Islamic State’s Continued Presence and Footprint in Syria

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 23


The current Islamic State (IS) strategy in Syria is based on two connected pillars—centralization, and networks of locals and middlemen. It is clear from the IS publication, “Rome” or “Rumiyah,” that the group realized it would not be able to maintain a sustainable “Islamic State.” With this realization, IS prepared its members for the phase when they lose their terrain and call the “hidden soldiers of Allah” to join the fight across the world. [1] Through their publications, IS began giving instruction and guidance to their hidden soldiers around the world on how to do things such as conduct “car bomb” attacks. The group even chose a picture of a U-Haul truck as an example of what to use, and an image from a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as an example of what to target. [2]

The Centralized Sleeper Cell Structure and its Resources

In March, IS dissolved the “al-Rikaz” depot responsible for the economic management of IS, and transformed it into a new entity called “the war affairs committee.”  Activists believe that this committee centralized and structured their sleeper cell hierarchy. It reportedly appointed a leader for each cell; armed and funded the cells; and instructed them to stay dormant until further notice. This is  unless of course there was a need to defend themselves or another necessary task. [3] With this transformation, the structure of IS went back to where it was before the “Caliphate declaration,” but with more organization and significantly more resources.

IS collected billions of dollars over the years through oil trade, which allowed them to finance and build a coherent governance system. A full social services structure existed where tax revenue played an important role in maintaining the system. That meant that the system funded itself and losing oil revenue would not result in the system’s collapse.

The group was able to grow its networks through the locals of areas it controlled inside Syria. They did this through brainwashing programs in schools and institutions and through their organizations focused on children, like the Cubs of Caliphate, or “Ashbal al-Khilafa”(SWI, March 8). These strategies still exist and are some of its most important tools. The majority of these brainwashed children have not been exposed to any counter-IS narratives and there are more than 80,000 children out of school today in Der Ezzor, where the education sector is facing serious challenges due to the lack of resources and insecurity (deirezzor24, October 4). [4]

Over the years, IS managed to develop strategic relationships with middlemen who would make lucrative deals for them—making IS wealthier than when it began in 2014, with an organized system for revenue. [5] IS stored gold, money, and weapons in Raqqa. Prior to the U.S.-led coalition operations to liberate Raqqa, IS packed all the gold and money in small carton boxes, loaded it into trucks and relocated. Weapons—including heavy weaponry such as missiles—were moved and hidden in the desert. [6]  

Throughout the crisis in Syria, IS was able to strike evacuation agreements with the Syrian regime, unlike other armed actors on the ground. IS was allowed to leave different areas in Syria to the east and southeast with their weapons, including those gained from fighting with other armed groups and those taken from the Iraqi army.

Given its structural changes, continued revenue, and resources, it is fair to conclude that despite losing its territories, IS might have gained in capacity and strength and is as dangerous as a group of sleeper cells.

Infiltrating SDF

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—in coordination with the civil councils of both al-Raqqa and Der Ezzor—has developed a strategy to reconcile with the tribes—especially those who pledged allegiance to IS—by creating a local mediation process. According to this process, the tribal members who were once IS fighters, members, or Emirs, can be granted amnesty and return to their normal life. This process has even taken a further step, as 22 former IS leaders—funders, merchants, and those who brokered oil deals between IS and the Syrian regime—are now working with the SDF. [7]

As a result of this SDF policy, local communities have grown increasingly distrustful of both the SDF and its backer, the U.S. military. [8] Locals and activists believe that many of these former IS leaders and the estimated 200 former IS fighters who joined SDF are still ideologically loyal to IS and will switch sides if and when needed. Omar Abu Laila, the executive director of Der Ezzor24, explains that as a result of this policy, people in Der Ezzor have stopped using social media or being publicly pro-SDF or U.S. as they worry about the resurgence of IS and retaliation. [9] This is important because it demonstrates that locals in the area are afraid of IS returning and that locals are disappointed and now distrustful of both SDF and U.S. forces.

This distrust and fear was evident on November 3, when Bashir al-Hwaidi, a well-known tribal leader from al-Affadlah tribe in al-Raqqa, was assassinated (al-Ghad al-Soury, November 3). A few hours after his assassination, tribes released statements condemning the assassination and indirectly accused SDF of being behind the operation (Horrya, November 4). They called on the “Kurds” to leave the city and give control back to its “Arab residents.” These tribes rejected American participation in the funeral of al-Hwaidi and asked the SDF leaders who came to the funeral to leave (Geiroon, November 10). One statement read, “tribes in the 20th century liberated Syria from French colonialism, these tribes can always fight and liberate their areas again.”

This assassination proved that IS has a strong network of informers and sleeper cells. It showed their ability to operate successfully in different situations and the level of sophistication they have developed through the experiences they gained running a state. Most importantly, it demonstrated the insecurity and vulnerability of the local community.

IS Working to Further Fracture Vulnerable Areas

Any former Emir can announce anytime he wants to come back to IS. [10] While the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate, IS is watching closely and is likely happy to see the tension between locals and SDF spreading. In November, IS released a video featuring hostages from the SDF it captured earlier this month fighting in Hajin. The video shows the beheading of one of the captured (Enab Baladi, October 28). The brutality of this video was directed at the Arab fighters in the SDF. An IS leader made this clear clear by saying “these are the hostages, the fighters of SDF, none of them are American, none of them are Kurdish, all of them are the children of you Arabs. The U.S. and SDF are using you and sending you to this fate.”

Locals have already started comparing their current living conditions with those under IS. [11] Aside from its brutality, IS formed institutions that ruled the region between Iraq and Syria with similar standards and developed an economic system that generated a viable labor cycle, employment, a reduction in poverty, and an end to homelessness and begging. [12] IS built a “central office for investigating grievances” where people could go to file claims and find solutions for issues in dispute. [13] Through different mechanisms and tactics, IS established a society with “citizens” for the “al-Ra’ya” and provided those it co-opted with physical and economic security. [14]

While coercion and cooptation were the main tools IS used to gain control and legitimacy, the security they provided residents was something residents did not enjoy before IS and do not enjoy now. [15] Those that lived under the group are now the same people living under the Self Administration Authority (SAA) and policed by local SDF forces, where the SDF’s checkpoints disappear at night and looting, raping and murder take place, with no courts or effective judiciary system with which to file their complaints. [16]


IS transformed from a so-called “state” to smaller cells. It is true that IS lost most of its territory, but the institutions they built for the state were not completely demolished. Instead, these institutions were transformed into other entities that allow the group to manage its operations.  The group still has the ability to regenerate itself, as the security and social situations and conditions on the ground are working to its favor. To stop its capability to regenerate, there should be a solid policy that can address the above factors that facilitate its persistence. However, the danger is not limited to Syria or Iraq—the group is still a global threat. IS is potentially as dangerous as before, as it has gained more experience and resources to remain resilient.


[1] IS publication, Rumiyah, page3,,

[2] Ibid, page 11

[3] Author’s interview with a former a media activist from Der Ezzor.

[4] Author’s interview with a civil council member

[5] Author’s interview with the executive director of Der Ezzor24

[6] Author’s interview with a former a media activist from Der Ezzor

[7] The list of former fighters was confirmed by four activists and three local residents

[8] Ibid

[9] Author’s interview with a former a media activist from Der Ezzor.

[10] Author’s interview with three residents from Der Ezzor

[11] Author’s interview with a former a media activist from Der Ezzor

[12] Ibid

[13] Author’s interview with three residents from Der Ezzor

[14] al-Ra’ya is the Islamic term that defines the citizens in an Islamic state

[15] Khalaf, Rana, Beyond Arms and Beards: Local Governance of IS in Syria,

[16] Author’s interview with three residents from Der Ezzor