Foreign Fighters’ Life After the Caliphate

In interviews with former Islamic State members in hiding, religious concerns have been replaced with more quotidian worries.

An Islamic State billboard is seen destroyed in the middle of the road in Qaraqosh, Iraq, on Nov. 8, 2016.
An Islamic State billboard is seen destroyed in the middle of the road in Qaraqosh, Iraq, on Nov. 8, 2016. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Since the fall of the Islamic State in 2014, countries from the United States to Indonesia have had to consider what to do with citizens who left home to join the militant group, particularly whether to repatriate them. Those conversations have recently taken on new urgency, especially after the beheading by a Chechen Islamist (whose affiliations and history are as yet unconfirmed) of a schoolteacher in France—an attack that has been followed by more than 40 raids on the homes of alleged radicals.

Such gruesome incidents aside, as countries consider repatriating the fighters who once joined the Islamic State, it is worth considering some of the lives of those who already turned against the group and made it out of the Middle East. Many of those who fled in 2015, when it became clear that the caliphate was not going to survive much longer, now have regular lives with partners, kids, and pets. “The only reminder of my life in Syria is a scar on the leg and a cat called Assad,” said one former member in an August interview. (The name Assad, in Arabic, means “lion.”)

And like everyone else, especially now during the pandemic, their main concern is supporting themselves and their families.

Some former Islamic State members who escaped from Syria with significant amounts of money now live a comfortable life. Some of them profited from corruption—looting and ransom—or were paid large sums of money to recruit new members. The Islamic State gave others wads of cash to purchase expensive military and medical equipment abroad, but those operatives then left with the money and never returned. Some cooperated with Western governments and gave them information on the group in exchange for protection and new documents.

Other former Islamic State foreign fighters, especially those who were never added to the international terrorist list, have been able to obtain middle-class office jobs, just as they had before going to Syria. For example, one German citizen was briefly a member of the Islamic State but managed to escape it in 2014. He claims that he was sent on assignment for the group but never returned. Because he is not wanted internationally, he now lives a normal life in another country. He is able to travel freely and currently runs an international trade business.

But being well-off or middle class is far from average. A more typical male foreign fighter will have started his post-Islamic State life in debt after borrowing money from relatives to arrange fake documents and smugglers to escape. In one case, a foreign fighter’s parents had sold their family house to collect $40,000, in a country with an average monthly salary of $600, to bribe the judge so that their son would not spend the next decade behind bars. They now rent an unfinished house in the far outskirts of the city, and the fighter’s father, formerly retired, had to return to work.

For former Islamic State fighters like these, reintegration may be harder—and the pull to stay in the group greater. One person who led a small (25-person) Islamic State unit and got wounded in Syria returned home to Central Asia in 2015 to establish a sleeper cell. He was caught and was briefly imprisoned until his family paid to get him out. Thanks to family support, he was able to study to be a chiropractor. His private practice is doing very well now and is even popular with local members of law enforcement who have work-related injuries. In an interview, which was constantly interrupted by his patients calling for consultation, he said, “When I will finish paying debt for the court bribe that I am repaying for three years now, I will open my own medical office and go to study to increase my qualification.”

Another former Islamic State fighter, who is wanted in his home country in Eastern Europe, nonetheless returned hoping to stay under the legal radar. He set up a bread stall close to his town’s main government offices and police station. According to him, “it was a good place for business because police bought a lot of bread for lunch and … did not care who sells it to them.” The benefit of more informal work like his is that he is very rarely asked to show documentation. The same goes for other work such as driving taxis, construction, delivery services, and sales, where many former fighters find themselves.

Yet in the countries to where most former fighters have fled, like Turkey, Ukraine, and those in Central Asia, such jobs do not provide enough for a living. According to one former Islamic State member with a university degree, who used to work in the research center of a major university but is now in hiding, “I work full time, and my salary is $400 per month. If not for my mother sending me $250 monthly from her pension, I would not be able to afford food for me, my wife, and a kid and rent my one room in a shared apartment.”

Those with no money and who don’t want to take further risks to cross borders in search of other work often have no other option but to return to crime. And the criminal world may welcome them because, with few other choices, they are loyal workers with valuable fighting skills. They are usually given such jobs as extortion, handing out threats, and physical protection of illegal business, according to former foreign fighters in Eastern Europe.

Regardless of the kind of work a former fighter could find, returning to civilian life has been difficult for all of those interviewed. For about a year after their return from the battlefield, they reported staying in contact with people back in Syria and carefully following all news from the region. But now, several years on, their energies have largely turned elsewhere.

The change in their religious opinions, meanwhile, varied with their reasons for going to Syria in the first place. Many of those who said they went to Syria to live under sharia, or Islamic law, left after coming to the conclusion that the Islamic State was not truly Islamic. They are still religiously radical. Women in this category wear niqabs where it is safe to do so, and one former member noted that when he was offered a managerial job at a friend’s company, he had to turn it down because it required working with banks, which he considers being against Islam. He chose to drive taxis instead.

Those who went to Syria for adventure or for money or because it seemed the best opportunity to use skills they had developed in the course of other wars do not care about strict religious rules anymore. For example, a person who is a chiropractor now even welcomes female clients, which would have been absolutely unimaginable during their Islamic State years.

For the most part, the return home of those who no longer support the Islamic State is not particularly dangerous, especially if they can reintegrate into society and try to live normal lives. What is dangerous is their unregulated return. In that case, they are often put in a position (lack of documents and debt) that pushes them to turn to crime to earn money. Many countries, including in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, have stood opposed to repatriation of foreign fighters. But because those countries typically have weak law enforcement and widespread corruption, those men and women are coming home regardless. The best thing the government can do is to make it legal and official.

Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Twitter: @vera_mironov