The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
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 first time he tried to leave, he took his wife, a female relative, their widowed friends, and their combined children—11 people in total. When asked why he had waited so long to try and flee, he replied, “We were still hoping that the situation would normalize, and we would be able to continue with our lives.” He had long been fed ISIS’ internal propaganda, which portrayed a still-ascending caliphate, and so was not entirely aware that it was about to collapse. At the time, he told us he was going to attempt another escape, but we have not heard from him since. In mid-October, al Mayadin was retaken by Syrian government forces.
For many fighters, leaving is not even an option. ISIS kills on the spot any fighter it catches trying to escape and imprisons anyone who is overheard talking about it. Fighters also have to find a trusted smuggler, one who does not work for ISIS’ internal security. This requires having contacts outside of ISIS. In some regions, including the Caucuses, there is already a network of people who have escaped, or those who are still trying to get their family members out, who can assist in smuggling fighters. But according to this network, their rate of success is decreasing by the day.
One reason why leaving ISIS is now more difficult is because in 2015, ISIS lost its swath of land bordering Turkey. This disrupted the desert path that ex-foreign fighters once took under the guidance of the Bedouins who would help them avoid ISIS’ planted land mines and checkpoints. Escapees must now navigate complicated routes that pass through both Syrian government checkpoints, and those manned by various opposition forces and terrorist organizations. This involves identifying and bribing corrupt individuals within each group.
There are currently two ways out of ISIS’ last stronghold in Deir ez-Zor. The first route passes through areas in Deir ez-Zor that are controlled by the rebel Syrian Democratic Forces. It then traverses through eastern Hasaka, northern Aleppo (which is held by the Free Syrian Army, also part of the opposition), and after three checkpoints, ends in Idlib, which is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front. This is considered the easiest and cheapest way to leave and the costs of smuggling are roughly $7,000 for an Arab foreigner to $10,000 for a European. Alternatively, a fighter could first travel through the Syrian government checkpoint in Deir ez-Zor, before heading to northern Aleppo and Idlib. But this is the more expensive option, and the price of the trip could rise to $10,000 for an Arab foreigner and $13,000 for a European. Children are typically one-third the cost of an adult. To find money to pay smugglers, escapees have to rely on the money sent from relatives back home, who face arrest if caught. If a fighter runs out of money between checkpoints, he will be reported to the leadership of the group operating the checkpoint and arrested.
On both roads leading to Idlib, fighters must rely on the help of other Russian or Central Asian fighters in HTS-affiliated groups. These arrangements are usually made by ex-fighters from their native countries. In 2015, one ex-ISIS fighter from Dagestan spent two weeks in an HTS base in northern Syria before crossing the border into Turkey. When he was hiding with HTS (then al Nusra), Dagestani fighters involved in this smuggling ring covered for him by saying he was a friend from back home. It was a risky enterprise. If the HTS leadership had caught him there, he and his hosts would have been executed.
THE JOURNEY OUT
For ex-ISIS members who do manage to escape, Turkey is an obvious first destination because of its geographic proximity. Until last year, an ex-foreign fighter could live in Turkey in relative safety and freedom, even with a fake passport, at least until he was served a warrant from either the Turkish or his own government. But in this case, he was usually detained and if he refused to divulge his citizenship, could not be deported. Since the law forbids detentions for more than six months, he would eventually find himself free again—at least until his next arrest.
But now Turkish police are searching buses and raiding homes. Neighbors also tip off the police if they suspect that a former ISIS fighter is living in their midst. When a former ISIS fighter is caught and his citizenship is discovered, he is deported to his home country. The fighters consider this their greatest fear.
According to several ex-ISIS members in hiding, comrades extradited to Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have never been heard from again. So real is the fear of torture or being disappeared that one ex-fighter who had been extradited from Turkey to Tajikistan slit his wrists before he could be returned. According to another ISIS member, he would have rather died than face whatever his government had in store for him. Even bribing officials to allow them in, which often works in post-Soviet countries, is useless. No official is willing to take the risk of letting an ex-ISIS fighter go free.
As a result, many former ISIS members who are currently in Turkey are looking to leave. But it is unclear where they will go. Realistically, the list of countries that these former fighters can run to is shrinking. Although some of their Syrian and Iraqi ex-brothers-in-arms have been able to hide their involvement in ISIS and obtain refugee status in Europe, they have not. Still, some ex-fighters have thrown around the idea of going to Western Europe and surrendering themselves to UN agencies, in the hopes of obtaining political asylum.
In 2015, Egypt was another popular destination, but it too has cracked down on illegal immigration. Malaysia and Georgia have grown similarly strict. “In Georgia, they definitely won’t let you in,” said Abu Mansur, the nom de guerre of a Russian man living in Turkey who is known in religious circles for discouraging Muslims from post-Soviet countries from engaging with or joining ISIS. But Mansur notes that even if a fighter were to find himself in Georgia, there would be an increased risk of being returned home to Russia where he could face torture and death. Some former fighters from the Caucuses who were hiding in Georgia in 2015 eventually left because according to them it was not safe to stay there anymore.
This has left Ukraine the destination of choice for many Russian-speaking ex-ISIS members. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a 2008 readmission agreement between the Ukrainian and Turkish governments allows any citizen of a state without a visa regime with Ukraine, but who is detained in a Turkish migration center, to choose deportation to Ukraine, and Ukraine is obliged to accept them.
LIFE IN HIDING
While in hiding, ex-fighters support their families by looking for work in their ethnic communities, where they can blend in and take jobs in low-level occupations such as construction, bazaar trading, and cell phone and computer repair. One former fighter even worked as a shepherd. Their wives usually find employment in the textile industry making clothes.
Because ex-ISIS fighters’ families are typically quite large—consisting of several wives, the family of widowed spouses, and multiple children—supporting them can be a constant struggle. To supplement their income, some former fighters turn to illegal activities, such as shoplifting, black market currency exchange and debt collection, and even burglary. “I am extremely lucky that my family is still supporting me with money,” said a 35-year-old, ex-ISIS foreign fighter living in Ukraine. “I do not even know how I would survive otherwise.” He rents a small, sparsely-furnished studio apartment in one of the cheapest neighborhoods in the city.
Even when they manage to find a country to sneak into, many ex-ISIS fighters run into trouble for not having documents, which may have been destroyed or confiscated by ISIS. Those who still have passports do not dare use them for fear that security personnel has their record on file. Most turn to the black market to get a new identity.
“There are fairly wide networks for getting passports, counterfeit or not,” said Abu Mansur. “It depends on how much you pay.” Tajik passports are the cheapest (starting at $100), but they would not pass passport control because they are not registered with the government. Among the most expensive and difficult to obtain are Russian passports that belong to an existing person, but whose photo has been replaced with that of an ex-fighter. Previously, Ukrainian passports were $3,000, but since Ukraine switched to biometric passports in 2017, it has become almost impossible to find them. According to ex-foreign fighters, old official blank passports stolen during the Russia-Ukraine conflict are still available on the black market. Bulgarian and Moldovian passports can also be purchased.
To avoid getting caught, ex-ISIS fighters rarely stay in one place for too long, and frequently change their phone numbers, addresses, and even names. Many prefer not to leave their homes unless necessary. When they do, they avoid places where there is a chance of encountering the police. Because many former members are either from the Caucases or Central Asia, hiding in a country where they stand out ethnically increases their chances of being stopped by the police.
Avoiding ISIS’ internal security and support networks abroad is another challenge. Some former members face death threats from ISIS, which regards them as cowards and traitors. One ex-ISIS fighter told us, “If there is an order to kill me, ISIS supporters would not hesitate for a second.” He does not even attend his local mosque as he is afraid of bumping into potential supporters of the group.
ISIS sympathizers are particularly vicious toward former fighters who openly criticize the group. In 2016, two supporters who pretended to be undecided sympathizers looking to join ISIS, scheduled a meeting with an ex-fighter who had been publically denouncing the group for not being Islamic. He agreed to meet them late one evening at a café on the outskirts of a remote town. But while they talked, a group of men arrived and jumped on him. One was armed with a knife, but their lack of fighting experience enabled the ex-fighter to get away. “They were acting on the order of the Amir of the town [he lived in Syria],” he told us. There was a time when ex-fighters still had friends within the terrorist group who could mitigate such conflicts from the inside, but the ravages of war have left them with fewer and fewer allies. That is why even in hiding, ex-fighters often remain armed.
“Last spring those people even kidnapped and killed an ex-Imam of a local mosque, justifying their actions with jihad,” another fighter told us. “Even if they do not kill you, they are so loud that sooner or later they and their friends will get [us] arrested.”
Last week, when a Telegram channel for ex-fighters reported that Abu Jihad, a Chechen who was a senior member of ISIS’ internal security had left Syria, one ex-fighter told us, “A lot of former ISIS members would try to kill him anywhere in the world. And his death will also make me very happy.”
The prospect of ex-fighters hiding undetected—and armed, no less—raises the question of whether they endanger society. Unsurprisingly, the ex-fighters told us that they were not a threat. “People who left ISIS voluntarily are not dangerous,” explained an ex-fighter who had spent several months in an ISIS prison for disagreeing with the group on religious matters. “The majority of them understand the gigantic mistake they made by joining the group.” Other fighters we spoke to reiterated this sentiment. The dangerous ones, the ones who could conduct attacks, they said, are those who are still in Syria, as well as those around the globe who still want to fight and die for the group but are not able to travel to the Middle East.
That of course does not mean these fighters should be taken at their word. They could easily use the skills they acquired in the Middle East for criminal activities. And knowing that they face life sentences, or worse, if they are caught means they have nothing to lose when they run into the police. Last month, a group of Chechens who were affiliated with ISIS were caught crossing illegally from Ukraine into Russia. They not only opened fire and killed a policeman, but also committed suicide in order to escape arrest.
European countries should work together and share information on ex-fighters in order to track their whereabouts. Even if former ISIS members from Western Europe are being closely watched, their comrades from ex-Soviet countries are less so. That is because often times, the governments in the region are not interested in where these ex-fighters go as long as they do not cross their borders. This allows former fighters to obtain new identities from other Russian-speaking ex-Soviet countries, and thus, makes them harder to detect.