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IS makes comeback in Syria through sleeper cells

The Islamic State has stepped up its military operations through its sleeper cells east of the Euphrates River while the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces arrest a number of women part of these cells in areas under its control.

QAMISHLI, Syria — On Aug. 20, unidentified gunmen blew up Al-Salam hospital in Sheikh Hamad village, south of the town of Marqada, which is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the countryside of Hasakah in northeastern Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a British-based monitoring group, said the unidentified men were part of an Islamic State (IS) cell who planted bombs in the hospital that was leveled to the ground. No casualties were reported. 

A car bomb had exploded Aug. 18 in the city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria. A statement by the media center of the Kurdish security organization Asayish said a detonated booby-trapped cab that targeted Al-Sinaa high school at 8:35 a.m. killed an Asayish member and wounded two others. On the same day, IS claimed responsibility for the bombings in a statement published by its Amaq news agency

Also on Aug. 18, an improvised explosive device (IED) caused a blast in a taxi near the Panorama roundabout south of Hasakah city. The taxi driver sustained serious injuries.

Al-Monitor met with Siban Omar, a university student who lives in the al-Arbouiya neighborhood in Qamishli where the first bomb attack took place. He said, “IS has intensified its suicide operations in most cities and towns east of the Euphrates River in conjunction with the threat of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to occupy our areas.” 

Omar added, “Turkey has a great interest in pushing IS cells to commit these terrorist bombings east of the Euphrates to scare people and force them to empty their cities and villages. Erdogan will then settle the Syrian refugees in place of the original Kurdish inhabitants. This is what he did in the city of Afrin; he displaced the Kurdish population and brought people who were displaced from Ghouta to live in the homes of the Kurds. Ankara is the only beneficiary of all terrorist operations perpetrated by IS in our areas.”

On Aug. 7, an IED-fitted car bomb had exploded in al-Qahtaniya town, killing five people, including three children. 

In a video posted on one of its Telegram channels, IS vowed Aug. 11 to intensify its attacks on both the US-led international coalition and the SDF. It accused the coalition countries of entrapping its local opponents, including the Kurds, stressing that the blood of its fighters would not be shed in vain.

The video shows scenes of decapitations and executions of people presented as Kurdish fighters abducted by IS. It also features segments of TV news reports and testimonies asserting that IS was not defeated and is still deployed in Syria.

In response to the IS video, the Asayish media center released Aug. 15 on its website a video showing the confessions of a number of IS members admitting a series of assassinations and bombings in the city of Raqqa. These members were detained by the Asayish’s anti-terrorism forces and were described as the bloodiest cell.

The following day, on Aug. 16, Asayish arrested in Raqqa two leaders of an IS cell — one called Kamal Juma al-Jouja and another nicknamed Ali al-Hussein. North Press Agency, a news website focusing on Syria, quoted an anonymous Asayish source as saying that they had been planning assassinations and bombings against civilians in Raqqa.

On Aug. 9, ANHA news agency, which is close to the Kurdish administration, conducted a special interview with a widow of an IS fighter, who is in her 20s. Her face was blurred during the interview and her identity was hidden. The couple, hailing from al-Shadadi town south of Hasakah, were part of an IS cell in the city of Qamishli. They were arrested by Asayish in Qamishli. During the interview, the woman confessed that her husband attacked the Virgin Mary Church in al-Wasta district of Qamishli July 11; the car bomb attack wounded 11 civilians. She also confessed to the bombing of the Asayish center in Qamishli on June 17 that wounded seven people, including children. She added that she was mandated by IS to carry out several terrorist operations in Qamishli during Eid al-Adha.

Ronahi Kurdish TV channel said Aug. 3 that Asayish in Kobani city northeast of Aleppo thwarted a suicide attack. The attack was to be carried out by a woman wearing an explosive belt. The woman admitted during an interview with Ronahi TV she was an IS cell member and that she attempted to blow herself up at the Asayish checkpoint south of Kobani city. The channel said Asayish refused to reveal the date of the arrest or the name of the woman.

On Aug. 8, SOHR noted that IS had executed more than 43 operations in areas controlled by the SDF east of the Euphrates since late July.

Jassim Mohamad, a counterterrorism researcher and director of the European Center for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies - Germany and the Netherlands (ECCI), told Al-Monitor that IS has the intelligence and information capability to covertly take down its opponents and carry out assassinations against them. 

“These bloody scenarios and killings could be repeated for long periods of time. IS cells could carry out operations against civilians and the Kurdish fighter group has lost its presence on the ground. IS has been defeated on the ground and lost its main strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, but its threat will be concentrated in its sleeper cells.”

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