January Sleeper Cell Report – Third Phase of Hol Camp Operation Begins

Asayish forces in Hol camp during the third phase of “Operation Humanity and Security”

Key Points:

  • 16 confirmed sleeper cell attacks across NES in January; equal to the month prior
  • 4 military personnel killed, 10 military personnel injured, 1 civilian killed, 1 civilian injured in ISIS attacks
  • 4 ISIS members killed and 8 arrested in 5 SDF/Asayish raids
  • From January 28th extending into February, the Asayish and SDF conducted the 3rd phase of “Operation Humanity and Security” in Hol camp
  • A missile struck the al-Sina’a prison leading to an escape attempt from ISIS prisoners

January was marked by yet another round of Turkish airstrikes targeting essential civilian infrastructure in North and East Syria – the third such round in just over three months. Across four days, Turkiye systematically struck electricity, gas and fuel stations, leaving millions cut off from power and water. As the U.S. Department of Defense highlighted in their yearly report on the state of U.S. anti-ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq, Turkiye’s repeated aerial attacks have severely disturbed the counter-ISIS efforts in NES. When Turkiye launches fresh waves of airstrikes, training sessions for the SDF guards who protect ISIS prisons are paused, SDF counter-ISIS missions are paused, the SDF’s financial resources are degraded, and the SDF is forced to “split its attention between two possibly existential threats” (referring to Turkiye and ISIS).

Turkish airstrikes on Qamishlo city, January 15th

The report also referenced that when Turkiye attacks NES close to the Turkiye-Syria border, the SDF sends defensive reinforcements to the north from the Deir ez-Zor region in the south, hence leaving Deir ez-Zor – the ISIS hotspot of NES – less protected. Of the 16 confirmed sleeper cell attacks in January, 11 occurred in Deir ez-Zor, 4 of which were against SDF military positions. SDF cars and checkpoints personnel are regularly targeted by sleeper cells. On the 29th, in al-Hawayj town, Deir ez-Zor, ISIS militants ambushed an SDF patrol, killing one SDF fighter and injuring two others. ISIS continued to carry out successful vehicle IED attacks, killing two SDF members and injuring one on the road between Tel Samen and Hazimah in Raqqa on the 11th.

On January 7th, the Internal Security Forces conducted a raid on the road between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, confiscating ammunition and weapons that were being carried inside a truck loaded with cotton. The two people in the truck were also arrested. The same day, the SDF’s anti-terror forces, YAT, carried out a raid in cooperation with International Coalition forces in al-Jurzy town in Deir ez-Zor. According to the SDF, this operation targeted a senior ISIS member, Muhammed Atiyah, also known as Abu Mahmoud, who “was responsible for carrying out terrorist assassinations against security and military personnel in the region.” After failed negotiations for his surrender, Muhammed Atiyah clashed with the YAT forces, which resulted in his death. “During the operation, weapons, ammunition, and military equipment were seized,” said the SDF. Towards the end of the month, the SDF’s elite “Commando” forces conducted a raid in al-Shuhail town, east of Deir ez-Zor, arresting Amer Aboud al-Ibrahim, also known as Abu Abeer, who reportedly provided “weaponry, ammunition, and forged documents, including identity cards and passports, for ISIS operatives to facilitate their escape and movements” and “provided shelter to ISIS cell operatives, particularly Iraqi nationals.”

SDF Press shared video footage from their January 7th raid in al-Jurzy, Deir ez-Zor

Alongside standard raids, January also saw the SDF and Asayish commence with the third phase of “Operation Humanity and Security” in Hol camp, aiming to undercut ISIS’ presence within the camp. The first two phases were conducted in March 2021 and August 2022 respectively. The operation is continuing into February; however, it has thus far been announced that 29 ISIS operatives have been arrested inside the camp. Additionally, the SDF stated they had found hidden mines, weapons such as hand grenades, ISIS flags, and military jackets, as well as hideouts and trenches. The final data will be included in February’s sleeper cell report. On January 30th, two women affiliated with ISIS were arrested in the village of Qaramogh near Kobane while reportedly trying to cross to Turkey after escaping from Hol camp during “Operation Humanity and Security.”

On January 16th – following four days of intense Turkish airstrikes targeting essential infrastructure – a missile was fired at the al-Sina’a prison in Heseke city, which holds ISIS prisoners. This strike resulted in minor injuries among the detainees, as well as an escape attempt from some detainees, according to an SDF statement. The SDF did not point to a perpetrator in their statement.

A note on the numbers: RIC counts every day of the Hol camp “Operation Humanity and Security” as one raid. The operation lasted 4 days in January, hence, the total number of raids in January is counted as nine: five raids plus four days of “Operation Humanity and Security”.