The Islamic State group has carried out its deadliest attacks in more than a year, killing dozens of civilians and security personnel in the deserts of central Syria, even as people in northern Syria dig through rubble from a devastating earthquake in the region. They are going out.
The bloodshed was a reminder of the continuing threat posed by IS, whose sleeper cells still terrorize the population in Syria nearly four years after the group was defeated.
These attacks also highlighted the limits of the militants. IS militants have taken refuge in the interior of Syria and in remote deserts along the Iraq-Syria border. From there, they face off against civilians and security forces in both countries. But they are also surrounded by opponents on all sides: Syrian government troops as well as Kurdish-led fighters who control eastern Syria and are backed by U.S. forces. US raids along with their Kurdish-led allies have repeatedly killed or captured IS leaders, and earlier this month killed two senior IS figures.
IS attacks this month were mostly against a very vulnerable target: Syrians hunting truffles in the desert.
Truffles are a seasonal delicacy that can be sold at a premium. Because truffle hunters work in large groups in remote areas, IS militants have repeatedly hunted them down over the years, abducting them from the desert, killing some and extorting others for money. Paid for.
On February 11, IS fighters kidnapped about 75 truffle hunters from the town of Palmyra. At least 16 people, including a woman and security personnel, were killed, 25 were released and the rest are missing.
Six days later, on Friday, they attacked a group of truffle hunters outside the desert town of Sukhna, just up the highway from Palmyra, and fought soldiers at a nearby security checkpoint. At least 61 civilians and seven soldiers were killed. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, many of the group’s hunters work for three local businessmen close to the Syrian army and pro-government militias, which may have led IS to target them. and the Palmyra News Network, an activist collective that covers developments in the desert.
Twelve others were killed in smaller attacks around the area, including soldiers, pro-government fighters and civilians.
The region is far from the northern regions devastated by the February 6 earthquake that killed more than 46,000 people in Turkey and Syria. Still, IS fighters “took advantage of the earthquake to send a message that the organization still exists,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Friday’s attack in Sukhna was the group’s deadliest since January 2022, when IS gunmen stormed a prison in the northeastern city of Haskeh that held about 3,000 militants and minors. About 500 people were killed in the ten-day battle between the militants and US-backed fighters.
The attack on the prison raised fears that IS was making a comeback. But then a series of attacks were launched against the group, which returned to its drumbeat of small-scale shootings and bombings.
Aaron Y. Zelen, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was too early to say whether the new wave of attacks signaled a new resurgence.
“This is the biggest attack in a while. So the question is whether it’s a one-off attack or if they’re re-mobilizing capabilities,” said Zelen, who closely follows militant Islamist groups. are and are the founders of Jihadology.net.
He said IS fighters have been less active every year since 2019 and noted that recent attacks have killed civilians, not hard-line security targets.
In 2014, IS seized large swathes of Syria and Iraq and declared the entire region a “caliphate,” where it imposed essentially brutal rule. The US and its allies in Syria and Iraq, as well as Russian-backed Syrian government forces, fought it for years, eventually pushing it back but leaving tens of thousands dead and cities in ruins. The group was declared defeated in Iraq in 2017, then in Syria two years later.
In 2019, many believed that IS was doomed after losing the last remnants of land it controlled, its founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being killed in a US strike and an international crackdown on social media pages linked to the extremists. restricted his propaganda and recruitment. Campaigns
Al-Baghdadi’s successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, was killed in another US strike almost a year ago. His replacement was killed in fighting with rebels in southern Syria in October.
Abdullah Suleiman Ali, a Syrian researcher who focuses on jihadist groups, said IS’ new leader, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi, was trying to show his strength with the latest attacks. Leaders’ names are pseudonyms and do not refer to family affiliation.
“The new leader will have to take steps to prove himself within the organization… (to show) that the group is capable and strong under the new leadership,” Ali said.
American troops and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces killed several senior IS figures this month, according to the US military. On February 10, they killed Ibrahim al-Qahtani, who was suspected of planning the attack on the prison last year, then eight days later they arrested an IS official who allegedly planned the attacks and the bomb. was involved in making Last week, a senior IS commander, Hamza al-Hamsi, was killed in a raid that also wounded four US soldiers.
But IS remains a threat, according to UN, US and Kurdish officials.
According to a UN report this month, it has an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 members and supporters in Iraq and Syria – about half of them fighters. IS uses the desert hideouts “for remobilization and training purposes” and has spread its 15- to 30-person cells to other parts of the country, particularly in southern Daraa province.
SDF spokesman Siamand Ali said IS is constantly planning attacks in Kurdish-controlled eastern Syria. He pointed to an attempted attack by IS fighters on the SDF’s security headquarters in Raqqa city in December. The SDF has since captured IS operatives and weapons caches, he said. He said it was a sign that the group was close to taking major action.
He said that IS aims to attack SDF-run prisons specifically to free militants. About 10,000 IS fighters, including about 2,000 foreigners, are held in more than two dozen Kurdish-run detention centers.
General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of US Central Command, or CENTCOM, said in a statement this month that IS “is becoming a threat not only to Iraq and Syria, but to the stability and security of the region.”