A new shadowy faction is waging a guerrilla war against ISIS in eastern Syria, demonstrating that even their heartland is no longer safe.
As the ISIS “Caliphate” shrinks in the face of successful offensives by the Iraqi government and the Syrian Democratic Forces, their stranglehold over the Sunni-Arab areas of Western Iraq and Eastern Syria has started to weaken. One U.S. backed Sunni-Arab group known as the “Ghosts of the Desert” (GotD) has formed with the goal of disrupting and fighting ISIS from within.
Resistance inside of ISIS held territory is not unheard of. A Syrian group called the “White Shroud” waged an insurgency against ISIS in 2014. But White Shroud was eventually stamped out by ISIS, mostly due to poor organization and a lack of external support.
The Ghosts of the Desert are different. First appearing in the city of al-Qaim, Iraq in late March of 2016, they soon spread into Eastern Syria where their sleeper began infiltrating the cities of Mayadeen and al-Bukamal.
The Ghosts’ initially focused on covert civil disobedience against ISIS, spraying anti-ISIS graffiti and raising anti-ISIS banners and Iraqi flags in an attempt to remind people in ISIS held cities that they had not been abandoned. However, civil disobedience is not enough to dissuade ISIS and degrade their ability to control territory. The GotD soon launched attacks targeting ISIS military and strategic assets by sabotaging armories, fortifications, and infrastructure.
Soon the U.S. led anti-ISIS coalition and the U.S. backed Syrian rebel group the New Syrian Army noticed these efforts and began to support the Ghosts of the Desert in their fight against ISIS. With the backing of these major actors in fight against ISIS, the Ghosts of the Desert transformed from a minor nuisance to a serious threat to ISIS hegemony in eastern Syria and western Iraq.
The Ghosts of the Desert supply intelligence to the U.S. led coalition about ISIS targets on the ground, allowing the U.S. to attack key ISIS leaders and facilities. Working with intelligence provided by the Ghosts, the United States was able to kill the infamous Abu Waheeb, one of the key faces of ISIS’s video releases, in Rutbah, Iraq on May, 2016.
Several other U.S. airstrikes targeting ISIS barracks, phosphate mines and administrative buildings in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq are the result of the intelligence supplied by the Ghosts of the Desert. While the GotD didn’t receive much glory from these airstrikes, their work in the shadows has been indispensable in the global battle against ISIS.
In the last 2 months the Ghosts of the Desert has started to wage a serious insurgency against ISIS, particularly in al-Qaim in Iraq and al-Bukamal in Syria. Ironically, it would appear that the same tactics that ISIS initially used to fight the Iraqi government are being used against ISIS by the GotD. While the GotD does not conduct suicide attacks, they do use remotely detonated car bombs. Jamal Turki al-Issawi (Pseudonym: Abu Abdel Aziz), an ISIS deputy governor of the Euphrates, was assassinated by a Ghosts of the Desert car bomb in al-Bukamal this past month.
ISIS fighters have even been burned to death in their sleep as a result of GotD arson operations. In the recent New Syrian Army led and U.S. coalition backed battle for al-Bukamal, GotD fighters took up arms and waged an insurgency behind ISIS lines before slipping back into the local civilian population.
As ISIS faces pressures from all sides, resistance to the “caliphate” is threatening the group’s hold on its core territories in Iraq and Syria. The Ghosts of the Desert may be the most organized underground group fighting ISIS, but they are not alone. The New Syrian Army and other groups also maintain sleeper cell networks in ISIS held territory. Indeed, it seems ISIS’s old insurgency tactics have come back to haunt them.
A special thanks to @NoorNahas1 and @scw_snake for contributing to this article.