The second ISIS attack in January targeting US-led Coalition forces and their Syrian Democratic Forces partners raises alarms about the ability of Islamic State to strike at sensitive targets far beyond the front line.
The attack on Monday was caused by a Hyundai vehicle, which was reportedly driven by an ISIS member who blew it up as it reached a roadside checkpoint. According to online accounts that follow Syria the vehicle had come to a bridge on the road to Shadadi. Internal Security Forces affiliated with the SDF were able to stop the vehicle but at least three were wounded. Photos from the scene showed a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle, one of several hundred reportedly supplied to the SDF by the Coalition since 2017. These vehicles have been seen entering Syria since August 2017 and have been deployed for internal security or "stabilization" efforts in areas of Syria liberated from ISIS. This includes thousands of square miles that were liberated since 2015 and all the hundreds of miles of roads that need to be protected from ISIS.
According to locals who have driven on the Shadadi road that runs 80 km. to THE Euphrates river where the battle against ISIS near Hajin is still taking place, there are numerous checkpoints along the road and it takes more than an hour to traverse due to the terrain and infrastructure and checkpoints. ISIS was able to penetrate this area despite it being hard pressed near Hajin and despite the rigorous security measures in place. The US has said since last year that it was training up to 30,000 internal security forces, however only 20% of them were trained by the fall of 2017. In December President Donald Trump announced the US was withdrawing.
This combination of circumstances has led to concerns about the resurgence of the ISIS threat in Syria and neighboring Iraq. Although Turkey has claimed that there is no ISIS threat in speeches by officials since mid-December, an ISIS suicide bomber was able to kill four Americans at a sensitive meeting in Manbij. This included, according to Navy Times, Army Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Farmer, Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician Shannon Kent, Navy SEAL Scott Wirtz and Ghadir Taher, a translator civilian contractor. This doesn't seem like it was an ordinary meeting, and the presence of a cryptologic technician from Fort George Meade who had enlisted in 2003, points to more sensitive details regarding the Manbij attack. The US National Security Agency is based at Fort Meade.
ISIS may have been incredibly lucky to find Americans at a meeting in Manbij in mid-January. But ISIS was also able to strike at a checkpoint where the Coalition says that there was a "combined US and Syrian partner force convoy" present. Two attacks in a week point to ISIS being able to select and strike at higher profile targets. These are areas that have been liberated since 2016. ISIS has been able to infiltrate, plan, observe and strike at Coalition forces as well as the SDF. This points to ISIS intelligence gathering ability and, some sources have suggested, perhaps even leaks or assistance that ISIS received through rebuilding its networks in Syria. The two attacks and any more that may come or further fallout could complicated US efforts to withdraw. Turkey has also said it opposes Trump's concept of a "safe zone" or buffer zone along Turkey's border that was proposed last week. It now seems that with ISIS attacks, the continuing battle in Hajin and controversies with Turkey, the US withdrawal may not happen smoothly, if it happens at all.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.