‘Foreign Fighters’ and Counter-Terrorism

Completed in June 2018

Against the background of the mobilization of ‘foreign fighters’ for the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the Geneva Academy undertook various research projects to highlight and clarify a range of international law issues that arise through their participation and measures taken to stem their mobilization.

Terminology

While the Geneva Academy uses the term ‘foreign fighter’, our research illustrates that the term itself is problematic. ‘Foreign fighters’ is used to describe individuals who leave their country of origin or habitual residency to join an armed insurgency abroad. Although the term ‘fighter’ conveys the idea that these are individuals who join armed groups and actively participate in fighting, the current usage of the term covers various forms of assistance to, support for or association with armed or terrorist groups. In Academy Briefing No. 7, Foreign Fighters under International Law (October 2014), we analyze the problematic conflation of armed conflict with terrorism, including the reference to ‘foreign terrorist fighters’. ‘Foreign fighters’ are ‘foreign’ because they do not habitually live in their destination state, i.e. the conflict state; they travel from abroad to associate with an armed group. Yet, using the term ‘foreign fighters’ as part of counter-terrorism discourse asserts their foreignness not only in relation to their destination state, but also their state of origin or habitual residence. In the Briefing, we analyze how such ‘othering’, i.e. the process whereby we assert that some people do not belong, is translated into legal measures, namely the revocation of citizenship.

RESEARCHER

Picture of Sandra Krähenmann

Sandra Krähenmann

Thematic Legal Adviser, Geneva Call

Dr Sandra Krähenmann conducts legal research on the impact of counter-terrorism on human rights law and international humanitarian law, during the last two years with a particular focus on measures to stem the so-called foreign fighter phenomenon

OUTPUT

‘Foreign Fighters’, Freedom of Expression and the Right to Privacy

From October 2015 to May 2016 the Geneva Academy undertook a research project that assessed the impact of measures taken to stem the flow of ‘foreign fighters’ on the right to privacy and freedom of expression online, against the broader background of countering violent extremism and terrorism online.

This research project explored overarching issues such as the concept of violent extremism and its definitional challenges and the use of information and communication technology by terrorist groups, including to attract ‘foreign fighters’. It also looked at the potential human rights impact of a series of measures taken to prevent violent extremism or terrorism online, such as removal of content or mass surveillance, and analyzed the role of private companies.

It supported a forthcoming study of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on safeguarding freedom of expression and the right to privacy while countering violent extremism and terrorism online. Together with OHCHR, the Geneva Academy hosted a meeting 25 May 2016 to discuss the research project’s results and the forthcoming OHCHR study.

‘Foreign Fighters’ under International Law

This research project analyzed the phenomenon of ‘foreign fighters’ from the perspective of international law. Carried out from January to September 2014, its findings are compiled in Academy Briefing No. 7, Foreign Fighters under International Law. The Briefing covers a range of international law issues associated with ‘foreign fighters’, including their status during armed conflicts; the meaning of acts of terrorism under international humanitarian law; ‘foreign fighters’ under universal and regional counter-terrorism frameworks; the prosecution of ‘foreign fighters’; diplomatic protection of captured ‘foreign fighters’; limitations on freedom of movement to prevent the departure of aspiring ‘foreign fighters’ and the revocation of citizenship of suspected ‘foreign fighters’.

Dissemination

The Geneva Academy participated in a series of events to share the results of its research, including:

Publications

Cover of the Briefing No7: Foreign Fighters Under International Law

Briefing N°7: Foreign Fighters under International Law

October 2014

Sandra Krähenmann

Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

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