ISIS’ resurgence in Syria may have already begun

(Corrects report on the scale of the attack)

An Islamic State (ISIS) attack in northeast Syria early on Wednesday strengthened fears of a resurgence of the extreme jihadist group, as Turkish troops entered the area ahead of a long-planned offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces previously backed by the United States.

ISIS fighters launched a coordinated attack, including one suicide bomber, in an attempt to capture the headquarters of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) internal security forces in the eastern city of Raqqa, the jihadists’ former capital, according to multiple Syrian sources.

Kurdish forces repelled the assault, which came just hours before an advance wave of Turkish troops entered northeast Syria. This meant that ISIS would have known that SDF fighters had shifted north to protect the border areas, according to Erbil-based freelance journalist Wladimir van Wilgenburg, co-author of the new book, “The Kurds of Northern Syria”.   

“ISIS is always looking to take advantage of conflict between other countries and actors,” he told Ahval in a podcast interview. “They always try to benefit from security vacuums.” 

The SDF was the key fighting force in defeating ISIS and is holding some 10,000 prisoners from the group, including 2,000 foreigners, in detention centres across the area. As many as half of the 70,000 residents of Al-Hol refugee camp are also said to be ISIS loyalists. 

With Turkey expected to take responsibility for these detainees following Monday’s pull-out of U.S. forces, observers expressed fears of an ISIS resurgence -- and indeed the group also claimed responsibility for an attack early Wednesday in Tabqa, some 15 kilometers west of Raqqa.  

Van Wilgenburg pointed out that ISIS had carried out a handful of sleeper cell attacks in recent weeks, and said they would likely carry out more attacks and attempted prison breaks against the SDF in Deir al-Zor and Raqqa, where it is now under-manned. 

“They are under-resourced there and don’t have the same support from the U.S.-led coalition,” he said. “There’s also the possibility that ISIS will also try to take territory.” 

Other observers echoed this view. 

“ISIS is mobilising sleeper cells in Raqqa and attacks have taken place tonight,” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius said in a series of tweets. “Thousands of ISIS detainees and families ... may be breaking out of camps and prisons after Turkish attack.”

The New York Times’ terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi saw the Raqqa assault as a troubling sign.  

“Many of us predicted that ISIS would be back, but I have to say I didn’t think it would be this soon,” she said in a tweet on Wednesday.