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

The Lives of Foreign Fighters Who Left ISIS

Why They Escaped and Where They Are Now

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 group. Often times, an ISIS member would receive funds to buy military equipment, but would instead disappear with it.

During 2014–15, as ISIS acquired more land and grew in manpower, a larger group of foreign fighters began leaving: those accusing ISIS of takfirim or being non-Muslim. These were very religious members who grew dissatisfied with ISIS’ brand of Islam. After 2015, when Western military operations against ISIS began, members from mostly former Soviet countries who simply wanted to live under the caliphate found that it was too dangerous to do so since the caliphate was still at war. Finally, beginning in 2017, some of the group’s foreign leaders who joined mostly to seek power began to realize that ISIS would not recover from its territorial losses and also started to leave Syria.

One ISIS member who was originally from the Russian region of the Caucuses, but who was living in al Mayadin, Syria with his family when we last spoke at the beginning of this month, had been trying to escape for almost a year, but was unable to find a smuggler. The

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