ISIS Redux: The Central Syria Insurgency in October 2021

November 2, 2021
Gregory Waters  —  Research Analyst

Following is the October 2021 installment of “ISIS Redux: The Central Syria Insurgency,” a monthly chronicle of attacks by the terrorist group ISIS in central Syria. Previous editions of ISIS Redux can be viewed through the following links: September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, and January 2021; and December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, and April 2020. A full background and analysis of ISIS’s resurgence in Syria, including its methodology, can also be explored herehere, and here.

ISIS militants carried out at least 14 confirmed attacks in October, killing at least 13 pro-Assad regime fighters and one civilian, while wounding at least three others in the Homs, Deir Ez Zor, Raqqa, and Aleppo governorates. ISIS attacks dropped significantly in October from a six-month high of 36 in September. October was the first month with no high quality* attacks and fewer than 12 deaths since 2019. Yet more attacks occurred in in the Badia this month than in August. The drop in both severity and quantity of attacks suggests that while ISIS cells may have reconstituted themselves following several months of regime operations, they are not yet choosing to or able to conduct sustained, multi-week offensives like they were at this time last year.

ISIS fighters shifted their attack style throughout August and September, adopting a more aggressive posture and relying less on improvised explosive devices (IED) and mines and more on small arms ambushes. In October, they appear to have reverted to their pre-August strategies. Of their 14 confirmed attacks, at least six used mines or IEDs, while there were only three confirmed small arms attacks. The method used in five attacks is unknown.  

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ISIS’s targeting of civilians appears to have decreased this month, compared with September, with only one reported mine attack occurring in eastern Hama. The uptick in east Hama attacks in September that appeared to imply a return of ISIS cells to the area did not continue into October, although ISIS did not completely disappear from the governorate this month. Finally, after killing six pro-regime commanders over the past four months, ISIS cells failed to kill or attack any commanders during October.

Confirmed attacks in October dropped in Homs (2), Hama (2), and Raqqa (2) while rising slightly in Deir Ez Zor (5) and southeast Aleppo (2). Despite the decrease, activity in every governorate was at or above the levels registered in August. This suggests that whether or not the drop in activity was imposed on ISIS by regime operations in October, the cells are still trending in an upward direction.

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Homs

There were only two confirmed attacks in Homs in October, both occurring in the Sukhnah countryside. On October 20, a Liwa al-Quds fighter from the Palestinian camp in Sabina, Damascus, was reported killed around Sukhnah and on October 22, a 5th Corps tank was reportedly damaged by a mine or IED east of the city.

Based on the unprecedentedly high level of activity in east Homs last month and the generally high level of activity in the governorate throughout 2021, it seems unlikely that there were only two attacks here in October. There were likely additional, unreported ISIS attacks in the vicinity of Wadi Doubayat and northern Palmyra, both areas which saw sustained skirmishes during the second half of September.

Deir Ez Zor

Confirmed ISIS activity in Deir Ez Zor continues to fluctuate, averaging about six attacks per month after steadily dropping during the spring and early summer this year. ISIS cell(s) continued to be active around the Shoula area after moving there last month, with a light skirmish reported on October 4. On October 12, a regime soldier was reported killed in the Tanf Boukamal corridor, likely on or near the highway connecting Humaymah to Boukamal where ISIS ambushed regime forces in September. On October 13 and 14, at least two soldiers were reportedly killed by an ISIS mine west of the Akash oil field. The deaths of two more soldiers were reported somewhere in the governorate on October 17 and 23.

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Map of ISIS attacks in Deir Ez Zor in October 2021 (highlighted dots). Not included are two attacks that occurred in unspecified parts of the governorate.

Hama, Raqqa, and Southeast Aleppo

Between June 25 and September 3, ISIS only conducted one confirmed attack in the Hama governorate—a mine hit on a regime militia likely carried out by a cell based in northeast Homs. Multiple regime security members interviewed by this author in July and August were adamant that the main ISIS cells had withdrawn from the governorate. Then between September 4 and 27, ISIS cells conducted six attacks, seemingly reasserting their presence in the governorate. However, only two attacks on regime forces were recorded in October, despite at least two regime sweeping operations that presented ample targets for mines/IEDs or harassment fire. A soldier was killed by a mine in one such sweep on October 20. On October 22, a child was killed by a mine outside his village.

While the four ISIS attacks in southern Raqqa in September targeted civilians, the two attacks in October targeted military forces. On October 7, two soldiers were killed and three wounded by a mine outside the Safwan Oil Field. On October 15, ISIS cells attacked several regime positions near the Raqqa side of Jabal Bishri, triggering a Russian air response.

ISIS conducted at least two attacks in southeast Aleppo in October after no confirmed attacks took place in September. On October 1, a suspected ISIS cell attacked a convoy of Liwa al-Quds fighters and oil tankers moving from southern Raqqa to southern Aleppo, though no injuries were reported. On October 12 a soldier’s death was reported in the Safira-Khanasir region of southeast Aleppo. The exact cause is unknown.

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Map of ISIS attacks in Hama, Raqqa, and Aleppo in October 2021 (highlighted dots). Not included in the map is one attack that occurred on October 20 in “east Hama.”

Regime Operations

Anti-ISIS operations continue to follow the same pattern established in previous months. Small-to-medium sized sweeps continue on a regular basis in the Hama, Aleppo, and Raqqa governorates while Syrian regime, Russian, and Iranian forces redeploy units as needed across eastern Homs and Deir Ez Zor. Russian warplanes continue to support regime forces during larger attacks on their positions and regularly bomb pre-determined coordinates. In October, most reports of Russia warplane activity focused on the Raqqa and Homs sides of Jabal Bishri.

Looking Ahead

ISIS surged in September, returning to attack levels more in line with this time in 2020. September’s escalation came after a steady decline in activity beginning in April 2021. Confirmed activity once again dropped in October, though remained higher than it was in August. Activity this month can be described as sporadic but consistent with reports of one or two soldiers being killed every few days in different areas of the Badia.

While overall attacks were down, October was the second month in a row that there was at least one attack in each governorate, and the first time since April that ISIS carried out at least two attacks in every governorate of the Badia. Taken together, this seems to imply that ISIS is still choosing to reduce its activity—rather than being forced to by regime operations—though disruptions to ISIS logistical or communication lines cannot be ruled out. It is also important to remember that September’s heightened level of activity came as a reaction to attempted regime sweeps. As long as the regime stays out of specific parts of the Badia, ISIS may be content with this lower level of sustained insurgency while it focusing its resources on Iraq and northeast Syria.

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Map of locatable ISIS attacks (highlighted dots) in October 2021. This map does not include three attacks which did not have specific locations attributed to them; one “Hama countryside” attack, and two “Deir Ez Zor countryside” attacks. To view an interactive version of this map, please click here.

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*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.

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