Arrest campaign purports to weed out ‘Islamic State sleeper cells’ in Idlib

AMMAN: An Islamist coalition largely in control of Syria’s rebel-held northwest announced on Monday that it had arrested nearly 125 members of Islamic State sleeper cells over the past 24 hours.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) claimed to have captured 123 IS members since beginning a security crackdown on Sunday at dawn in Idlib city, 35 km south of the Turkish-Syrian border, according to an infographic published by HTS media outlet, the Ebaa News Agency.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham fighters encircled the provincial capital, and then raided homes and headquarters of suspected IS sleeper cells.

HTS—an Islamist rebel coalition including former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—claimed to capture five Islamic State commanders in the raids on the provincial capital and northern countryside in a statement posted Monday on its media outlet’s Telegram page. The rebel coalition also reportedly seized stashes of cash, weapons and explosive devices.

The arrest campaign by HTS comes after a number of explosions and suicide attacks over the past month in areas of the province where the organization maintains a presence.

The most high-profile attack occurred on June 16 when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy in Idlib in an attempt to assassinate Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al-Muhaysini, a Saudi HTS cleric and a designated terrorist according to the US State Department.

 HTS members arrest alleged Islamic State members in the city of Saramin on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Ebaa News Agency.

The jurist survived the assassination attempt, and in a statement to HTS’s Ebaa News Agency, as well as posts on his Telegram page, accused the Islamic State of perpetrating the attack.

The raids against purported sleeper cells continued on Monday in the northern Idlib countryside as “several HTS convoys” arrived in the town of a-Dana, local resident Muhanned told Syria Direct.

A car bomb detonated by a suspected IS agent ripped through a market in a-Dana on June 25, killing 10 civilians and injuring dozens more, local pro-opposition media reported at the time.

“There have been a number of explosions in the past two weeks inside a-Dana, targeting markets in the town,” said resident Muhanned.

But it was a suspected Islamic State attack on a Quranic institute in the western Idlib countryside on July 4 that prompted the arrest campaign, a member of the Ebaa News Agency who asked that his name not be published told Syria Direct on Monday.

Five HTS clerics were killed in the July 4 attack, with several young students also injured in the blast, pro-opposition Umayya Press reported at the time.

“For months, Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham has been observing and monitoring suspicious movement by suspected members of Daesh [the Islamic State] in opposition-controlled areas,” said the Ebaa News Agency member.

“It was necessary to begin the operation to annihilate these Daesh cells and avenge those young students of the Quran.”

Syria Direct asked the Ebaa News Agency spokesman how and when these sleeper cells entered rebel-held Idlib province, but he refused to comment.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham’s security crackdown appears to be the latest in several moves by the Islamist coalition to distance itself from the most extreme militant groups currently fighting in Syria.

In August 2016, Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate known as Jabhat a-Nusra, formally cut ties with its parent organization and changed its name.

Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham clashed with the Islamic State-linked Salafist brigade Liwa al-Aqsa in February after HTS accused the latter of coordinating with the Islamic State, Syria Direct reported at the time.

The violent battles between the two rebel groups, which left dozens dead between the two sides, ended later in the month through an agreement between HTS and Liwa al-Aqsa that saw the latter leave Idlib for IS-held Raqqa province.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.