinjar – the historical Yazidi homeland – in 2014. During the second phase of “Operation Humanity and Security” in 2022, two Yazidi women were also found in the camp and taken back to their families. Within the framework of “Operation Humanitarian and Security”, the Asayish located ISIS emir Mahmoud Al-Lahibi – who they claim “was coordinating terrorist operations inside and outside the camp” – in al-Khuwaitla village, al-Dashisha countryside, during a partnered operation with the Coalition. After a confrontation, he and another ISIS member were killed by the Internal Security Forces. Inside the camp, the SDF also announced that they had arrested Abu Abdul Hameed, another senior figure within ISIS’ Hol camp network.

Asayish anti-terror forces (HAT) enter Hol camp during “Operation Humanity and Security”.

The ongoing instability in the Deir ez-Zor region – which began in late August – has created a conducive environment for ISIS to operate in. On February 4th, an Asayish commander survived an assassination attempt on the main road in the village of al-Hissan, however, his father, who was travelling with him, was killed. On February 3rd, ISIS militants attacked an Asayish position with machine guns in Abu Hardoub town, eastern Deir ez-Zor. One week later, a similar attack in Dhiban town’s market occurred, resulting in SDF fighters sustaining injuries. Furthermore, an ISIS attack on the office of the Future Syria Party occurred in Meheimideh, Deir e-Zor western countryside, which left no casualties. Attacks by Iran-backed militias targeting Coalition forces as well as the SDF reached a new level in February, when six SDF fighters were killed in a suicide drone attack on a base in Deir ez-Zor’s al-Omar field. In an online briefing to journalists, Mazloum Abdi, SDF Commander-in-Chief, commented: “With all these tensions and all these attacks on our forces and in our areas from different and multiple sides, we’re seeing that ISIS is benefiting from all these attacks. We have also seen a spike in movements from ISIS. The main goal of ISIS, the first and most important one, is to break out all their inmates from detention centres in our areas, and their long-term goal is to gain territorial control over areas under our control or other areas.”

While NES’ Jazira Canton usually sees far less ISIS activity than Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa or Tabqa, February witnessed a remarkable rise. In Heseke city, an SDF fighter was shot dead in the al-Azizyeiah neighbourhood, and two more were killed in the Ghweiran neighbourhood from a motorbike attack. The SDF launched a big operation in Heseke city on the 22nd, reporting to have arrested 16 ISIS members. Four days later, the Syrian Democratic Council’s (SDC) Qamishlo office was attacked during the night. In a statement, the SDC said that “unknown assailants threw an IED inside the building’s wall, resulting in material damage”. ISIS then claimed the attack on their social media channels, also stating that the attack resulted in injuries. Beyond this claim, there is no further evidence that ISIS was behind the attack. The SDC did not respond to ISIS’ claim and the SDF and Asayish did not point to a perpetrator. RIC – amongst others – has documented stark differences between ISIS’ claimed attacks and the actual number of attacks likely attributable to ISIS in NES. In the past year, RIC has observed ISIS posting far less frequently – and some months not at all – about attacks conducted in NES. Prior to this, however, ISIS would often claim attacks that no other source reported – hence, likely did not occur – and would greatly inflate figures for the people they killed and injured in such attacks. For this reason, some analysts criticized the U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General’s 2023 report on the state of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, because of its reliance on ISIS’ own claims for determining the number of attacks conducted by ISIS.

Over the past few years, Turkiye has increasingly carried out targeted assassinations against YPG and YPJ veterans who fought against ISIS during the SDF’s campaigns against the group in Syria. On February 11th, a Turkish drone strike on the Qamishlo center of NES’ Federation of the War-Wounded killed two former YPJ commanders: Sorxwin Rojhilat and Azadi Derik. Both worked within the Federation of the War-Wounded, after having sustained serious injuries during battles against ISIS.

The Federation of the War-Wounded’s Qamishlo center following a Turkish drone strike.

Also in February, the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) published a report studying Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands’ criminal justice responses to female jihadists, including the prosecution of those repatriated from NES. The DAANES has long requested urgent repatriation of foreigners, but many Western states are reluctant to deal with ISIS-linked citizens. The ICCT’s report covers criminal justice responses to jihadi female VEOs (violent extremist offenders) from 2012-2023, which are mainly ISIS and Syria-related cases. The report highlighted that over half of the adults who travelled to Syria and Iraq to join a jihadist terrorist organization were of Belgian, French, German, or Dutch nationality. ICCT showed that as women returned or were repatriated, those states faced challenges, at first not systematically prosecuting these women, who were seen purely as victims rather than as perpetrators of crimes. When such prosecution did eventually begin, authorities struggled initially to prove what ISIS activities women were involved in. Criminal justice actors then began building expertise on the issue and established jurisprudence that women supported and facilitated explicit terrorist activities. A majority of Belgian, French, German, and Dutch female returnees have now been prosecuted, but mostly just under terrorism charges, rather than for core international crimes – war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, or pillaging – hence, they have not been held accountable for all the activities they might have done while with ISIS. The report also highlighted that the recidivism risk is judged as low, because the rehabilitation programs in these countries are strong. As European rehabilitation capacity far exceeds that of NES, repatriation means a higher likelihood of deradicalization. Hence, in seeking justice for the victims of ISIS, repatriation is important so perpetrators can be prosecuted. 7,257 foreigners remain in Hol camp alone, posing, on the one hand, a security risk and material burden to the DAANES and, on the other hand, not being held accountable for their crimes. Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands’  repatriation and prosecution efforts are an example for other European states who have lagged behind here; notably Britain. The report also drew attention to the fact that when prosecuting, accessing evidence is a key challenge: online communications, statements from returnees, ISIS publications, e.g. fatwas on Yazidi slaves, and “expert evidence” are all important, since investigations at crime scenes in Syria and Iraq are not possible. Criminal justice responses to male foreign ISIS prisoners in NES remain a key challenge, however. Many states refuse to repatriate men who fought for ISIS on the battlefield (thus they evade accountability), fearing their domestic laws are insufficient to vet, try and detain ISIS fighters. Even so, the ICCT’s report shows how justice mechanisms develop according to need: despite initial inaction, efforts were put in to establish jurisprudence and hold returning ISIS females judicially accountable. Similar efforts can be undertaken for men. There has been little movement towards any comprehensive international justice mechanism. Piecemeal repatriation and prosecution of returnees by individual nations is a poor replacement for a cohesive global criminal justice response to ISIS’ atrocities. Last year, the DAANES announced it planned to unilaterally hold trials for foreign ISIS members in NES and called for international support to do so – which has thus far not been publicly forthcoming.

On February 21st, a delegation from Kyrgyzstan visited NES to repatriate 27 women and 72 children from ISIS-linked families. This is Kyrgyzstan’s fifth repatriation mission in NES and the first repatriation mission in NES for 2024. Kyrgyzstan’s approach – to return large numbers at the same time in relatively few separate missions – contrasts that of many Western countries, which have chosen to repatriate their citizens in a slow, piecemeal fashion, taking home just a few individuals per mission. Kyrgyzstan only began repatriations in 2023, yet has already repatriated a total of 431 people. In Kyrgyzstan, suspected ISIS recruits spend their first six weeks after being repatriated in a rehabilitation center.

Kyrgyzstan delegation visit NES to repatriate ISIS-linked nationals.