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Counter terrorism ـ Sleeper cells of the ISIS in Syria

Jun 2, 2023 | Studies & Reports

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

Investigation: The deadly attacks on Syrian truffle hunters by the Islamic State group

FRANCE 24 – The Bedouin communities living in the unforgiving Badia, or the Syrian desert, are facing a surge in armed attacks. The violence reaches a peak each year between February and April: the truffle season. As tribes go out to hunt truffles, they risk being ambushed by sleeper cells of the Islamic State group, which has taken refuge in the Badia since 2019. This exclusive investigation from FRANCE 24’s Observers team exposes the horrific abuses being carried out deep in the desert.

“They were riding dirtbikes. They came up to us and said, ‘Get down on the ground’, and then they started shooting. They killed everyone except me, they told me to run”. On April 16, five shepherds were attacked by armed men in the heart of the Syrian desert, the Badia. The attackers left a single survivor behind to recount the horrors of the attack.Within the expansive reaches of the Syrian desert, an unforgiving territory spanning half the surface area of the nation, armed attacks have become a distressing norm. The Bedouin tribes inhabiting these remote regions serve as the primary targets. These relentless assaults bear the clear imprint of the Islamic State group, which sought refuge in the Badia region after its defeat in 2019.

Each year, the violence reaches its peak between February and April, when the Bedouins go out into the desert in convoys to hunt for truffles, one of the region’s most valuable commodities. But on February 17, 46 members of the Beni Khaled tribe were killed during their hunt in al-Sukhnah. This massacre at al-Sukhnah is where our investigation began. Observers’ journalists Djamel Belayachi and Mahmoud Naffakh began an investigation into what’s behind these ferocious attacks.

Behind the scenes

While scouring Facebook and Telegram pages reporting on incidents in the Badia, we came across a number of videos, each one more terrifying than the last. Truffle hunters have been killed in landmine explosions and executed at point-blank range. Shepherds have been killed and kidnapped. Each day brings a new discovery of bodies and victims. We obtained exclusive footage filmed by members of paramilitary forces fighting alongside the Syrian region, such as the National Defence Forces (NDF) and Liwa al-Quds. The fighters are responsible for escorting the local tribes – which they themselves belong to – into the desert for the truffle harvest.

We cross-checked these images with accounts from eyewitnesses in the tribes. We’ve kept them anonymous in our report for their safety. These locals live in the province of Deir Ezzor, controlled by the Syrian regime, and their tribes are its allies. They’re also vulnerable to reprisals from the Islamic State group, which is still active in the region.We also verified the content with terrorism expert Gregory Waters, who has been documenting attacks in the Badia since the Islamic State group first took refuge there. Our editorial team would like to thank the residents of the Badia, who helped make this programme possible, in particular by sharing their contacts and images, and by helping to verify our research.


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