Via car bombs, Islamic State targets al-Hol camp

A fighter from the Islamic State organization before detonating a car he was driving inside an SDF military headquarters in eastern Deir Ezzor province – June 3, 2024 (Amaq Agency)

A fighter from the Islamic State organization before detonating a car he was driving inside an SDF military headquarters in eastern Deir Ezzor province – June 3, 2024 (Amaq Agency)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

In the past two months, the Islamic State organization has launched attacks on military sites of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which controls northeastern Syria, using car bombs that caused material and human damage.

The tactic used by the organization represented a shift in its strategy in the region. It had long relied on ambushes, assassinations, and sporadic attacks targeting SDF fighters and employees of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (the political umbrella of the SDF).

Car bomb attacks or suicide attacks had been absent from the region for nearly five years. However, they returned at a time when the group’s activities had declined, and security campaigns against it had intensified, indicating its continued ability to carry out impactful attacks.

Two attacks in Deir Ezzor

On June 5, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack that targeted an SDF military site in eastern Deir Ezzor, stating that it resulted in the death and injury of 15 SDF members.

The group’s official Amaq Agency reported at the time that a “new martyrdom operation” hit an SDF site in the village of al-Attala in the Basira area of eastern Deir Ezzor province.

Through its Telegram channel (a closed news room), Amaq added that the attack coincided with a new military training session at the targeted site, resulting in the death and injury of 15 people.

Amaq noted that the attack came as part of the “ongoing revenge for the captives of al-Hol,” which was promised by the organization’s spokesperson in his latest speech.

On its part, the SDF announced that a car bomb attack occurred at one of its military headquarters, but said its forces managed to thwart it.

On May 10, the SDF announced the death of four of its members and the injury of others in a suicide bomber attack in the town of al-Shuhail in eastern Deir Ezzor province, coinciding with shelling attributed to the Syrian regime.

At the time, the SDF said that the Islamic State had attacked one of its military points in al-Shuhail with a car bomb driven by a suicide bomber.

Later, the organization claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it resulted in the death of the bomber, who penetrated the security fortifications imposed by the “militias” (referring to the SDF) to reach the headquarters, which serves as a launch point for arrest and raid campaigns in the area.

Attacks linked to al-Hol camp

At the end of April, Islamic State spokesperson “Abu Hudhayfah al-Ansari” called on his groups in Syria to intensify their attacks against the SDF in response to repeated arrest campaigns launched by the latter in the al-Hol camp, which houses families of Islamic State fighters.

Al-Ansari’s speech included directives to the organization’s security cells in the region to intensify their attacks, coinciding with a security campaign launched by the SDF in the al-Hol camp in eastern al-Hasakah province, during which it arrested several residents.

A few days before al-Ansari’s call, the SDF had carried out a security campaign against Islamic State cells in areas under its control in northeastern Syria. The Internal Security Forces (Asayish) announced in a statement on April 24 that they had raided Islamic State cell hideouts in al-Hol and arrested 25 individuals, including a woman.

The statement added that the detainees were members of five Islamic State security cells and considered “one of the most dangerous cells within the camp.”

The researcher specializing in jihadist groups, Orabi Orabi, linked the tactic of car bombings recently adopted by the organization in Deir Ezzor to the families of its members in the al-Hol camp, considering that such attacks aim to pressure the SDF to release women from the camp.

Orabi told Enab Baladi that the organization seemed inclined to target fixed camps that it could reach for some time, considering the use of car bombs not an emergency event.

He noted that the organization has pressure and negotiation channels with the SDF concerning its imprisoned members and their families in al-Hol, but it has no actual ability to negotiate regarding influential members imprisoned by the SDF since they are under International Coalition guardianship.

If the SDF decides to release individuals from the organization, it resorts to allowing them to escape from the camp or facilitating their smuggling out.

Will attacks increase?

While the region is witnessing an increase in Islamic State attacks early this year, the SDF has intensified its security campaigns, stating that it has arrested Islamic State cells responsible for carrying out suicide attacks in Deir Ezzor.

These security campaigns reflected on the ground over the past two months, as the frequency of Islamic State attacks decreased again. On June 21, the group’s weekly newspaper al-Nabaa announced that it had carried out one operation in Deir Ezzor province, resulting in three deaths and injuries, while the total number of its operations in Syria during the first week of January reached 34 operations, decreasing to 32 in the following week.

Researcher Orabi Orabi believes that the increase in the frequency of Islamic State attacks ultimately benefits the SDF, as it always aims to “export the idea of the danger of the Islamic State” to pressure the United States, which deployed its forces in the region in support of the SDF to combat the Islamic State.

Orabi pointed out that attacks on SDF sites, the Syrian regime, and Iranian militias are a priority for the organization, and this priority may be exploited by the SDF to gain more support.

While countries involved in political processes as guarantors or observers in Syria view ongoing events as a “conflict” between the opposition and the regime, the Autonomous Administration remains outside this equation, seen only as an International Coalition partner in fighting the Islamic State in eastern Syria. This makes its continued existence tied to the ongoing threat of the Islamic State.

On June 20, the Autonomous Administration announced that a delegation had visited Germany and met with the deputy speaker of the North Rhine-Westphalia state parliament in Düsseldorf, Germany. The delegation discussed the threat of the Islamic State, which is still active in the region and carries out attacks, stressing the need for political, economic, and military support to defeat the organization.

The Administration’s delegation pointed out that thousands of former Islamic State members detained in Autonomous Administration-run prisons, along with tens of thousands of their families in al-Hol and al-Roj camps, constitute a “ticking time bomb that could explode at any moment.”

Fluctuating pace

A study conducted by the Counter-Terrorism Center in 2023 counted the Islamic State attacks from 2019, when its actual control ended, until last year, showing a continuous decline despite occasional fluctuations.

According to a graph in the study, Islamic State attacks exceeded 1000 in 2019 but did not surpass 150 last year. This year recorded a noticeable increase in the number of attacks that the organization claimed in Syria alone.

The study concluded that the fight against the Islamic State in Syria continues, but over time, some International Coalition members are losing their resolve to continue long-term.

Local events on the ground also highlight an unclear future for the region, according to the study. Dissatisfaction with the SDF’s governance agenda seemed to reach a breaking point on August 27, 2023, when the SDF arrested Ahmad al-Khabil (Abu Khawla), the head of the Deir Ezzor Military Council, on charges of “communication and coordination with external parties.”

Al-Khabil’s arrest led to armed clashes between the SDF and local tribes, with consequences that are still ongoing.

The study concluded that Islamic State’s insurgency capabilities are declining due to International Coalition operations, but these numbers may not tell the whole story, and those focused on combating the Islamic State should not overly rely on statistics.


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