Five years since al-Baghouz battle

The caliphate ended but the Islamic State is still present

Militants from the Islamic State organization in the Syrian desert (Edited by Enab Baladi)

Five years since al-Baghouz battle

The caliphate ended but the Islamic State is still present

Militants from the Islamic State organization in the Syrian desert (Edited by Enab Baladi)

Militants from the Islamic State organization in the Syrian desert (Edited by Enab Baladi)


Khaled al-Jeratli | Hassan Ibrahim | Reham al-Sawadi

In the Syrian village of al-Baghouz, in the eastern Deir Ezzor province, the last battles between the Islamic State organization and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the International Coalition Forces, took place on February 9 and ended on March 23, 2019, marking the end of the organization’s geographical dominance. However, this did not signify the end of its actual activities in Syria.

The organization’s activities are currently concentrated in the Syrian desert, while its cells are spread in the south and the northwest of Syria.

Several leaders of the organization who were residing in areas under the control of the Syrian opposition in northwest Syria were killed. This was demonstrated by US military operations that targeted two of them near the Turkish border, as well as another operation conducted by Turkey in the same region, while another leader was killed in southern Syria in the Daraa province.

Enab Baladi discusses in this file with experts and specialized researchers the various forms of the Islamic State organization’s activities and locations, alongside the mechanisms it continues to rely on to supply itself with financial and human resources in the areas it withdrew from since 2019.

The East as a resource for the Islamic State organization

The organization relies on al-Baghouz and its surroundings to secure some of its financial and human needs, employing a mechanism to collect funds from the residents. The same area also serves as a human resource, given that the rural environment there is considered a popular support base for it, according to experts and researchers.

The movements of the Islamic State in eastern rural Deir Ezzor are not limited to resource procurement; it is also an operational theater for the organization. Its cells are active there and carry out almost daily targeting operations against the SDF, which controls the region, as well as against civilians who the organization accuses of working for its benefit.

On March 15 of this year, the organization announced the outcome of its operations around the world during one week, including Syria, with an average of seven operations, three of which were in Deir Ezzor alone.

In al-Baghouz and its surroundings, elements of the organization send special messages via the WhatsApp application to civilians and wealthy merchants periodically, demanding them to pay amounts for “zakat,” or what it currently calls “the sultanic costs or kulfa sultaniyya,” threatening punishment for those who refuse.

On another hand, the organization works on recruiting young men and children to enlist them, in an attempt to rebuild its structure and network of recruits, according to a study issued by the Counter-Terrorism Project.

The study based its analysis on photos published by the organization’s profiles during the loyalty pledge to its new leader Abu al-Hussein al-Qurashi, which showed fighters whose bodies seemed to be those of children and teenagers.

In September 2022, the organization sent audio messages from its official spokesperson, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, demanding Muslims to join the (Islamic State), specifically mentioning residents of Syria and Iraq, as they had witnessed its rule in the region.

Jihadist group specialist Abbas Sharifeh told Enab Baladi that the al-Baghouz area holds significant symbolism for the organization, being the site of its last battles with the International Coalition and the SDF, and where “the final curtain was drawn on the lifespan of the caliphate” declared by the organization’s former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014.

Sharifeh believes that the organization seeks to invest in the symbolism of al-Baghouz, to regain “prestige,” by recruiting the largest number of local youths, whose relatives were killed in the region.

Al-Baghouz is considered a “fragile” security area, as the SDF’s control over it is “very weak,” which allows the organization to gradually resume its activities and reconstitute its ranks, according to the researcher.

Military training at a training camp for Islamic State fighters in Yemen (YouTube/United News International)

Military training at a training camp for Islamic State fighters in Yemen (YouTube/United News International)

A theater of operations

The Islamic State organization released its latest statistics of operations in Syria on March 22 of this year, including nine operations in Syria, eight of which were in Deir Ezzor alone, and the ninth in Homs province.

The organization’s operations in Deir Ezzor were concentrated in the eastern countryside, resulting in the death and injury of about ten members of the SDF, according to what was conveyed by the organization’s newspaper Al-Naba from security sources.

The organization regularly issues, every Friday of each week, a statistic for the activities of its cells and groups around the world, referring in more detail to the operations it carried out in Syria and Iraq.

Since the beginning of this year, the organization’s operations have recorded their highest rate in more than a year, according to the organization’s successive announcements via its official account on Telegram (a closed newsroom including journalists), and these operations were distributed across the northern part of Syria and others in the desert area of eastern Homs countryside.

The organization announced 32 operations in the first week of this year, targeting members of the Syrian regime forces and the SDF in northeastern and eastern Syria.

Operations against the SDF in eastern Deir Ezzor are no different from those it carried out over the past years, but their intensity has increased, exceeding those carried out by the organization in previous years.

In April 2023, the US State Department said in a press briefing about the Islamic State operations in Syria and Iraq that the organization’s attacks have decreased in Syria and Iraq during the first months of the year, describing the period as “the most peaceful” in terms of decline in the organization’s operations.

UN experts believe that the Islamic State organization has between 5,000 and 7,000 elements in Syria and Iraq, and that its fighters in Afghanistan today pose the most serious “terrorist” threat, while the organization is attempting to rebuild itself and recruit new individuals, especially from camps in northeastern Syria, according to a report published by the American Associated Press agency, and also from “vulnerable communities” in countries neighboring Syria.

While the organization’s operations have reached record numbers since the end of its actual dominance in 2019, the US-led International Coalition Forces continue to work in Syria and Iraq to combat its activity, while the SDF continues to launch security operations against it.

On the western side of the Euphrates River, Russia and the Syrian regime continue to try by land and air to rein in the organization’s operations without any significant impact on the ground.

For its part, the SDF announced at the end of February that it launched a security operation to pursue the Islamic State cells, resulting in the arrest of 16 of its members who were involved in executing operations targeting members of the SDF, in addition to others who provided facilities and support to the organization’s elements and helped them execute their operations.

It pointed out that its forces managed to seize weapons and military equipment during the operation.

Why hasn’t the counter-effort succeeded?

Different entities implementing operations to combat the movements of the Islamic State organization in the Syrian Badia (desert) have not yielded results to date. The United States has deployed military bases in the Syrian Badia for this purpose, the most notable being the Al-Tanf base in eastern Syria, alongside other bases east of Deir Ezzor.

Meanwhile, Russia is constantly moving its warplanes to bomb the organization’s locations and hideouts, while the latter’s cells continue to decimate the regime’s forces in the Badia, which extends along the Iraqi border from Homs to Raqqa.

Abdul Rahman al-Haj, a researcher specializing in jihadist group affairs, told Enab Baladi that the organization’s activity concentrates in this area for several reasons, most notably because it is a vast desert area challenging to control.

He added that the Syrian Badia constitutes a strategic area representing a corridor between Iraq and southern and central Syria, which is also one of the reasons for the persistence of operations.

The researcher believes that the most significant factor for the continuous operations in this region is the presence of tribes and clans representing “the organization’s essential social environment.”

Al-Haj said that the tribal environment allows the organization freedom of movement and a greater ability to settle compared to urban areas.

On the other hand, urban areas represent “hostile environments” to the organization’s activity, as it previously failed to establish a foothold in them, as is the case in Idlib and Daraa, where the organization’s leaders were killed over the past years.

Fighters from the Islamic State organization during their pledge of allegiance to their new leader - December 1, 2022 (Amaq)

Fighters from the Islamic State organization during their pledge of allegiance to their new leader – December 1, 2022 (Amaq)

What about southern Syria?

Since the regime’s control, with Russian aerial and Iranian ground support, over southern Syria in July 2018, the Islamic State organization has faded from the area, but its effects have not disappeared, as targeting and assassination operations have continued in the city streets, part of which is attributed to the organization.

The targeting operations witnessed in the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra raised questions about the responsible party, but the organization came out in 2000, announcing its adoption of a series of targeting that included 25 operations.

On January 20, 2023, the organization claimed 34 targeting operations in southern Syria, stating they resulted in the killing of dozens of people spread across the provinces of Daraa, Quneitra, and As-Suwayda, over seven months.

In the weekly issue of the Al-Naba newspaper, the organization mentioned that its security units carried out operations that led to the killing of 51 individuals, including elements of the Syrian regime forces and others collaborating with them.

Al-Naba also mentioned that the absence of the organization’s adoption of its operations in southern Syria led some media outlets to attribute these attacks to various parties hostile to the Islamic State organization in the region.

The newspaper attached photos showing corpses of people killed during operations carried out in southern Syria, including elements of the Syrian regime forces, alongside civilians accused by the organization of dealing with the regime.

Al-Naba relayed from an unnamed security source in the organization that the dissemination and adoption of attacks by the organization are subject to a “security and media policy of its leadership.”

The aforementioned announcement was the last in terms of the organization’s adoption of operations in southern Syria, as its announcements have been absent since then, although the targeting continues, and clashes occur now and then between groups accused of affiliation with the organization and other local groups from the remnants of the opposition factions.

Why does the Islamic State not adopt operations? 

A prominent leader in the local factions fighting the Islamic State organization in the western countryside of Daraa told Enab Baladi that the organization’s activity has declined after a series of qualitative operations targeting its leaders and cadres, the most notable being the raid on the organization’s gatherings in the city of Jasim in October 2022, resulting in the death of several of its leaders.

The same factions had managed to kill leaders in the organization, the most notable being Abu Abdul Rahman al-Iraqi, Abu Salem al-Iraqi, Abu Omar Jababi, and Abu Luay al-Qalamouni, who were among the first-line leaders of the organization in Daraa, according to the leader who refrained from disclosing his name for security reasons.

The leader added that in February of last year, local factions raided a house in the city of Nawa in the northern countryside of Daraa, which was a stronghold for the organization’s elements, targeting the “Wali of Horan” Osama al-Azizi, known as “al-Shayeb,” who was killed during the confrontations.

He pointed out that these operations have limited the organization’s logistical and financial capacity, and it is no longer able to carry out operations that are mostly focused on opponents of the regime, especially members of the Central Committees, according to the leader.

The southern region of Syria is considered to be a more cohesive urban environment compared to the tribal desert environments in the badlands, which is a major reason for the decline in the operations of the Islamic State organization as compared to the eastern regions of Syria, according to researcher Abdul Rahman al-Haj, as he told Enab Baladi.

He added that urban environments are generally hostile to the organization and cannot accept an extremist ideology like that of the Islamic State organization.

He also mentioned that these reasons were a fundamental factor in expelling the organization from the Aleppo governorate at the beginning of 2014.

Al-Haj pointed out that the organization remained besieged in Daraa, even with the presence of a small faction that pledged allegiance to it, and its activity remained marginal until the southern agreement or “settlement,” as it is locally called.

According to al-Haj, the remnants of the faction that pledged allegiance to the organization formed “sleeper cells” in Daraa, but recently, local groups have managed to eliminate them.


Daraa is a hostile environment to the Islamic State organization because the civil and military revolutionary forces adopt a national project that contradicts its extremist ideology.

Abdul Rahman al-Haj, a researcher specializing in jihadist groups affairs


Islamic State accumulates experiences

From the establishment of the organization to this day, its military operations indicate accumulated experience among its elements and leaders, which has ensured them continuity and adaptation to changing conditions and has sent messages indicating their presence, according to Rashid Hourani, a military affairs researcher at the Jusoor for Studies Center.

The researcher said that the organization carries out its operations under the guise of “security behavior” and does not mind having temporary cooperation with those it considers its enemies, such as the Syrian regime and Iranian militias, in exchange for mutual interests.

Hourani considered that the targeting and liquidation operations in the southern region against activists or individuals who participated in opposition activities when they controlled the area are recorded against unknown parties due to the exchange of interests between the Islamic State organization and its enemies in the region, especially since the local community has been fighting the presence of the organization for years.

The researcher believed that the organization’s concealment of its activities in the south is a diversion from the presence of its leader in the region, who was killed by local groups in mid-2022, and whose body was lost thereafter.

Researcher Abdul Rahman al-Haj considered that the organization was managing sleeper cells in Daraa from the remnants of the Yarmouk Army and that its performing operations frequently and surprisingly was an indication of a change in the nature of its presence.

After the killing of the leader of the organization in Daraa, it hid its activities as part of attempts to find a “safe base” for itself in the governorate.

While the organization worked on concealing its activities, it was quick to execute operations and escalate them to mobilize, according to al-Haj, considering that the organization’s operations against its opponents are its tool in recruiting and financing.

The researcher believes that the organization has not given up on trying to find a base for itself in Daraa, although it has recently reduced its operations but at the same time failed to continue with the exposure of its movements and the elimination of its leaders by local factions in the governorate.

After the “reconciliation” of July 2018, and the defeat of opposition factions, the Central Committees and the Eighth Brigade faction were formed under the leadership of Ahmed al-Awda who followed the Fifth Corps formed by Russia in 2016 and then became affiliated with the Military Security.

Some small military groups in Daraa that rejected the “reconciliation” agreement and objected to the negotiation between the Central Committees and the Syrian regime remained.

Over time, the small scattered factions in Daraa found themselves facing the choice to accept negotiating with the Syrian regime, which controls the southern region of Syria, or engaging in alliances with “radical” extremist groups. However, they preferred the second option, which left them exposed to attacks from factions supporting the Central Committees.

Elements of the Eighth Brigade faction, which was previously known as the Youth of Sunna in Daraa governorate - November 11, 2023 (Bosra Press)

Elements of the Eighth Brigade faction, which was previously known as the Youth of Sunna in Daraa governorate – November 11, 2023 (Bosra Press)

The North as a hideout not operations center

Northwest Syria has long been a key stronghold for the Islamic State group, serving as a hiding place for its leaders, whether in areas controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib, western Aleppo countryside, northern Latakia countryside, and northern Hama, or areas controlled by the Syrian National Army (SNA) in the northern and eastern Aleppo countryside, and the towns of Ras al-Ain in the northwestern al-Hasakah and Tal Abyad in northern Raqqa.

Despite the hostility, enmity, and fighting between the Islamic State group and Tahrir al-Sham, which emerged from al-Qaeda and later declared its separation from any formation, the first caliph of the Islamic State organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took refuge in Idlib city. He was killed in an airborne operation carried out by American forces in the Barisha area in the northern countryside of Idlib on October 27, 2019, resulting in the deaths of seven civilians (three men, three women, and a girl).

The second leader, Abdullah Qardash (Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi), was killed on February 3, 2022, in an American airborne operation on a house in the border village of Atmeh, resulting in the death of at least 13 people, including six children and four women.

In August 2023, the Islamic State accused Tahrir al-Sham of killing its fourth leader, Abu al-Hussein al-Qurashi, despite the group’s denial. Meanwhile, Abu al-Hasan al-Qurashi, the third caliph, was killed in an operation by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the southern province of Daraa, in October 2022, according to the spokesman for the US Central Command (CENTCOM), Joe Buccino.

Security and intelligence agencies are pursuing the organization

The presence of the organization’s operations in northern Syria has declined, accompanied by repeated pursuit of its elements and prominent leaders by controlling factions. In Idlib, the General Security Service has been active since 2020 as the entity responsible for pursuing security-wanted individuals, especially Islamic State cells, and it regularly announces the arrest of “sleeper cells.”

In August 2023, the Islamic State accused Tahrir al-Sham faction of targeting the organization’s leader, Abu al-Hussein al-Qurashi, earlier, liquidating him, and handing him over to the Turkish side. It mentioned that the elements of the HTS captured the organization’s spokesman, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, and some of his “brothers.” These accusations were met with a denial from the General Security Service in Idlib.

The latest operation of the General Security Service in pursuing the organization was the announcement of the arrest of what it called the “Ansar Allah cell” in November 2022. It stated that it is related to the Islamic State and was targeting “the mujahideen in the Jabal al-Zawiya area and the Turkish army.” It published photos of five individuals from the cell, while a group by the name “Ansar Allah cell” had not previously claimed or announced any operation in northwest Syria.

The researcher in jihadist groups, Orabi Orabi, told Enab Baladi that the General Security Service is strong in the region and has created a clear state of control, possessing two branches to pursue the Islamic State organization, the first for foreign elements and the other to pursue the organization’s Syrian elements.

Despite this, there are some infiltrations from former elements or elements who were previously with the organization and joined the HTS but still carry a kind of sentiment, or there is an agreement with the controlling factions to leave elements that are not capable of forming cells or creating a state of extremism and propaganda for the organization, but they remain under observation to know their impact on the region.

On March 19, news sites and Telegram channels (widely spread in northern Syria) circulated news that Tahrir al-Sham released the former leader in the Salafi jihadist current in Jordan, and the dissident from the Islamic State organization, Saad al-Huneiti, after about six years of his imprisonment.

He was arrested by the HTS on June 22, 2018, and was accused at the time of being one of the leaders of the Islamic State organization’s cells in Idlib, responsible for managing some operations of bombings and assassinations in the area.

Enab Baladi reached out to the media office at Tahrir al-Sham and the General Security Service to verify the release of the former leader of the organization, but it has not received a response at the time of publishing this report.

Islamic State elements in Syria - December 2, 2022 (Islamic State’s Telegram account)

Islamic State elements in Syria – December 2, 2022 (Islamic State’s Telegram account)

Turkish and foreign intelligence are present

In areas controlled by the Syrian National Army, there is no specific agency for pursuing the Islamic State organization’s elements and its cells, and the Turkish intelligence apparatus emerges, conducting sporadic operations with the National Army factions. The latter also conducts raids and arrests suspects accused of belonging to the organization, without a constant pace or clear plan.

The Turkish authorities announced the arrest of the leader of the Islamic State organization in Aleppo province, named Abdullah al-Jundi, nicknamed Khattab al-Muhajir, and said on January 1, that he was preparing to act against Turkish security forces in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operation areas in the countryside of Aleppo.

It mentioned that the arrest operation took place in the northern countryside of Aleppo, with the participation of forces from the National Army, and he was planning an attack on vehicles belonging to Turkish security forces in Syria, and that the Islamic State organization “carries out reconnaissance activities from time to time in this context”.

On April 30, 2023, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) “neutralized” the leader of the Islamic State organization, Abu al-Hussein al-Qurashi, in an operation in the city of Jindires north of Aleppo, on the 29th of the same month, stating that the intelligence service had been tracking him for a long time, (followed by the organization’s denial of that and the accusation of Tahrir al-Sham).

Enab Baladi contacted the Military Police Administration affiliated with the Syrian Interim Government (a political umbrella for the Syrian National Army) to obtain statistics on the number of detainees in its prisons, both from the elements of the Islamic State organization or those accused of belonging to it, but it has not received a response at the time of publishing this report.


The Islamic State organization sees Syria as a whole as its land and tries to regain it and expand in it, but its need for some areas in northern Syria is a logistical need, and to maintain its offspring and prevent targeting them, so as not to interrupt or end its interests in the region.

Orabi Orabi, Researcher in jihadist groups affairs


In addition to the mentioned security apparatuses, the Coalition Forces do not deny the presence of their agents on the ground, after announcing operations targeting leaders and elements belonging to the organization. Tahrir al-Sham is also accused of coordinating with intelligence services to provide information about foreign fighters in its controlled areas.

In December 2023, the defected leader Jihad Issa al-Sheikh accused the leader of the faction, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, of committing all acts of betrayal and changing its forms in exchange for a price without any further clarification on the nature of the collaboration, its essence, and the price in return for that.

Al-Sheikh mentioned that al-Jolani opened the prisons of the HTS to British and American intelligence, in addition to his pride in his “beautiful” relations with the Americans.



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