• Islamic State militants killed at least 18 people Wednesday near the Syrian town of Kobajeb.
  • The ambush against the truffle hunters was among ISIS’s deadliest attacks in the area in over a year.
  • Islamic State sleeper cells still operate in Syria and Iraq, despite the group’s 2019 defeat in Syria.

Islamic State militants attacked villagers collecting truffles in eastern Syria on Wednesday, killing at least 18 people and leaving dozens injured and missing, opposition activists and pro-government media said.

The attack against the truffle hunters was one of the deadliest strikes by the Islamic State group in the area in more than a year. It took place in a desert area near the town of Kobajeb in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour that borders Iraq. Some of the truffle gatherers may have been kidnapped, opposition activists said.

Despite the militant group’s defeat in Syria in March 2019, IS sleeper cells still carry deadly attacks in Syria and neighboring Iraq, across a wide swath of territory where the extremists had once run an Islamic caliphate.

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Since truffle hunters work in large groups in remote areas, IS militants in previous years have repeatedly preyed on them, emerging from the desert to kill many and abduct others to be ransomed for money.

Separately, in Syria’s rebel-held northwest, an al-Qaida-linked group released more than 400 detainees from its jails after days of protests demanding their freedom.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said that the attack Wednesday in Deir el-Zour left 18 people dead and 16 wounded. It said about 50 people were missing and might have been kidnapped by IS. Twelve vehicles were torched.

Map of Syria

This is a locator map for Syria with its capital, Damascus.  (AP Photo)

The Observatory said the dead included four members of the pro-government National Defense Forces, which had sent reinforcements to the area.

The pro-government Dama Post media outlet said the death toll was as high as 44 and that some 13 vehicles used by the truffle farmers were set fire to and destroyed.

The disparate casualty figures could not be immediately reconciled. Different death tolls in Syria are not uncommon in the immediate aftermath of deadly attacks.

The truffles are a seasonal delicacy that can be sold for a high price and many in Syria, where 90% of the population lives below the poverty line, go out to collect them.

In February 2023, IS militants killed dozens of civilians and security officers in an attack on truffle hunters in the deserts of central Syria.

In Syria’s Idlib province, the recent death of a member of a rebel faction, allegedly while being tortured in a jail run by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, or HTS, has sparked days of protests in various parts of the province.

Protesters have demanded the release of prisoners, including during a rally Tuesday night at an HTS jail in the town of Daret Azzeh that drew warning gunfire from HTS fighters, further angering protesters. The protesters also have demanded the resignation of HTS head Abu Mohammed al-Golani.

Golani responded with concessions, including the release Wednesday of 420 detainees from HTS jails, according to several opposition activists, including the Observatory.

Anti-HTS sentiments had been rising since a wave of arrests by the group of senior officials within the organization, which was previously known as Nusra Front before changing its name several times and distancing itself from al-Qaida.

In August, the group announced that its co-founder and top official Maysara al-Jubouri, better known as Abu Maria al-Qahtani, was arrested over misuse of social media. Al-Jubouri, an Iraqi citizen, had been a longtime al-Qaida official who fought against U.S. forces in Iraq following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

In 2011, he was one of several al-Qaida officials who moved to Syria, months after the country’s ongoing deadly conflict began. There have been reports that al-Jubouri will be released soon.

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In the weeks that followed al-Jubouri’s arrest, dozens of HTS officials and members of other factions allied with them were detained and allegedly tortured in jails run by al-Golani loyalists for allegedly giving intelligence information to the U.S.-led coalition that has, over the years, killed top al-Qaida commanders in drone strikes in different parts of Syria.

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