BEIRUT (Reuters) - Small groups of Syrians are hunting down Islamic State fighters in one of their main strongholds in eastern Syria in a new guerrilla campaign that has emerged as a response to the Islamists’ growing brutality.
The main aim is to generate fear in Islamic State’s ranks, said the head of “White Shroud” - a group that says it has killed more than 100 Islamic State fighters in attacks in Deir al-Zor province in recent months.
The name reflects that aim: White Shroud is a reference to the death shroud it says awaits Islamic State fighters responsible for crimes against the Syrian people, said the group’s leader, Abu Aboud, in an interview via Skype.
As the United States advances plans to train and equip the moderate opposition to President Bashar al-Assad as part of its strategy to tackle Islamic State, the appearance of such groups shows how it has generated new enemies on the ground.
Abu Aboud, who declined to give his real name for security reasons, was a commander in an anti-Assad insurgent group crushed by the better armed and financed Islamic State as it seized almost full control of Deir al-Zor earlier this year.
The small band he now leads is in no position to deal a major blow to Islamic State. But it does pose an extra challenge as the United States and its allies target the group in air strikes in both Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war, has recorded a rising number of attacks by gunmen on Islamic State targets in Deir al-Zor province. Together with Raqqa province further north, Deir al-Zor forms the bedrock of Islamic State’s influence in Syria.
White Shroud shows no mercy to Islamic State: when it manages to abduct one of its members, it is only to “liquidate” him later on, said Abu Aboud.
It operates in and around the town of Al Bukamal at the Iraqi border - an area of crucial importance to Islamic State as the link between the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq. The group currently numbers 300 members, said Abu Aboud.
“Eighty percent of the members of White Shroud did not take part in combat before (Islamic State) came. We trained them and they joined White Shroud because of the great oppression they felt after Islamic State took control,” said Abu Aboud.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says White Shroud is one of several small groups that have taken up arms against Islamic State in Deir al-Zor province in recent months and are picking off Islamic State fighters whenever they get the chance.
They have all taken similarly menacing names. These include the “Phantom Brigade” and “The Brigade of the Angel of Death”, said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, which says it gathers information from sources on all sides of the conflict.
One such group killed no fewer than 10 Islamic State fighters in a nighttime gun attack on a checkpoint in the town of Al Mayadin in Deir al-Zor province last Thursday, the Observatory reported. In a separate attack, a gunman on a motor bike opened fire on another Islamic State checkpoint.
“There is an increase in their operations against Islamic State,” Abdulrahman said.
Islamic State has made plenty of enemies during its conquest of Deir al-Zor, an oil-producing region.
It expelled most other insurgent groups from Deir al-Zor in July, emboldened by rapid gains in Iraq where it seized the city of Mosul in June, capturing with it Iraqi army equipment that has been deployed in Syria.
Mirroring its approach elsewhere, Islamic State has used crucifixions and decapitations to suppress all opposition in Deir al-Zor. It executed 700 members of one rebellious tribe, the Sheitaat, in August, the Observatory reported.
Members of anti-Assad armed groups loosely referred to as the “Free Syrian Army” had the choice of fleeing, submitting to Islamic State rule, or death. The Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Deir al-Zor, withdrew from the province.
The Syrian government still controls a portion of Deir al-Zor city and its airport.
“Secrecy is the most important element of White Shroud’s work,” said Abu Aboud. The group comprises four-man “cells” that work independently of each other, Abu Aboud said.
One of White Shroud’s biggest operations was an attack on an Islamic State position in Al Bukamal in which around 11 Islamic State fighters were killed, according to the Observatory and Abu Aboud.
The U.S.-led air strikes are not making White Shroud’s job easier, said Abu Aboud. Where Islamic State fighters once used to gather in large numbers, they now move in small groups, often at night, using motor bikes.
White Shroud’s spokesman said the group is using weapons that formerly belonged to anti-Assad rebel groups.
The spokesman, who gave his name as Abu Ali Albukamali, said that despite its modest resources, White Shroud had achieved its goal: “The aim of this group - spreading fear among Islamic State members - has been realised. Today, you never meet them walking alone. They mostly move in groups, afraid of abduction.”
Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Giles Elgood