Suburban Bliss or Disillusionment - Why Do Terrorists Quit?


  • Liesbeth van der Heide
  • Robbert Huurman


Desistance, Disengagement, Deradicalization, Terrorism, Extremism, Islamic State, Life Course theory, Narratives


This study explores the explanatory value of two theories of desistance – the cessation of criminal behavior – in explaining why 27 individuals left the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). The article focuses specifically on jihadists that turned away from ISIS after March 2011, asking why individuals desist from ISIS and choose to leave the caliphate. A dataset of 27 narratives of desistance was analysed to answer the question to what extent desistance from ISIS by jihadists can be explained by the Laub & Sampson’s life course theory and by Altier, Thorogughood & Horgan’s model of push and pull factors. The primary pathways for desistance are coded according to the two theories. The results show that of the 27 individuals, the majority desisted from the caliphate because of their perception of the excessive use of force by ISIS and their inability to cope with the effects. A minority desisted because of their perception of alternative options outside the terrorist group or because of important life events that happened ‘at home’. Thus, the article concludes that the push and pull factors model is valid in the explanation of desistance from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq whereas life course theory does not hold explanatory value

Author Biographies

Liesbeth van der Heide

Liesbeth van der Heide is a Researcher and Lecturer at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs (ISGA), Leiden University – Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs and a Research Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) where she coordinates ICCT’s activities related to the rehabilitation and reintegration of violent extremist offenders.

Robbert Huurman

Robbert Huurman is an alumnus of Leiden University’s Department of Criminology, Leiden Law School, and works as a research assistant at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague.


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