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The Lives of Foreign Fighters Who Left ISIS

Why They Escaped and Where They Are Now

An ISIS militant making an announcement in Tabqa, Syria, August 2014. STRINGER / REUTERS

Since 2014, thousands of foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State (or ISIS) have made their way back home. Now, with the fall of Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital, more and more members are trying to flee from the crumbling caliphate. According to Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s top counterterrorism official, as many as 5,000 Europeans have returned home.

In our conversations over the last year with several current and former Russian-speaking fighters, which comprise the largest group of foreigners in ISIS, we learned about why some members decided to flee, how they did so, and about life after their escape. 

THE DECISION TO LEAVE

The profiles of foreign fighters who have fled ISIS have changed over time. In the early days, escapees were few and far between. They did not run away for any one particular reason, but had either clashed with the leadership or stolen money from the

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