‘Foreign Fighters’ for Israel -
Les combattants étrangers en Israël
The Washington Post
By David Malet July 22
The deaths on July 20 of two Americans serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) provided an opening for critics of Israel to compare them to the foreign fighters of the Islamic State, formerly referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Similar complaints have already called for other governments to criminalize volunteering for Israel to create equivalence to the prosecution of would-be jihadi Islamists. The IDF reports 4,600 foreign “Lone Soldiers” currently serving, over one-third of whom are American (it is unclear how many hold dual citizenship). Are IDF Lone Soldiers comparable to al-Qaeda-inspired jihadis or the volunteer brigades who joined the Spanish Civil War?
The question hinges on both definitions and connotations of what a foreign fighter is. Consideration of foreign fighters by international security analysts is less than a decade old and, as political scientists inevitably do, researchers employ slightly varied definitions, so there are no universal criteria for identification. Crucially, however, most studies have assumed foreign fighters to be insurgents fighting against the government. Scholar on Islamist militant groups Thomas Hegghammer’s definition of foreign fighters specifically “excludes returning diaspora members,” and this would encompass Lone Soldiers such as Nissim Sean Carmeli, an Israeli-born Texan who was one of the Americans killed. No published academic definitions of foreign fighters would therefore include diaspora Jews fighting in the IDF.
Beyond definitions, the term “foreign fighter” generally carries an implication of illegitimacy. In late 2001, al-Qaeda’s “foreign fighters” were shipped off to the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba because they were regarded as both uniquely dangerous and uniquely “unauthorized enemy combatants.” They did not uphold international norms of citizenship and military allegiance, and stated that they in fact wished to destroy the international system itself. They were also not the primarily profit-seeking mercenaries already banned under international law.
Nearly every academic study has focused exclusively on Sunni jihadis, some incorporating Islamism in their parameters, although counterterrorism and Middle East security expert Daniel Byman has recently examined the substantial number of pro-regime Shiite volunteers who arrived in Syria from elsewhere in the region. The phenomenon is far wider than just Islamists, however. In my book “Foreign Fighters,” I analyze the surprisingly common strategy of armed groups that persuade volunteers abroad that they have a duty to protect fellow members of a transnational group facing a threat to its survival. This approach has been used by ideological affiliations including the Communist International for the International Brigades, and by religious groups like the Catholic foreign fighters on the other side of the Spanish Civil War, who were told their souls would benefit from martyrdom for Christ. It also holds for ethnic groups like the nearly 200 Albanian-Americans who joined the Atlantic Brigades to fight for the Kosovo Liberation Army, and the European volunteers defending fellow White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the Texas Revolution who outnumbered Texan-born fighters at the Alamo three-to-one. The particular identity of the group does not affect this approach to recruitment. Today it is being used by jihadis for the Islamic State and also pro-Russian fighters for the Orthodox Dawn in eastern Ukraine.