ISIL Operating Sleeper Cells in Southern Syria

Offering food, financial assistance to individuals in the area

Smoke caused by fighting in Syria is seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, close to the border with Syria
Smoke caused by fighting in Syria is seen from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, close to the border with Syria / AP
September 15, 2014

JERUSALEM—The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) has begun operating sleeper cells in southern Syria near the border with the Golan Heights, according to a spokesman for the moderate rebel group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The spokesman told the Times of Israel Monday that ISIL activists approached individuals in at least two villages in the area, offering them food staples or financial assistance. "They say ‘No one will know about you. When we need you, we’ll call.’"

The FSA official said that many locals had rejected the proposal but that this could change, given the grave economic situation in the area.

A FSA battalion commander was seized last month by the al Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, which accused him of collaborating with Israeli forces on the Golan. Both Al-Nusra and FSA have been operating against the Syrian army in the region, but not as allies. In a video uploaded last week on YouTube by the Islamist group, the abducted FSA commander, Sharif As-Safouri, is heard admitting that he had entered Israel five times for meetings with Israeli commanders.

He said the Israelis provided his forces with anti-tank weapons and light arms and treated their wounded in medical facilities in return for a pledge that the FSA and other moderate groups would keep hostile elements from approaching the border. Israel has never acknowledged arming rebel forces.

Safouri appears physically unharmed in the video and no threat to his life is made on-camera. He said the meetings with the Israeli officers were held in the city of Tiberias on Lake Kinneret, at the western foot of the Golan Heights. The Israelis provided him and his men a small number of rifles as well as rocket launchers, ammunition, clothing, and medical supplies, he said. "The [rebel] factions would receive support," he quoted the Israelis as saying, "on condition that the Israeli fence is secured. No person was allowed to come near the fence without prior coordination with the Israeli authorities."

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition forces said over the weekend that Qatar paid a $20 million ransom to the al-Nusra Front for the release of 45 Fijian United Nations peacekeepers whom it had been holding for two weeks. On Sunday, hundreds of other peacekeepers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) crossed the border into Israel after recent clashes with the al-Nusra Front. UNDOF forces had been stationed in the no-man’s-land between Syria and Israel since 1974, shortly after the Yom Kippur War.