A recurring criticism leveled at the field of terrorism studies is the absence of agreement on theory and concepts. The example most frequently cited being the absence of a consensus about how to define terrorism. The same issue is present in the foreign fighter field – what or who is a ‘foreign fighter’? (Moore & Tumelty 2008; Malet 2009; Bakke 2010; Hegghammer 2010; Sageman 2010). The contention is that in the absence of a definition of terrorism or ‘foreign fighter’, scholars, academics, policy-makers, government analysts and others when addressing the subject and using a term may assign differing meanings, significance or value.
According to Malet (2010) in one of the earliest academic studies on ‘foreign fighters’, the term has been in use for some time but has grown exponentially since the Iraq conflict in 2003. The use of the term was to indicate an individual who was participating in a conflict to which they had no ties and their participation was outside of a formal state military structure. An early definition understood a foreign fighter as; “Meaning non-indigenous, non-territorialized combatants who, motivated by religion, kinship, and/or ideology rather than pecuniary reward, enter a conflict zone to participate in hostilities…” (Moore & Tumelty 2008, p.412)
Bakke when speaking of those who could be considered ‘foreign fighters’ used yet another term; ‘transnational insurgent’ and left open the issue of motivation – ideology and/or financial; “This study focuses on transnational insurgents in armed intrastate conflicts, by which I refer to non-state actors that for either ideational or material reasons opt to participate in an intrastate conflict outside their own home country, siding with the challenger to the state” (Bakke 2010, p.3). Malet also addressed the issue of conflict; “In this study, foreign fighters are defined as non-citizens of conflict states who join insurgencies during civil conflicts” (Malet 2009, p.9).
Hegghammer building on Malet’s definition states that a foreign fighter is; “an agent who (1) has joined, and operates within the confines of, an insurgency, (2) lacks citizenship of the conflict state or kinship links to its warring factions, (3) lacks affiliation to an official military organisation, and is (4) unpaid” (Hegghammer 2010, pp. 57-58).
Hegghammer consciously addresses the issues of how to define, ‘foreign’ – not a citizen and not linked through kinship ties, he also states that motivation is not financial and finally, he delineates what is meant by ‘fighter’; an individual who operates within the confines of an insurgency. The issue is important as Hegghammer goes on to state that the term ‘foreign fighter’ is separate from ‘international terrorist’ – an individual who is involved in out-of-area violence against civilians. Sageman (2010) has also recently made the distinction between a ‘foreign fighter’ and a ‘foreign trained terrorist’ when addressing the issue of those who travel to conflict zones and the types of activities in which the individuals participate.
Bakke, Kristin M. (2010). Copying and Learning from Outsiders? Assessing Diffusion from Transnational Insurgents in the Chechen Wars. Proceedings from APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper.
Hegghammer, T. (2010b). The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad. International Security, 35(3), 53-94.
Malet, D. (2009). Foreign fighters: Transnational identity in civil conflicts. (Doctoral Dissertation. Georgetown, Washington D.C.)
Moore, C., & Tumelty, P. (2008). Foreign fighters and the case of Chechnya: a critical assessment. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 31(5), 412-433.
Kaplan, S., Sageman, M., Watts, C., Vidino, L. (2010). Recent Trends in Foreign Fighter Source Countries and Transit Networks. Proceedings from The Foreign Fighter Problem: Recent Trends and Case Studies, Washington D.C.