Following is the July 2022 installment of “ISIS Redux: The Central Syria Insurgency,” a monthly chronicle of attacks by the terrorist group ISIS in central Syria. A review of developments throughout 2021 can be found here, and previous editions in 2022 can be viewed through the following links: January, February, March, April, May, and June. A full background and analysis of ISIS’s resurgence in Syria, including the methodology used to collect this data, can also be explored here, here, and here.
ISIS militants carried out at least two confirmed attacks in July in the Homs and Deir Ez Zor governorates. These attacks killed at least three pro-Assad regime soldiers. This is the fewest number of confirmed attacks and casualties recorded by this author in at least three years. As stated in previous updates, the reduced level of ISIS activity occurred despite no changes in the Syrian regime’s security posture and was therefore likely a result of ISIS’s own strategic decision-making. There were no high quality* attacks in July. The first confirmed attack occurred on July 11 when a soldier was reported killed somewhere in the Badia and the second, on July 18, when two soldiers were reported killed by a mine in Deir Ez Zor.
It is unclear why there were virtually no reported ISIS attacks in central Syria in July, as there were no major anti-ISIS operations carried out this month (although Liwa al-Quds fighters began a new sweep in the Jabal Omour area north of Palmyra, uncovering several ISIS caches in caves). It should be noted that during July, claimed ISIS attacks remained steady in Iraq (33) compared to June and more than doubled in northeast Syria (20). The latter region has also seen consistent reporting recently of continued ISIS recruitment among vulnerable youth , a reality detailed in the recent International Crisis Group report on ISIS networks in northeast and central Syria.
Interestingly, ISIS released two significant media products from the Badia in late July. First, the July 28 edition of its weekly Naba magazine contained a three-page interview with an alleged senior ISIS commander in the Badia. This interview transcript was followed the next day by a rare series of official pictures being shared on ISIS Telegram channels.
The July 28 interview covered a range of topics, from introducing ISIS supporters to the geography of the Badia to discussing both ISIS’s and the regime’s military campaigns in the region. A complete transcript of the Badia interview can be found online and will not be reproduced here. However, there are several interesting responses worth highlighting.
After describing the harsh geography of the desert, the interviewer asks how the militants manage to survive. The interviewee (“military official”) does not respond directly, instead extolling the high level of theological and ideological devotion the fighters have for their cause. As has been reported by this author, much of ISIS’s ability to survive in the desert in the past depended on the ability to trade with local villagers—an ability that has been significantly diminished in the past year as economic and security concerns have driven communities to the urban centers in the east and west of the Badia.
The interviewer then asks about the day-to-day routine of the fighters. Here, the official makes several important comments:
“The mujahid spends his daily life in the Badiya moving between preparation of faith and physical and military preparation… so from ribat on the frontlines, keeping a look out for the enemies of God, to helping the mujahideen in fulfilling their needs, to making military preparations through participation in assignments of rigging explosives, making IEDs and explosive belts, to operations of observance of enemy movements, and from raids and assaults on patrols and convoys of the Nusayris and their allies, to participating in repelling campaigns and thwarting penetrations.”
The official references training camps and preparation hubs, where ISIS militants can build IEDs and suicide belts. This is a crucial role the Badia plays for the larger ISIS insurgency in Syria, providing a safer space for the group to train new recruits, and a fallback area for preparing weapons and supplies for attacks in northeast Syria. He also claims that the cells are on ‘ribat’ (here essentially meaning guard duty out remote outposts), which would only make sense in an environment where ISIS was solidly in control of certain territory, and refers to fighters conducting reconnaissance missions to observe regime military movements. This latter concept is something this author has emphasized throughout monthly updates this year. The renewed highway attacks on lone regime buses in 2022 suggests that, while militants stopped attacking the highways, they remained able to observe them, waiting to strike the most vulnerable targets. In a later statement, the official cites these actions as being crucial for the group’s ability to target Syrian and Russian military leadership in the Badia.
The official expands on this concept in his response to the next question:
“Regarding the military and field situation, by the grace of God alone, vast areas of the Badiya have been falling in a security sense into the hands of the mujahideen. In them they attack the enemy at the time they define, and in the way that they wish.”
Of course, there is a degree of exaggeration throughout this interview, and the official makes no mention of the regime’s operations which have heavily influenced the way in which ISIS chooses when and where to attack. But the general concept asserted in his response is supported by the visible attack trends. He also claims that IEDs and mines are heavily employed to limit the regime’s movements, a claim that is also reflected in the documented attack data.
Most interesting in this interview is the official’s response to the question on media coverage of the Badia insurgency:
“We hear a lot about many attacks and the wiping out of convoys of the apostates in the Badiya, so what is the truth of these reports? …
Yes true, by the grace of God Almighty, wiping out of convoys of the Nusayri army and militias takes place, but also there is exaggeration in a lot of the distorted news that the media of the apostate Sahwa forces deliberately publish at specific times and for systematic malicious aims, among them: inciting campaigns against the mujahideen in the Badiya, getting Crusader support, and other malicious aims.”
Here the official explicitly calls out the anti-regime media outlets who regularly write fake stories about ISIS attacks in the Badia. These stories often involve regular, complex ISIS attacks against regime forces. It is quite interesting that, rather than use these fake stories to boost the image of ISIS operations in the Badia, the official denounces them. He goes on to urge patience among ISIS supporters, saying that they should only follow official ISIS claims which are “subject to the policy of publication that is subject to specific military and security assessments, and all that goes within the framework of the blazing media war that is no less dangerous than the military war that their mujahideen brothers wage on the ground.” In other words, ISIS media from the Badia is limited due to military and security concerns and engaging in a full-blown media war with an emphasis on claiming every attack would be dangerous to their activities. This claim supports the theory put forth last year by this author and Dr. Charlie Winter in an analysis of ISIS’s under-reporting phenomenon in the Badia.
The interview ends with the official highlighting several high-profile attacks the group has carried out in 2022 and a discussion of the regime’s counter-ISIS efforts, particularly the heavy use of drones, jets, and helicopters. Here the officials admits that these efforts have had some impact on the group, saying that “most of these campaigns have failed”—which means at least some have been successful. Finally, the official addresses those supporters who might wish to join them in the Badia, stating that the routes for foreigner fighters are “cut” and that “mobilization to us is prevented,” so they should instead join other ISIS wilayats outside Syria. This should not be surprising. The preponderance of evidence suggests that the Syria insurgency is dominated by Syrians and Iraqis, with some Russian-speaking veterans remaining from the territorial days.
Simply put, July was a strange month for the ISIS insurgency in central Syria. There were almost certainly additional attacks this author was not able to confirm, but that holds true for previous months as well. The methodological consistency of the attack tracking research over the past two years yields a high degree of certainty that July was an extraordinarily quiet month for ISIS in the Badia. This conclusion is supported by discussions this author had with local pro-regime soldiers in July, who confirmed that the central Syrian desert is currently very quiet. The Liwa al-Quds operation in Jabal Omour uncovered at least one cave holding small arms and explosives, and the militia claims to have destroyed two “ISIS vehicles” though it’s not clear if the vehicles belonged to ISIS or were actively being used, as no bodies were present in the pictures posted online. Thus, the same explanations for past lulls in activity can be applied to July: fighters shifting to northeast Syria or Iraq (the former saw an increase in attacks in July), fighters resting, or militants not finding easy or opportune targets. The severity of the drop in activity is new, however, and may suggest other factors that this author has yet to discover.
At the same time, July witnessed more official ISIS media from central Syria than had been published in the past two years. One could argue that the lengthy Naba interview was timed specifically to coincide with the unprecedented quiet month. The long-term trajectory of the Badia insurgency remains a mystery. It is entirely possible that the region will continue to experience very few attacks as long as ISIS finds it easy to operate in northeast Syria.
*High quality attacks are defined as attacks behind frontlines, those that result in seized positions, target regime officers, involve coordinated attacks on multiple positions, fake checkpoints, ambushes on military convoys, or attacks on checkpoints that kill at least three soldiers or lead to POWs.