April Sleeper Cell Report – SDF Commander in Chief Criticizes Coalition’s “Diminished Focus”

SDF ‘Commandos’ conduct a security operation in Deir ez-Zor, April 26th. [Photo: SDF]

Key points

  • 25 sleeper cell attacks in April, 2 less than March 
  • 10 military personnel killed and 11 injured, 6 civilians killed and 2 injured in ISIS attacks
  • 2 ISIS members killed and 80 arrested in 9 SDF/Asayish raids – up from the 31 arrested in March
  • Tajikistan repatriated 50 nationals from NES
  • Iraq repatriated 714 individuals from al-Hol camp
  • DAANES issues response to Amnesty International report on NES camps and prisons
  • In interview with Al-Monitor, SDF Commander-in-Chief, Mazloum Abdi, criticizes the Coalition’s counter-ISIS efforts in Syria


This month RIC recorded 25 sleeper cell attacks in NES, slightly down from the 27 attacks in March. The majority of these attacks were concentrated in the Deir ez-Zor canton with only 5 occurring in other cantons. ISIS’ April attacks killed 10 military personnel and injured 11, and killed 6 civilians and injured 2. The SDF and Asayish conducted nine counter-ISIS raids in the month of April; close to the seven registered in March. During these raids, 80 suspected ISIS members were arrested and 2 were killed, marking a significant increase from the 30 arrests carried out the month prior. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on April 26th an ISIS member also managed to escape from al-Matahen Prison, Manbij.

SDF positions continued to be a key target for sleeper cells. On April 2nd, in the village of Dhiban, Deir ez-Zor, 2 SDF fighters were killed when their checkpoint was targeted. The next day, in al-Khorafy road near Shaddadi, a planted IED targeted an SDF car passing by, killing one SDF fighter and injuring two others. ISIS also conducted attacks on SDF logistic trucks: two gas trucks on the 3rd and 4th of the month and a water truck on the 16th. 

Alongside efforts to undermine security by attacking the SDF, sleeper cell attacks targeting those perceived as affiliated to the DAANES – or those rejecting shadow governance efforts from ISIS – were numerous this month. On April 2nd, a Deir ez-Zor civilian was targeted in his house in Abreha, because of his refusal to pay ‘zakat’ (taxes) to ISIS. The attack did not result in casualties. On April 18th an oil investor who had a working partnership with the Deir ez-Zor administration was injured during a sleeper cell attack. One week later, the former co-chair of Deir ez-Zor’s local council, Jasem Abdul-Rahman, was assassinated in Muayzilah town. A local council employee was also injured in the attack. The following day, ISIS attacked two oil workers near al-Jurzy town, killing them. The SDF pursued the attackers and killed one in the ensuing clashes. The second died later on from his wounds. 

Asayish Anti-Terror Forces with equipment confiscated during a security operation in Heseke on the 20th. [Photo: SDF]

On April 16th, the Asayish (Internal Security Forces) announced that they had arrested an ISIS official in al-Sur area (Shaddadi) in cooperation with the International Coalition. Four days later, the SDF began a large-scale security operation alongside the Coalition, this time in the city of Heseke. As a result, a total of 40 suspected ISIS members were arrested and a significant quantity of weapons and ammunition were seized. Further security operations occurred in the Deir ez-Zor villages of al-Janeinah, al-Jeiyaa and al-Hassan, whereby 8 suspected ISIS affiliates were arrested, and in al-Hol camp, in which 25 ISIS suspects were apprehended.

Amidst rising tensions in the Middle East, including the Israeli bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1st, numerous commentators cited ISIS increasing its activity, not only in NES but also in the central desert region controlled by the Government of Syria. In an interview with Al-Monitor, SDF Commander-in-Chief, Mazlum Abdi, said: “The Islamic State or Daesh is exploiting the chaos to increase its attacks against us.” Abdi asserted he believes “that the conditions for an ISIS resurgence that would restore it to its former strength continue to exist. They still have a vast financial network. They also enjoy popular support in this region and beyond; In the detention camps here in al-Hol, in Roj, new generations of even more radical ISIS militants, boys and girls, are maturing and planning their escape. The conflict in Gaza has also boosted Daesh. It is distracting the anti-Daesh coalition and their focus on this region has diminished as a result.” Abdi asserted that the key shortcoming of the Coalition’s counter-ISIS approach is “the absence of meaningful engagement with our self-administration; the fact that it is not treated as an official interlocutor by the governments participating in the US-led coalition; the fact that its future remains so uncertain. These are vulnerabilities that Daesh is able to exploit.” The SDF Commander-in-Chief concluded by noting that “there is a grave economic crisis here. Unemployment is soaring and this too benefits Daesh, making it easier for them to recruit. Hence, we ought to be receiving far more financial support from our allies. The opposite is happening. Funds are shrinking. The US-led coalition’s resolve to defeat Daesh has weakened.”

A repatriation delegation from Tajikistan visits the DAANES. [Photo: DAANES]

In April, a delegation from Tajikistan visited NES to repatriate 50 individuals – 17 women and 33 children – of Tajik nationality detained in al-Hol camp. This latest repatriation brings the total of Tajikistan citizens repatriated to 304, as per RIC data. Iraq also repatriated 714 individuals from al-Hol camp, building on the 620 repatriated last month. 

According to an interview local news agency ANHA conducted with the co-chair of the al-Hol camp administration, Khurshid Qarro, an Italian woman and her two children fled al-Hol camp this month. Qarro asserted that they were smuggled out of the camp with the assistance of workers of the International Red Cross and that the Italian woman is “the wife of one of the ISIS mercenary leaders.” He added that the Foreigners’ Annex of the camp witnesses “intimidation of women and children” by those affiliated to ISIS.

In a lengthy report released this month, Amnesty International declared that NES’ “autonomous authorities [DAANES] are responsible for the large-scale violation of the rights of more than 56,000 people in their custody. This includes an estimated 11,500 men, 14,500 women, and 30,000 children held in at least 27 detention facilities and two detention camps – Al-Hol and Roj.” The report cited inhumane conditions in prisons and camps, torture, as well as the phenomenon of separating women from their children, and accused the DAANES and SDF of committing violations amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

Responding to the report, the DAANES’s Foreign Relations Office released a statement firstly saying that the burden of dealing with thousands of suspected ISIS members and their families – many of whom were foreign – in the aftermath of the defeat of the so-called caliphate in 2019 should be shared: “the Autonomous Administration alone cannot bear the repercussions of this complex file”. With regards to torture allegations, the DAANES wrote that “if any cases of torture or ill-treatment occur, they are individual acts and require a thorough investigation by the competent authorities of the Autonomous Administration” and requested “that Amnesty International help us by sharing all information and evidence, if any, that proves the involvement of members of our security forces or any other institution affiliated with the Autonomous Administration in committing these alleged violations in order to hold the perpetrators accountable.” The DAANES noted that the Amnesty team did not themselves visit Ghweiran (‘Panorama’) prison in Heseke, nor Sini prison in Shaddadi, and in lieu of this “appear to have relied mainly on interviews and testimonies of people who may belong to ISIS or its sleeper cells, whom the Amnesty International team may have met outside the two detention centres.” The DAANES further stated that child-mother separations in camps only occurred in situations in which it “serves the best interest of the child, in a manner that does not conflict with Article 9 of the Geneva Convention for the Protection of the Rights of the Child.” The statement concluded with the DAANES calling for international support to “meet the needs in camps and detention facilities, which require huge financial resources that the Autonomous Administration cannot afford”, affirming the DAANES’ openness for cooperation with Amnesty International in terms of the latter’s policy recommendations, and requesting inclusion within international meetings aimed at finding ways to deal with the camps and prisons spawned as a result of ISIS’s former rule and subsequent territorial defeat, as well as assistance to “ activate legal and judicial procedures to hold ISIS members accountable and achieve justice for the victims.”

Such justice still seems far away. This month in France, the former wife of an ISIS leader was in court charged with enslaving, mistreating and raping a Yazidi woman. However, most ISIS-linked foreign women who return to their home countries are only charged with membership or participation in a terrorist organization, rather than for any specific crime they committed while part of ISIS in Syria or Iraq, as noted by the International Center for Counter Terrorism.

Greater spotlight has been put on the enduring global risk posed by ISIS recently, with the latter’s March Moscow attack taking global headlines, followed by commentary on the strong expansion of ISIS in Africa. Al Majalla wrote: ISIS “is now active in more than 20 [African] countries. It is from Africa more than anywhere else that IS has begun to impose territorial control and severe forms of governance, and from there, lines of recruitment, logistics, and finance that stretch into Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.”