BEIRUT (AP) — 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 residents of the north of Syria continue to dig through the rubble generated by the earthquake that devastated the region.
The massacre was a reminder of the ongoing threat posed by the Islamic State, whose “sleeper” cells continue to terrorize populations nearly four years after the group’s defeat in Syria.
The attacks have also revealed the limitations faced by extremists. Islamic State militants have taken refuge in the remote deserts of Syria’s interior and along the Syrian-Iraqi border. From there, they attack the civilians and security forces of both countries. But they are also besieged on all sides by their adversaries: Syrian government forces, as well as Kurdish-led fighters, who control eastern Syria and are backed by US forces.
The United States and its Kurdish-led allies have repeatedly killed or captured Islamic State leaders and this month killed two senior members of the group.
To a large extent, ISIS attacks this month have targeted a very vulnerable target: Syrian truffle pickers in the desert.
Truffles are a seasonal delicacy that can fetch a high price. Because truffle pickers work in large groups in remote areas, they have been repeatedly besieged by ISIS militants in previous years, suddenly appearing in the desert to kidnap them, killing some and demanding a ransom for others.
On February 11, ISIS fighters abducted around 75 truffle pickers on the outskirts of the city of Palmyra. They killed at least 16 people, including a woman and security guards, and freed 25. The others are still missing.
Six days later, on Friday, they attacked a group of truffle pickers on the outskirts of the desert town of Sukhna, located north along the highway from Palmyra, and clashed with soldiers at a security post neighbor. At least 61 civilians and seven soldiers were killed. Many of the group’s truffle pickers work for three local businessmen close to the Syrian Armed Forces and pro-government militias, which may have motivated ISIS to attack them, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. man, an opposition group based in Britain. Britain, which follows the war, and the Palmyra News Network, an activist collective that covers events in desert areas.
Minor attacks in the area claimed the lives of 12 other people, including soldiers, pro-government fighters and civilians.
The area is far from the northern regions hit by the February 6 earthquake, which killed more than 46,000 people in Turkey and Syria. Yet Islamic State militants “took advantage of the earthquake to send the message that the organization is still present”, said Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Observatory.
Friday’s attack in Sukhna was the group’s deadliest since January 2022, when Islamic State gunmen raided a prison in the northwestern city of Hassakeh, where some 3,000 activists and young people were detained. Ten days of fighting between militants and US-backed fighters left nearly 500 dead.
The attack on the prison raised fears that the Islamic State could resurface. But later the group suffered several hits, before which they reverted to their strategy of shootings and smaller-scale attacks.
It’s too early to tell whether the new wave of attacks represents a new resurgence, said Aaron Y. Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“It’s the biggest attack for a long time. So the question is whether it’s a one-off attack or whether they’re reactivating their capabilities,” said Zelin, who closely tracks Islamic extremist groups and is the founder of Jihadology.net.
He noted that ISIS fighters have been less active each year since 2019, noting that recent attacks have targeted civilians, not harder-to-reach security targets.
In 2014, Islamic State militants overran large swaths of Syria and Iraq, declaring the entire territory a “caliphate” and imposing a radical and brutal government. The United States and its allies in Syria and Iraq, as well as Russian-backed Syrian government troops, fought the group for years before it retreated, leaving tens of thousands dead and cities in ruins. The Islamic State was declared defeated in Iraq in 2017, then in Syria two years later.
In 2019, many thought ISIS was finished when it lost the last small piece of land it controlled, its founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a US attack, and an international campaign on social networks linked to extremists has limited its propaganda and recruitment. campaigns.
In another American raid about a year ago, al-Baghdadi’s successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was killed. His replacement was killed in a clash with rebels in southern Syria in October.
ISIS’s new leader Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurayshi may be trying to show his strength with the latest attacks, said Abdullah Suleiman Ali, a Syrian researcher who studies jihadist groups. The names of the leaders are pseudonyms and do not indicate any family relationship.
“The new leader must take steps to prove himself within the organization (…) (to show) that with this new leadership, the group is capable and strong,” Ali said.
US soldiers and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have killed a number of senior Islamic State operatives this month, according to the US military. Ibrahim Al Qahtani, suspected of planning last year’s attack, was killed in prison on February 10, and an ISIS officer who allegedly participated in planning attacks and building bombs was captured eight days later. Last week, a senior Islamic State commander, Hamza al-Homsi, was killed in a raid that injured four American soldiers.
Despite this, the Islamic State remains a threat, according to United Nations, American and Kurdish officials.
It is estimated to have between 5,000 and 7,000 members and supporters – about half of whom are militants – in Iraq and Syria, according to a UN report released this month. ISIS uses desert hideouts “for remobilization and training” and has scattered cells of 15 to 30 people each in other parts of the country, mainly in the southern province of Dera’a.
Siamand Ali, spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said the Islamic State was constantly planning attacks in Kurdish-controlled eastern Syria. He mentioned an attempted attack by ISIS militants on the SDF security headquarters in the city of Raqqa in December. Since then, the SDF has carried out operations to capture ISIS operatives and find weapons caches, he said. It’s a sign that the group was close to bigger operations, he said.
In particular, ISIS wants to storm prisons held by the SDF to free their militants, he said. Some 10,000 Islamic State fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, are held in more than two dozen Kurdish prisons.
El general Michael “Erik” Kurilla, comandante del Comando Central de Estados Unidos (CENTCOM, por sus acronyms in English), dijo este mes que ISIS “sigue representando una sólo para Irak y Siria, sino para la estabilidad y la seguridad de the region”.
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