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Islamic State moves out of the shadows east of the Euphrates, swears in new recruits

In Syria’s eastern Deir e-Zor province, the Islamic State is increasingly moving out of the shadows, openly recruiting new members in villages, reactivating its religious police force and escalating attacks.

18 July 2022

GAZIANTEP — The Islamic State (IS) is increasing its activity in Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled areas of northeastern Syria, boosting its ranks with new fighters from villages in the northern and eastern Deir e-Zor countryside. 

This past April, IS broadcast a speech entitled “Battle of Revenge for the Two Sheikhs,” calling on its members to avenge the killings of IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi and former IS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi. Since then, the organization has successfully recruited new fighters to its ranks, reports Euphrates Post, a local network covering eastern Syria. 

IS received “new oaths of allegiance [bayat]” from supporters at mosques in several villages in the eastern and northern Deir e-Zor countryside after IS cell leaders held security meetings there, the outlet reported in May. The new recruits, including those from Dhiban and Sweidan Jazira villages in the eastern countryside, joined in exchange for a monthly salary ranging from $150-$200. Each was given a personal weapon and motorcycle, as well as a financial guarantee to support his family if he is killed while carrying out IS security operations, according to the report. 

“IS has a large presence in the area, and has cells and collaborators,” one resident of Dhiban village told Syria Direct, asking not to be named for security reasons. “IS cells continue to promote it by holding periodic meetings in the mosques and squares of eastern Deir e-Zor countryside villages to recruit new young men,” he said. 

The source cited “poor living conditions in the area and IS promises of financial incentives for young men who join its ranks” as driving “a number to pledge allegiance to it.” 

Despite what he described as a “heavy” SDF security presence in Dhiban and Sweidan villages, “whether at their headquarters or checkpoints at the entrances and exits of both villages, SDF forces disappear when IS cells emerge, which gives people in the area confidence in the latter,” the source said. “IS cells openly held meetings in Dhiban in May and June, and as a result new people joined the organization.” 

Out into the open

Since former US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the defeat of IS in 2019, the group has not stopped conducting operations against the SDF through its cells spread throughout the region. But the latest IS operations and its spread underscores that its threat goes beyond the presence of small cells. The attack on Gweiran prison in Hasakah city—where hundreds of IS members were held—at the beginning of this year served as a warning of the group’s expected return. 

Beyond that, SDF control wanes in some remote areas and roads “after sunset,” multiple sources told Syria Direct last month. This allows IS members to move about at night. 

One of the forms of the public reappearance of IS in northeastern Syria is the return of the Hisbah—the organization’s religious police—since mid-2021, and its interference in civilian affairs, especially in eastern Deir e-Zor. The body calls on residents not to deal with the SDF and international coalition, and for people to resign from local councils affiliated with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), threatening those who go against its instructions with death. 

In May, Euphrates Post reported that unidentified individuals riding motorcycles—most likely members of IS cells—set up a roadblock at the junction of Huwayij Dhiban village and stopped buses and pedestrians coming from regime-controlled areas. The individuals reportedly asked women to adhere to what they considered “Islamic dress code.”

Hisbah activity is prominent in al-Hol camp, the SDF-administered detention site that holds around 11,000 family members or affiliates of IS. The camp has seen several incidents, including female Hisbah members whipping a woman from Deir e-Zor province in the camp in May. Prior to that, the Hisbah also reportedly prevented AANES officials from installing light poles inside the camp. 

IS is trying to return Hisbah activity to the forefront as a way to show “the civilian face of the organization where it is active, and transition from launching security and military operations to imposing its laws and regulations on residents of the area,” said Abdulaziz al-Khalifa, a journalist from Hasakah currently living in Turkey. The group is also “imposing a religious tax [zakat] on civilians in the area to finance itself, buy weapons and ammunition and pay for its fighters,” he said. 

Ahmad al-Ramadan, the director of Euphrates Post, said that by supplying new members for its cells, IS aims to “benefit from them to collect protection money from traders and investors in oil wells in SDF-controlled areas.” 

The organization’s activity and calls to join it “are no longer secret, but out in the open, to the degree that they are circulated through WhatsApp groups,” al-Ramadan told Syria Direct. In addition to holding meetings, IS organizes “repentance sessions and recruits elements in the mosques and village squares, without taking heed of the SDF.” 

Escalating attacks

IS carried out at least 10 confirmed attacks in June in Deir e-Zor, Raqqa, Hama and Homs provinces. The attacks killed at least 25 Syrian regime forces and three civilians, and wounded 26 others. This is the highest number of deaths attributed to IS since September 2021, according to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), an international organization formed to combat the growing threat of extremist ideologies. 

Deir e-Zor 24, a local opposition network covering northeastern Syria, documented the killing of 17 people in Deir e-Zor in June, including seven killed by IS and five by other parties. Three people were killed by the Syrian regime and two by the SDF, according to the network. 

Civilian and media sources Syria Direct spoke to noted an escalation of IS operations against the SDF in SDF-controlled areas of Deir e-Zor, Hasakah, Raqqa and Manbij. Some of the operations also affected local residents. 

On June 12, IS cells killed a young man in the eastern Deir e-Zor village of Huwayij, Alaa al-Harti, during a soccer match. The day before, two SDF members were killed by unidentified gunfire near a military checkpoint. 

In the latest period, IS has adjusted the way it carries out its operations, using a new strategy based on “miniature divisions” consisting of two fighters and a third in command, while previously groups ranged from seven to 10 members. 

In its operations, IS follows the “nikaya” tactic, fighting carried out with the sole purpose of hurting the opponent, “striking and draining [the enemy] during a stage of vulnerability,” said Orabi Abdelhay Orabi, a specialist in jihadist groups. He noted this approach takes two forms, the first of which is “lone wolves,” single individuals who “plan and execute the operation without referring to leadership,” which is used in Iraq. But in SDF areas, IS relies on “organized cells,” he said. 

In response, SDF forces backed by the United States-led anti-IS international coalition continue to conduct security operations in northeastern Syria to hunt down IS cells in the region. On July 12, SDF special units carried out an operation to dismantle one of the organization’s cells in the eastern Deir e-Zor countryside. 

The SDF announced it conducted 11 security operations against IS cells in June, during which it was able to capture 17 members of the organization. 

However, amid talk of an upcoming Turkish military operation against the SDF in northern Syria, the latter has warned of increased IS activity in the region. Syria Direct attempted to obtain an official statement from the SDF spokesperson, Aram Hanna, and the head of the SDF media center, Farhad Shami, but did not receive a response by the time of publication. 

Despite ongoing military operations against IS, it remains active in SDF-controlled areas, aided by a “supportive environment in that area,” according to Feras Allawi, a journalist from Deir e-Zor living in France. This is due to “the operations IS conducts against the SDF, which is rejected by residents in the area because of its separatist policy,” he said. 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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