ATbar The Evolution of Foreign Fighters

The Evolution of Foreign Fighters

27/02/2017 | by Fainberg, Alisa (Dr.)  

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Since the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, tens of thousands of foreign fighters from all over the globe have travelled to join militant groups thereat.

The very phenomenon of foreign fighters has a long history and appears to be well known and explored to a certain extent. However thus far there is no commonly accepted definition of the term “foreign fighter” – it seems ambiguous and is understood differently by different people.

For the purposes of this paper a definition provided by the UN Security Council will be used as a basis. The Council defines foreign fighters as "… nationals who travel or attempt to travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality, and other individuals who travel or attempt to travel from their territories to a State other than their States of residence or nationality, for the purpose of the perpetration, planning, or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts, or the providing or receiving of terrorist training, including in connection with armed conflict”.[1] The definition seems to be comprehensive, but there are some caveats to be addressed. First of all, the diversity of the parties involved in the Syrian conflict, are a cause of adjustments in the definition: it seems correct to not limit the definition of foreign fighters only to those who join terrorist entities, since a significant number of foreign fighters participating in the Syrian conflict affiliate with government forces, or Kurdish groups. Secondly, the flow of foreign fighters in Syria brings to the ranks of various groups not exclusively combatants, but a wide range of civil professionals: doctors, engineers, technical experts, hackers, etc., as well as general workers who are engaged in all types of military and civil activities. Moreover, the definition does not cover the issue of motivation, which, according to researchers[2] is primarily based on ideology, religious affiliations, family or kinship links, and less on payments.

Finally, it must be taken into consideration that the current flow of foreign fighters to Syria and contributing factors in future also may bring some new rectifications to the definition, taking into account the impact made by returning foreign fighters and an increasing number of terror attacks within the European Union and others countries of the Western world, committed by EU citizens. One of the questions that may be raised is if the citizens who act on the territory of another EU country can be defined as a foreign fighter, and if it is depends on distance between two countries, or on the technical differences of their status (such as Schengen membership and others). The present paper is not aimed at answering such questions, but their demonstration may help to rethink the definition of foreign fighters.

Based on the aforementioned definition given by the UN Council and following notes, for the purpose of this paper the following definition of foreign fighters will be applied: a foreign fighter is an individual who travelled or attempt to travel from the territory of his/ her residence or nationality to another State, for the purpose of participating in armed conflict on the territory of this State, motivated by primarily ideological, religious, humanitarian reasons, and/or family and kinship ties, affiliated with any part of the conflict either as a soldier or in other military or civil capacities.

The first foreign fighters started to arrive in Syria already in 2011, but the flow has become significant by the end of 2012 - beginning of 2013, when first reports from governments and international organization came to hand. Since that point and until very recent times the flow has undergone certain changes, the tracing of which may help to forecast its further development. Influencing factors include both external and internal ones: governmental actions (both enactments and security operations) to further limit and prevent the flow of foreign fighters from their countries; American-led and Russian (in alliance with Iran) military interventions in the Syrian war; the Syrian refugee crisis; changes in western media attentions and positions over the foreign fighters phenomenon; as well as alterations in the politics of jihadist groups and their propaganda.

This paper is aimed at specifying and analyzing such shifts, including highlighting probable directions the future evolution of the flow of foreign fighters from all over the world to Syria and Iraq, and considers both Sunni and Shiite foreign fighters. However, the paper's primary focus is on ISIS in Syria, as most of the foreign fighters serve in ISIS' ranks in Syria. The research starts with data analysis, followed by a discussion of specific features of recruits from various parts of the world, and continues with a year-by-year comparison based on the following points: general propaganda message from jihadist groups to foreign fighters; “trending” countries and regions of origin of foreign fighters; major occurrences which influenced the dynamic of the flow of foreign fighters; and the impact of international actions (including militant activities)

[1] "Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts," Security Council Resolutions, September 24, 2014, accessed January 2, 2017. 

[2] See: David Malet, "Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identities in Foreign Conflicts," Oxford: University Press, 2013, p. 9; Colgan and Hegghammer, "Islamic Foreign Fighters: Concept and Data". Paper presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention, Montreal, 2011, p. 6; Orla Hennessy, "The Phenomenon of Foreign Fighters in Europe," ICCT Background Note, July 2012, accessed January 2, 2017. ; "Foreign Fighters under International Law," October 2014, accessed January 2, 2017. 

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