For years there have been news reports addressing the presence of thousands of foreign fighters engaged in various battles. Promulgated by official sources citing those figures from al Qaeda and ISIS actions Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and countries in northern Africa, the media obligingly carry forth this misconception. At the heart of the matter is a fundamental lack of understanding of contemporary conflict. One major problem is the definition of what constitutes war.
Over the last half century the word war has been terribly abused. Officially war is a state of armed conflict between autonomous organizations, such as nation-states or coalitions of such organizations. It is generally characterized by extreme collective aggression, destruction, and usually high mortality. Broadly used as a metaphor, currently war can refer to any physical, psychological or even contextual conflict. Examples range from the ill-conceived war on drugs to wars on obesity, poverty, women, a variety of diseases, and host of other inconveniences. Post 9/11 the U.S. announced a Global War on Terror while seemingly failing to acknowledgement that terror was a means to an end, not an objective that could be defeated. The advent of the all-volunteer military forces of the U.S. has distanced and shielded the American public in general from active, integral involvement in any of our conflicts of the past half century. Lost in the discussion is the notion of wars of national survival such as was experienced in World War II. Also conflated was the notion that wars were about killing as opposed to imposition of will upon an adversary.
The conventional use of the term foreign fighters refers to any person who comes to an area in conflict from outside the geographic boundaries of the fighting and in which they were not native born. Notably the term is only used as a designation of enemy combatants and does not apply to U.S./UN/NATO/ or other coalition fighters even though they were not born there either.
Unfortunately this American-dominant view of what constitutes war, as regarding armed conflict, is based on an anachronistic idea in which combatants were born in a specific geographic area and thus have innate allegiance to that country. This emotionally based concept has engendered wide-spread support with most citizens of the heterogeneously constructed society in the United States. That is somewhat incongruent since except for Native Americans, the vast majority of the current population immigrated here at some point in the last two hundred or so years. Though not often willing arrivals, today even most African Americans consider the U.S to be their national origin. Totally ingrained in the public psyche, the notions of American values and loyalty, as if unambiguous, are cornerstones of political rhetoric.
Since American education is shockingly remiss in both geography and history, many citizens are unaware of how borders were established in the majority of the world. The reality is that most geographic boundaries in the world today were imposed by colonial powers based on their self-interests, not those of the indigenous inhabitants. Thus, as geographic devolution has occurred and is continuing in many areas, I have argued in other publications that the nation-state is a failing concept.
From time immemorial most combatants effectively have been pawns of elite power structures that used a variety of methods to raise armed forces. Conscription and mercenary measures have often been functional as has the psychological appeal of duty to a cause. Most of the recruitment efforts assume the neophyte has some level of allegiance to the flag under which they engage in combat. From a grunt's-eye view, military leaders have long known that in combat soldiers fight for their buddies, not for any altruistic endeavors.
Jihad has been a tenet of Islam since its inception in the 7th century. While some Muslims consider jihad as a psychological or inner struggle, the widely-held contemporary understanding is a violent confrontation based on ideology. That is, jihad is viewed as a holy war, waged against infidels or apostates, and considered by participants as a religious duty. While some sources argue that the application of jihad by elements such as al Qaeda and ISIS are a misinterpretation of the Muslim faith, the reality is that they are, and will continue to be seen by the rest of the world as the most visible and dangerous exponents of Islam.
As the U.S. and other coalition forces have engaged in combat with these jihadists, they have attempted to define the conflict based on the previously established and externally accepted borders. Commanders repeatedly address enemy combatants originating from other areas as foreign fighters. While that may be a convenient way of thinking about the conflict, it is fundamentally wrong and needs to be corrected. Throughout the world today, the adversary is waging jihad and simply moves to the area of current conflict. Thus they fight for an ideology, not an allegiance to geography.
It is especially important for U.S. leaders to understand this issue, as jihad has become indigenous to America. The attacks of 9/11 may have been executed by Saudi nationals, but other incidents, such as those carried out by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Ft. Hood, Texas, clearly demonstrate that point. Nearly weekly news emerges of Americans supporting jihadists in a variety of ways. Some voice support or send assistance, while others travel to places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia to actively participate in combat. Then there are more than three and a half million Muslims living in the U.S. and a Pew poll found that about one-third of them support the violent terrorist actions. If only a small number of them act according to their beliefs, that means we can expect quite a number of attacks. These jihadist beliefs are endemic to a substantial subset of the Islamic religion and must be taken into account as autochthonous, not externally imposed. It is time to stop thinking of these activities as aberrations, but rather to understand they are part and parcel of a global conflict, one that will not soon end.
Understanding the designations afforded individuals that commit violent acts is important as under current laws they directly impact the responses available. The public is still sensitive to the nationality of the perpetrators and whether they commit crimes versus acts of terrorism effectuate enigmatic prosecutorial constraints. The official definitions of acts and persons also regulate institutional authority for countering them; be that law enforcement, military, or other agencies. These are not academic considerations.
In the end it is not useful to lament foreign fighters waging jihad. In Garland, Texas two terrorists proclaiming support for ISIS attempted an attack on a group gathered for a "free speech" event they believe defamed Mohammed. Then, on TV pundits pontificated about the relevance of institutional relationships between the terrorists and ISIS. No longer do "lone wolves" or alleged "sleeper cells" require monetary and logistical support or assistance in planning attacks. The critical connection is information not people or organizations. The adversary has mastered the techniques of social media and the defensive response has been slow and relatively ineffective. If we are to succeed in countering these terrorist, we must rethink the battlefield and understand there are no foreign fighters, just combatants bent on a philosophical mission, regardless of territory.