July 07, 2023

Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update Special Edition: Local Protests Suggest New ISIS Support Zone in Northeastern Deir ez Zor, Syria

Contributors: Ethan Wilmot and Eden Zaborowski           

This is a special edition of the Critical Threats Project’s (CTP) Salafi-Jihadi Movement Update. These special editions provide in-depth analysis covering one CTP portfolio. CTP's Salafi-Jihadi Movement Team covers the Salafi-jihadi movement in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, Iraq, North Africa, Pakistan, Syria, West Africa, and Yemen in our full Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, which you can find here.

Demonstrators in Izba, Deir ez Zor province, Syria, protested on July 4 against the Quran burning in Sweden by waving ISIS flags and making pro-ISIS statements, indicating that ISIS has likely established a new support zone in Izba. Protesters traveled in a convoy brandishing weapons and flying ISIS flags.[1] At least one protester said that the Syrian people were “passive” in the face of the Quran burning and that ISIS “will not be passive under this great flag.”[2] ISIS began solidifying a support zone in Izba in fall 2022, if not earlier. ISIS has repeatedly targeted local leaders and civilians in the area linked to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since October.[3] ISIS successfully shut down the Deir ez Zor Civil Council in Izba in November, removing the SDF’s civilian governance in the area.[4] Small numbers of locals continue to support the SDF in the area, but the protests and continued ISIS activity aimed at intimidating the population suggest that ISIS’s ability to coerce support from the population remains significant.[5]

Figure 1. ISIS Activity in and Near Izba, Deir ez Zor Provice, Syria, Since September 2022


Source: Brian Carter.

SDF activity has unintentionally set conditions for the establishment of the ISIS support zone. The SDF has repeatedly carried out collective punishments in Izba, which alienates the population and challenges the SDF’s ability to roll back ISIS gains in the area. The SDF has previously responded to ISIS activity in Izba by besieging the town, launching raids, and arresting large numbers of locals, which diminishes trust between the SDF and the population.[6]

ISIS assassinated pro-SDF individuals and highlighted wrongful SDF detentions, likely to position itself as a defender of the population against the SDF—a long-established ISIS approach to gaining popular toleration, if not support. ISIS assassinated a Bakir tribal spokesperson in January 2023. ISIS killed the spokesperson during protests in Izba against the SDF-backed Deir ez Zor Military Council commander, who is also a Bakir tribsman.[7] ISIS also alleged that SDF arrests of “ISIS cells” in Izba only targeted civilians in November 2022.[8] A local journalist corroborated the group’s claim.[9]

ISIS will likely use support zones in Izba and other semirural areas in Deir ez Zor to expand recruitment and launch attacks into other areas in Deir ez Zor to undermine SDF control and shelter leaders who plan complex attacks and military campaigns in Syria. The SDF’s alienation of the population will help ISIS establish the support zones necessary to protect its mid-level leaders responsible for these campaigns and attacks as ISIS coerces the population and wins over their support. ISIS control of the population will limit the SDF’s ability to generate intelligence to target planners. ISIS has used a mix of intimidation and tribal outreach to secure support in Deir ez Zor since 2014.[10] SDF raids into these support zones will only temporarily disrupt ISIS planning, because ISIS fighters will reoccupy areas the SDF targets after the SDF departs.

[1] https://twitter.com/aynur1ab/status/1677138237419053058?s=20; https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1677342640541425665?s=20; https://twitter.com/SahraaEye/status/1677011982501773312

[2] https://twitter.com/ShahidSadiqi111/status/1677194053941698564?s=20

[3] https://jihadology.net/wp-content/uploads/_pda/2022/10/The-Islamic-State-al-Naba%CC%84-Newsletter-362.pdf; ISIS claim available on request.

[4] https://www.alaraby dot co.uk/politics/%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%82%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%B1%D8%B6-%D8%AD%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%8B-%D8%B4%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A-%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%A8%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D8%AA%D8%B2%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%AF-%D9%87%D8%AC%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4 

[5] https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1677344521942626304?s=20; https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1605866192094105601; https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1605864413491105792

[6] https://twitter.com/Sharqya_reporte/status/1615314217912995840?s=20&t=zOixN5-geLbJjd1ACmqJCQ; https://www.alaraby dot co.uk/node/5578467; https://twitter.com/Sharqya_reporte/status/1615067862887964677?s=20&t=zOixN5-geLbJjd1ACmqJCQ; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-may-4-2023#IraqSyria20230504; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-january-12-2023

[7] ISIS claim available on request; https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1606292691746115584?s=20.

[8] https://jihadology.net/wp-content/uploads/_pda/2022/11/The-Islamic-State-al-Naba%CC%84-Newsletter-364.pdf

[9] https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1588906747305295872?s=20

[10] https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/deir-azzour-tribal-mapping-project

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