May Sleeper Cell Report – ISIS Ramps Up Attacks on Oil Targets

, ,

Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and the Anti-Terror Units (YAT) Commando Forces in eastern Raqqa city (YPJ Media Center)

Key points

  • 23 confirmed sleeper cell attacks across NES in May; showing a slight decrease from April
  • ISIS attacks kill 7 military personnel and injure 7, kill 2 civilians and injure 5
  • ISIS ramps up attacks on oil-related targets in Deir ez-Zor
  • YPJ thwarts ISIS attack east of Raqqa in joint raid
  • 27 ISIS-linked individuals repatriated to their home countries from detention facilities


In May, RIC was able to record 23 confirmed ISIS sleeper cell attacks, all of which occurred in the Deir ez-Zor canton. ISIS attacks in May killed 7 military personnel and injured 7, and killed 2 civilians and injured 5. During this month the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Internal Security Forces (Asayish) conducted 7 counter-ISIS raids; 2 raids less than the nine registered in April. During these raids, 14 ISIS suspected members were arrested and 1 killed, showing a significant decrease from the 80 arrested in the previous month. One counter-ISIS raid, that occurred on 29th of April, is counted in the May data, as it was only announced on May 1st.

All registered ISIS sleeper cell attacks this month took place in the Deir ez-Zor canton and the positions of security forces continue to be the main target. Notably, on May 10th a suicide car bomb in the town of Al-Shuhail in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor killed 4 SDF members and injured 3. A car of an SDF commander was targeted by ISIS in the town of Al-Shuhail on May 15th resulting in the injury of 2 SDF fighters. ISIS targeted the house of an SDF military relations official in al-Busayra, Deir ez-Zor with RPG fire on May 20th.

A major pattern observed in May were attacks on oil-related targets. The previous month RIC also registered some incidents in oil infrastructures, however the month of May showed a clear increase. ISIS prioritised oil infrastructure and finances, with 7 reported incidents of ISIS attacks on oil-related targets, all of which occurred in Deir ez-Zor. Of these 7 attacks, 2 targeted oil tanker trucks, 2 targeted oil fields, and 3 targeted oil investors. As a result of these attacks 3 wounded civilians were reported. The available information regarding each attack was limited, and it is possible that civilians had been killed or more injured. 

Numerous raids and arrests occurred in May- 7 raids and 14 arrests, a decrease from the 9 raids and 80 arrests from April. On April 29th Asayish arrested 5 ISIS members in Raqqa. During the operation, the Asayish seized weapons, military equipment, and technologies. Two days later YPJ carried out a joint raid alongside the anti-terror forces (YAT) against an ISIS cell east of Raqqa, pre-empting a planned attack in Raqqa. 4 ISIS members were arrested in the operation, the names of the ISIS members were not announced. 

YAT raid in the town of Al-Busaira, Deir ez-Zor (SDF Press)

Noteworthy, the SDF and Asaish conducted several raids on high-ranking ISIS officials this month. On May 15th, SDF arrested Ahmad Mahmoud al-Qurashi, also known as Abu Mo’az al-Kurdi. According to the SDF, al-Qurashi’s responsibilities were “securing ISIS activities, providing intelligence, and planning terrorist attacks.” On the same day, ISIS commander Ahmed Thamer al-Muhammad was arrested in Raqqa in an SDF raid. He is said to have transitioned to an “intelligence-gathering and operational planning role” after the territorial defeat of ISIS. According to the SDF, he was “responsible for ISIS terrorist operations in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor”. On May 16th, Amjad Hassan, also known as Abu Zainab, was killed in a raid by YAT in Deir ez-Zor. Hassan had planned the May 10th suicide car attack in al-Shuhail, Deir ez-Zor on May 10th which killed 3 SDF fighters. On May 17th, 2 unnamed ISIS leaders were arrested in a joint SDF-Coalition raid in Umm Ghurba, in Deir ez-Zor. On May 21st, SDF special forces arrested ISIS commander Ayman Abd al-Moati and captured a number of weapons, ammunition and explosives in his possession. SDF declared that he was “ISIS’ first military official in Raqqa”. The decrease in arrests is due to the fact that in recent months there have been several large-scale raids, while this month’s raids were more focused and targeted. 

Maryam Ibrahim, co-chair of the DAANES’ Office of Labor & Social Affairs

In May, 27 ISIS-linked individuals detained in the al-Hol camp were repatriated to their home countries, including the US, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, and Finland. Iraqi National Security Advisor Qasim Al-Araji has called on all foreign countries with nationals in NES’s al-Hol camp to repatriate them so that the camp can be closed. Al- Hol poses a continuous threat of an ISIS resurgence and the DAANES has repeatedly called for international repatriations to help combat this threat. Many countries are very slow in their efforts to repatriate their citizens, some countries like the UK and the US are even revoking citizenship and thus preventing repatriation altogether. As per RIC data, 45,358 people remain in al-Hol: 21,377 Iraqis, 17,199 Syrians & 6,782 third-country foreigners.

UK-based watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recently reported that 2 suspected ISIS members of Iraqi nationality were repatriated by Iraq in May. The 2 had just been captured by SDF forces in a partnered operation with the Coalition in Raqqa, alongside 18 other suspects. According to the RIC data since 2017, Iraq has repatriated a total of 15,823 people from NES (both camps and prisons). Internal return missions (Syrians being released and re-integrated in their home villages) from al-Hol camp have also been underway since 2019, although their pace has lagged from 2022 onwards: most recently, 254 Syrians left the camp under a DAANES amnesty program, returning to their homes in Deir ez-Zor. Maryam Ibrahim, co-chair of the DAANES’ Office of Labor & Social Affairs, told RIC that the DAANES follows up on families through social care centers. “Past experiences have been successful. We see that most women return to normal life & their children integrate into schools.” Ibrahim appealed to all countries with nationals still inside al-Hol camp to work to repatriate them. “The threat of ISIS still exists because of this camp”, she concluded.