Analysis - Security Studies

Unlimited War

How do States Approach Crackdown on Foreign Fighters?
Saturday، April 01، 2017
Unlimited War

Cracking down on foreign terrorist fighters in conflict zones is a rising phenomenon that influenced international relations in the post-Cold War era. It represented a new pattern of conflict and a development of the traditional concept of war that is based on violence between states with conflicting wills.

If war is a type of conflict, according to French philosopher and sociologist Julien Freund’s Sociologie du conflit (Sociology of Conflict), then violence is not a choice. Rather, it is a tool used by states to enforce their will through various measures, including non-traditional ones.

Cracking down on foreign fighters in conflict zones cannot be confined to the political behavior and military action of one state. That is because the varying self-aware responses of states to what motivates their foreign policies and military strategies are clearly evidenced in the development of the patterns of cracking down on fighters since the aftermath of the September 11, 2011 attacks, to the approaches pursued by states such as Russia, Iran and Turkey. Those countries rely on the patterns of response that contrast with the US’ linear understanding of what constitutes a threshold. 

To understand this phenomenon in a post-modernity world marred by confusion and diminishing rules governing international conflict, the focus should be placed on its military, strategic and political aspects. That is because being content with stereotypical and rigid thinking that is based on the international humanitarian law - i.e. the four Geneva Conventions and the two additional protocols which constitute the rules that apply only in times of armed conflict and seek to protect people who are not or are no longer taking part in hostilities- would provide nothing more than the elaborate description of a fighter in conflict zones. Accordingly, this definition would not allow understanding the tools and patterns of cracking down on fighters, nor the strategic dimensions of what is beyond this phenomenon where thresholds of international relations are taken advantage of and pushed.

First: What is a Terrorist Foreign Fighter? 

In Thomas Hegghammer’s study "The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad", that he conducted for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, Hegghammer defines a foreign fighter as an agent (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 organization, and (4) is unpaid. 

Terrorism is a cross-border phenomenon, in terms of motives and impact. Accordingly, Hegghammer's four criteria are not enough to define a terrorist foreign fighter, due to the globalization of extremist Islamist organizations, the expansion of their financial resources and their mastering of social media to propagandize their ideologies and recruiting foreign fighters. 

The United Nations' Security Council, in its Resolution No. 2178 of September 24, 2014, defines terrorist foreign fighters as “individuals who travel 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, and resolving to address this threat, “

Second: Tools and Patterns of Crackdown

The multiplicity of tools used in cracking down on foreign fighters vary in accordance with the multiplicity of parties to the conflict. They include legal tools where involved states attempt to criminalize acts perpetrated by terrorist fighters, close in on them by law, dry up their sources of funding as well as criminalize recruitment of, and facilitating entry of foreign terrorist fighters. However, this analysis focuses on the changing nature of military tools, patterns of crackdown including war measures, measures short of war as well as the context of their development since the September 11, 2011 attacks. 

1- War measures

War is a type of conflict in which an involved state seeks to impose its will on other states, in a direct and traditional manner. However, directing state violence towards cracking down on terrorist groups and organizations has led to the emergence of new types of conflict such as asymmetric warfare and preventive warfare. 

- Asymmetric warfare: The September 11, 2011 attacks offered the neo-conservative George W. Bush administration a pretext to justify military intervention in Afghanistan as part the preemption doctrine. The intervention led to an asymmetric war in which the belligerents were completely different from those of a conventional war between opposing states. The war on terrorism in Afghanistan witnessed a confrontation between two belligerents whose military power differs significantly: a state using conventional warfare and terrorist groups using guerrilla warfare.

- Preventive Warfare: In early 21st century, the United States went to extremes in its aggressive foreign policy using instrumentalist approach to fighting terrorism as a basis for intervention in several regions across the world. Confusing the crackdown on terrorist fighters and the false claims that the Iraqi regime possessed weapons of mass destruction and had links to al Qaeda, has produced a pattern of illegal preventive warfare that was legitimized through an attempt to label it as preemptive warfare.

The reality is, however, that the legitimacy of preemptive wars derives from the international law as part of legitimate self-defense. Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations states that "Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security." 

Based on the Charter itself, being under aggression, which is a prerequisite to legitimize self-defense and the use of force, was not present in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, carried out as part of a preventive war that broadened fighting terrorism to include the countering of a virtual and unknown enemy the elimination of which is difficult because it is difficult to identify and locate. 

Types of cracking down on foreign fighters, conducted as part of war measures (asymmetric warfare and preventive warfare) has led to a catastrophic American failure. The reason was that Washington used conventional war tactics to fight terrorist organizations that mastered types of confrontations that build on measures short of war (guerrilla warfare, suicide attacks, assassination of political leaders and military commanders).

2- Measures Short of War

Cracking down on terrorist fighters in conflict zones would not have been a purely American effort in early 21st century if the US had not mobilized huge capabilities in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. It was the only state in the world that was able to move and take relevant action using war measures. It was only later on that Washington realized the serious impact these measures have on its overall strategy. 

That is to say that the US’ ability to conduct intervention was drained in two different places - Iraq and Afghanistan- simultaneously. The realization prompted the US to pursue a different approach based on measures short of war. The approach was pursued later on by other states such as Russia, Turkey and Iran, all of which took advantage of the fact that the US was floundering to have a complete understanding of the thresholds for waging a high-order war. 

In their book Measures short of War: The George F. Kennan Lectures at the National War College, 1946-47, Giles D. Harlow and George C. Maerz identify measures short of war that a state takes without having to wage an all-out war: negotiation, boycott, intimidation, sabotage, assassination (assassination of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and ISIS prominent commanders) and limited use of force (Iranian and Turkish intervention in Syria).

Looking again at measures taken by states to crack down on terrorist fighters in conflict zones, we find that the above mentioned states resorted to one or more measures short of war at certain stages of their intervention in conflict in Syria. 

Within this context, Russia resorted to limited use of force - military airstrikes- against ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria. It was the first state to call for a cessation of hostilities and broker negotiations about withdrawal of foreign fighters from Aleppo city after it was retaken by the Syrian regime forces. 

Moreover, these states resorted to hybrid warfare to support armed organizations and groups with conventional and qualitative weapons to enable them to counter enemies in all possible ways inside conflict zones where this state does not aim to conduct direct intervention. The multiple instances include the US and Turkish support for the Free Syrian Army to enable it to confront the Syrian regime army, as well as Iran's support for Hezbollah to drive it to conducting military operations inside Syria. 

Based on the above, the states’ adoption of a certain type of crackdown on foreign terrorist in conflict zones does not mean that other types are absent or excluded. In this sense, every type of crackdown, whether it is a war measure or a short of war measure, is of top importance in conflict management, which leaves the door open for using the type of war that fits the circumstances surrounding the conflict. 

Third: Strategic Dimensions of Crackdown

Apart from tools and types, the phenomenon of cracking down on terrorist fighters in conflict zones has raised several questions about the real goals and strategic dimensions of violation of international law and military intervention by states to protect their strategic interests in conflict zones using the pretext of protecting their national security. It raised further concerns about going to extremes, sometimes, while taking measures short of war, such as arming certain organizations and groups that seek to aggravate the conflict rather than working of a solution to it. This is particularly so due to the principles of international law concerning amicable relations and cooperation between states, as stated in the Charter of the United Nations, declares that states must refrain from organizing and encouraging terrorist acts on the territory of other states.

The pretext of security that a sovereign state uses to intervene in the internal affairs of another sovereign state varies from one country to another in accordance with the varying values of society and the nature of its political system. Put simply, given that the concept of security of states mandates protection of their geographical borders, but is a totally different matter in the case of the United States. 

In his book Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, David Campbell argues that the concept of security is universal by nature and is essentially based on the idea of protecting the values of the American society, which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as stated in the Declaration of Independence and derived from English philosopher John Locke's perception of fundamental natural rights, in addition to values such as justice and market economy.

Based on the above, states resort to military means to crack down on foreign fighters. Instances include the Iranian military operations and the Russian airstrikes in Syria, Turkey's incursion into Syria and the US airstrikes and leadership of a global coalition to counter ISIS, whether to protect their geographical borders, protect their strategic interests or defend the universality of their value systems. Using military means in these instances is covered by Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz's definition of war in his dialectical antithesis: War is merely the continuation of policy by other means. In other words, the shift of the concept of security, from protection of the sovereign borders of a state to the use of force across the world under several pretexts, can be classified as part of protection of the state's potential interests, which, for major world powers, go beyond the conventional concept of internationally-recognized borders. 

In “Stretching and Exploiting Thresholds for High-Order War”, a report prepared for the U.S. Army and published in April 2016, RAND Corporation argues that thresholds between major powers and thresholds between regional powers exist through mutual understanding and that crossing or exploiting these agreed-upon thresholds by any concerned party threatens to trigger a high-order war. That is why, each party seeks to conduct precise scientific analyses and take advantage of any misunderstanding or miscalculation of thresholds by other parties to wage a high-order war. Hence, a state works on undermining the roles of competitor states by stretching recognized thresholds whenever allowed by favorable regional and international circumstances.

In Unrestricted Warfare: China's Master Plan to Destroy America, Chinese military strategists Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui argue that today's conflicts are characterized by the pursuit of unrestricted warfare that are not governed by the rules of international conflict that requires states to harness all unconventional tools, including economy and technology, cyber-warfare and hybrid warfare tactics, and take advantage of all available potential and assets to confront the enemy without getting involved in a high-order war. The tools include the use of terrorist attacks. 

To conclude, cracking down on terrorist foreign fighters in conflict zones constitutes a pillar of strategies pursued by major international and regional powers to exploit and stretch thresholds to wage high-order wars. This escalating evolution of types of conflict represent a motive for other patterns of thinking that use fighting terrorism as a means to political ends including expansion of areas of political influence rather than pursuing a holistic approach to address factors leading to terrorism.

Keywords: ConflictUNForeign FightersWarHybrid Wars