QAMISHLI, SYRIA – Syria’s Kurdish forces said they expected revenge attacks by the Islamic State group following the U.S. announcement Sunday that the jihadi organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed.
“Sleeper cells will seek revenge for Baghdadi’s death,” said Mazloum Abdi, the top commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces — the de facto army of the Kurdish administration that holds thousands of IS fighters in custody.
“This is why anything is possible, including attacks on prisons,” he said.
The SDF, who were the U.S.-led coalition’s main partner on the ground in Syria during years of operations against IS, hold an estimated 12,000 IS suspects in a number of different facilities in northeastern Syria.
An SDF-led operation eliminated the last scrap of IS’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” — which once covered vast territory in Syria and Iraq — in March.
The territorial defeat of the jihadi group did not, however, mean the death of the organization or its ideology.
Small units of fighters have since gone underground and continued to carry out guerrilla-style attacks in the region.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who announced al-Baghdadi’s death in a solemn address from the White House on Sunday, had said last year that he intended to pull his troops from Syria.
U.S. forces have indeed withdrawn from some areas in northern Syria, although they are remaining in regions of eastern Syria that include oil wells.
The vacuum created by the U.S. redeployment and a subsequent operation launched by Turkey and its proxies against Kurdish forces has heightened fears of mass IS prison breaks.
Attacking jails to free large numbers of senior operatives has been a signature tactic in resurgence drives by earlier IS iterations.
Trump thanked the Syrian Kurds “for certain support they were able to give us” in the operation against al-Baghdadi.
Mazloum had said in an earlier post on social media that the operation against the IS supremo had resulted from joint intelligence work.
In a thinly veiled accusation against Turkey, Mazloum said that the village of Barisha where the raid happened “is an area near the Turkish border and is known for border smuggling facilitated by Ankara.”
He said that Turkey was not involved in the operation.
Redur Khalil, a top SDF commander, said that “senior IS leaders, including Baghdadi, were present in areas under Turkish control” in Idlib.
Turkey’s cross-border offensive against Syria’s Kurds “delayed the operation to kill Baghdadi by one month,” he said.
He pledged that SDF operations against IS sleeper cells will continue following Baghdadi’s death.