Suspected Islamic State sleeper cells launched a series of attacks against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria, apparent retaliation after a plot to break thousands of the terror group’s supporters out of prison was foiled.
Word of the IS strikes first broke late Monday, with some accounts claiming IS fighters targeted key outposts with rockets and gunfire.
The Rojava Information Center, a pro-Kurdish research organization in northeastern Syria, confirmed the attacks Tuesday, saying IS cells attacked SDF headquarters in Busayrah, about 30 kilometers southeast of Deir el-Zour.
The RIC said Islamic State cells also hit SDF bases and positions in al-Shahil, al-Thiba and al-Zar, with unconfirmed reports that at least one other SDF checkpoint was also targeted.
SDF forces suffered a handful of injuries, but the RIC researchers said they were successful in capturing two IS operatives with help from the United States.
According to U.S. Special Operation Joint Task Force-Levant, coalition forces responded to SDF requests for help, citing an attack near Diban, about 60 kilometers southeast of Deir el-Zour by “unidentified militants with unknown motives.”
"Coalition forces fired illumination rounds to provide visual on the area," the task force told VOA in a statement.
The apparent pushback from IS fighters came just hours after SDF officials announced they had thwarted a plot to free an estimated 5,000 captured Islamic State members from the Sina'a prison in Hasakah, in northeast Syria.
“Our anti-terror units, with support from the international coalition, were able to identify the location of the cell and wage a quality operation against it," the SDF said in a statement Monday.
At least one Islamic State fighter was killed in the SDF operation, which also led to at least four arrests.
SDF officials further said they recovered dozens of firearms, rockets and improvised explosive devices, as well as ammunition.
Since declaring the military defeat of IS in March 2019, the SDF has been holding over 10,000 IS fighters, including about 2,000 foreign nationals.
But SDF and coalition officials have warned repeatedly that the prisons, mostly converted schools or hospitals, cannot hold indefinitely. And repeated escape attempts have only raised concerns.
Monday’s fighting between the SDF and IS comes as U.S. intelligence assessments warn the terror group — which still commands about 10,000 fighters across Syria and Iraq — has been ramping up its attacks.
IS cells in Syria, in particular, have appeared "poised to increase activity … after a period of recuperation and recovery," the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency warned.
The DIA also said it has been tracking a growing number of IS operations since the start of September, with the group increasingly targeting troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran-backed militias.
In one of its monthly reports, the RIC said it recorded as many as 13 IS attacks in October, all of them in the Deir el-Zour area.
U.S. defense officials said Tuesday the Pentagon remains “laser focused” on working with the SDF to contain the threat from IS.
“We know that ISIS remains in Syria,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in response to a question from VOA, using another acronym for the terror group.
“We know that they would love nothing better than to be able to reconstitute and continue to use Syria as a place to train, recruit, resource themselves,” he said. “That's why our mission in in Iraq and in Syria continues.”
Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report.