Tackling foreign fighters

The trend of young people travelling from Australia and other western nations to fight in conflict zones in Syria and Iraq is causing a great deal of concern for our politicians, policy makers and society at large. However, this phenomenon is not a new one, nor is it solely linked to Islamic countries.

Erica Vowles: Hello, and welcome to Rear Vision. I’m Erica Vowles. On the program today, the trouble with foreign fighters.

Tony Abbott [archival]: There are now well over 100 Australians fighting with terror groups in Iraq and Syria.

Journalist [archival]: Security agencies here are trying to track the flow of fighters who are responding to a call to jihad not from mosques but increasingly from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Barack Obama [archival]: We will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding, improve our intelligence, counter its warped ideology, and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East.

Erica Vowles: Foreign fighters seem to be one of those new problems that the world is facing in the age of terrorism, but in fact this has been going on for a while. Today we look at the world’s long association with foreign fighters, and the role they’ve played in shaping our political world and geographical boundaries for centuries.

The likes of writer George Orwell and poet Lord Byron may not seem like they have much in common with Osama Bin Laden. But in fact they were all foreign fighters. And as you’ll see, far from being a trend linked just to jihadists, foreign fighters have come from all nations and backgrounds.

Sarah Percy is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Western Australia. She’s written widely on issues surrounding unconventional combatants.

Sarah Percy: A foreign fighter is a person who goes overseas to fight in a conflict, for a state which isn’t their own. And I think the important thing is that they usually do it for an ideological reason rather than a monetary reason. If they did it for financial gain we would call them a mercenary, but if they do it out of a passionate belief, we consider them to be a foreign fighter.

Erica Vowles: Today it seems strange to imagine lots of different nationalities fighting together in the one army. But historically, says Sarah Percy, this was pretty common.

Sarah Percy: One of the things we have to get our modern heads around generally is that armies were full of foreigners of all kinds prior to the 19th century. So people who were passionately motivated to fight, they would often be joining a revolutionary movement rather than a typical army, and that’s part of the reason why we can identify them as people who were motivated by their beliefs.

But in general armies nearly everybody is foreign anyway. I mean, the statistics on the number of foreigners in Wellington’s army that defeats Napoleon, there’s a huge number of foreigners in that context. So the idea that we have a national army which is composed entirely of our own citizens and we use that to prosecute foreign wars, that doesn’t actually become a reality in the international system until the latter half of the 19th century.

Erica Vowles: Foreign fighters have been an under-estimate piece of the puzzle of civil wars. Dr David Malet is a senior lecturer in international relations at Melbourne University, and the author of a book on foreign fighters. He says that over the past 200 years, more than 330 civil wars have taken place, and foreign fighters have been right in the thick of it.

David Malet: Over the past 200 years, since 1815, the end of the Napoleonic wars, we can find that there have been at least 70 different civil conflicts around the world that have had foreign fighters in them, that one in five, so they are actually pretty common. It’s not something that we have studied historically as a phenomenon that is present in most civil wars but they seem to have been there all along.

Erica Vowles: In the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were lots of civil wars, and these drew in fighters from all over the world.

David Malet: Well, the American Revolution drew a lot of political idealists from Europe who were interested in promoting democracy or national independence back in their own countries. You had Lafayette from France, Tadeusz Kosciuszko from what is now Poland, and you had people like Giuseppe Garibaldi who led a nationalist revolution in Italy but who practised first in Brazil and other wars in Latin America. So those are some of the well-known names.

Some of the high profile conflicts were the Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Empire with Lord Byron getting the London Greek society and other groups to fight on behalf of a Western identity. A decade later in the 1830s you had…there was the Texas revolution which was part of Mexico at the time, and there were calls to defend fellow white Anglo-Saxon Protestants that drew support from all over the world. You actually had more Europeans fighting at the Alamo than you had Texans.

Erica Vowles: While foreign fighters constituted a normal part of warfare, states moved in the 18th and 19th centuries to outlaw this practice.

David Malet: The US was the first country to pass a law against foreign fighting in the 1790s. It didn’t want its citizens getting tangled up in wars in Europe and getting the new US government, which was still weak at the time, into diplomatic trouble. So the US passed laws early on in the nation-state period. The British were next in the middle of the 19th century. And by World War II most countries had laws against foreign fighting.

For governments there is a strategic interest. You don’t want your own citizens getting you into diplomatic trouble over issues that you’d prefer not to deal with. There’s an embarrassment, there’s an expectation that you keep your own citizens in line. There is also a challenge to the legitimacy of the state itself as a sovereign entity. People are supposed to fight for their own country, and if you have people identifying with religious or ethnic groups that aren’t the same as their country, it’s a sign of weakness really with national identity.

Erica Vowles: But both David Malet and Sarah Percy argue that these laws have been used infrequently over the years by the US and the UK.

By the early 20th century, a perfect political storm was brewing that would see thousands of volunteers flood into Spain to fight against a fascist military coup instigated by General Francisco Franco. The anti-fascist forces rallied under the banner of the International Brigades. In smaller numbers, volunteers also went to join the coup forces, which were closely aligned with the Catholic Church.

The civil conflict in Spain and its ability to draw in vast numbers of foreigners has echoes in today’s conflicts in the Middle East. These echoes are marked by both the scale of recruits joining the wars, but also by the fact that foreigners fought then, as they are now, on both sides of the conflict.

Dr Judith Keene is a Sydney University historian and she’s written a book on those who fought for Franco.

Judith Keene: It started in July 1936 and it was started as a pronunciamento, which is an uprising, a military uprising by a group of generals in the Spanish army. Overall the issues were that the Spanish Republic, the second Republic was trying to get Spain to look like the rest of Europe, to join Europe, to be a democracy, to give the vote to people, to set up a public education system. They gave the vote to women. And so the country really stood up and took up arms. General Franco was supported by the Italians and the Germans, and the Republic was supported by the Russians up until about 1938. And what would have been a…Franco himself later said should have been a very quick pronunciamento, it turned into this really horrendous and very bloody civil war that lasted then until 1939.

Erica Vowles: But what are the kinds of messages that have been successful over the years in drawing people in to these conflicts? Well, it’s about capitalising on the notion of a threat and the appeal of a shared common identity.

David Malet: Your sort of archetypal International Brigader looks a lot like foreign fighters in the Islamist groups today. Diaspora Jews in the Israeli War of Independence, or even the volunteers for Lord Byron in the 1820s, or the Texas revolution of Davy Crockett in the 1830s, they are typically late adolescent or university aged males. You’re beginning to see women be involved in groups like ISIS, but it historically has been…except for nurses or a few intelligence agents, it’s been almost all male.

They are typically first or second generation immigrants, so they are conscious of international affairs, particularly in home countries. They are less assimilated in some instances in their home countries as well. Economically some are marginalised but not all of them. And nobody I think has really quantified this but there seems to be a higher incidence of either divorce or otherwise non-intact families, and with immigrants obviously not intact multigenerational families. And I think that’s one of the reasons why these identity groups are so important to them and they are willing to fight for them to defend them because they are essentially surrogate families.

Journalist [archival]: As the fascist hoard encircles it, the beautiful and ancient city of Barcelona fills with freedom fighters from around the world. Our roving reporter spoke to one heroic Briton:

George Orwell [archival]: I have come to Spain to fight fascism. After all, there are not such a terrific lot of fascists in the world, so if we each shoot one of them…

Erica Vowles: That was British writer George Orwell, speaking in 1937 about his motivation for joining the International Brigades.

David Malet: There were definitely a lot of people who recorded that they were radicalised, in some cases they used those words, during this period, that they had been farmers…and you seal of the propaganda that was put out by the Comintern, Communist International, looking at the plight of farmers in Spain being dispossessed of their land, they tried to appeal to people, rural Americans let’s say, who saw themselves in a similar plight.

A lot of people say ‘I was a farmer who was dispossessed of my land’ or ‘I was involved in the union movements and the police beat me and I couldn’t fight back in my home country, but in Spain I could go and put a gun in my hand and fight back’. And that is, again, the same sort of rhetoric you hear about Syria today; you can go there and you can stand up for yourself in a way that you can’t back in Australia.

Erica Vowles: While the numbers are rubbery, it’s believed between 35,000 and 50,000 were drawn to fight for the International Brigades. Of this, around 70 Australians made their way to Spain, some by their own means and some with the help from the Soviet-backed Comintern. One was Joe Blue Barry from Glebe in Sydney.

Judith Keene: He was a member of the AWU, the Australian Workers Union. He lived with his mother in Glebe actually, and there was an anti-fascist gym where young men trained, with the view that they knew that there was this great showdown that was going to happen with fascism. And so he heard that there was this thing going on in Spain and that there was this group of generals that were trying to overthrow a democratic government, and he decided to go.

His mother lent him some money and he got a passage on a ship, probably working his passage or certainly with assistance from people on the ship. He got to Marseille, got from Marseille to Barcelona, and then was dismayed because he couldn’t find…he didn’t speak…and of course the people in Barcelona don’t even speak Spanish, they speak Catalan, so he was sort of nonplussed I guess.

We know the material about him well because he met in Barcelona the Australian nurses who had just arrived, and they had hooked up with the International Brigades medical service, so they were fairly well looked after, they knew what they were going to do and they were sent to a hospital et cetera. And so they put him in touch with the British International Brigaders, the 15th Battalion, and he joined them and went up to the front in one of the very early battles in the front, the great battle of Boadilla, a terrible battle where more than half of the British units were killed. And he was killed. It’s a very sad ending, in a way, to this very altruistic young chap I guess.

Erica Vowles: Another young Australian man, called Nugent Bull, decided to travel to Spain to fight opposite the republican army and the International Brigaders, and with the coup forces led by General Franco.

Judith Keene: His family were undertakers in Newtown, were well-off and very well established. He went to St Joseph’s College in Sydney, and was very fit, he played cricket and all of those things, and he was very influenced by a priest. He decided, not unlike Blue Barry in fact, he felt that there was a showdown that was coming up, but he saw the great showdown as communists versus Catholicism actually. And so he determined that he would head off, and he went first to Rome and then from there he enlisted and went to Spain. And he was in Spain for the whole of the Spanish civil war.

Erica Vowles: When it was clear that the fascist forces would win, those Australians who could leave made their way to England. Some went on to fight in the Second World War. This was the case for Nugent Bull, who joined the Royal Air Force, but he died at the beginning of the war.

For those who decided to return to Australia, help was provided, with the knowledge of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons.

Judith Keene: We know when the war ended and these guys were coming back, had got to London and were wanting to be brought home, Lyons asked the external affairs and the Bureau of Investigations or whatever it was called, the equivalent of ASIO I guess, ‘What’s the story about these people?’ And they said, ‘We don’t know anything about them.’ But in fact the government paid most of their fares to come back.

Erica Vowles: Those who identified as being communist were likely to have been placed under watch by those security forces in Australia. In the United States, David Malet says the FBI certainly kept a close eye on one group that called themselves the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

David Malet: In the United States the FBI definitely kept tabs on Abraham Lincoln Brigaders well into the 1950s during the McCarthy period, and were calling them in, those who were willing to turn to talk about how they had been intimidated into doing it for fear of being kicked out of unions. And some of them told stories about essentially being pressured in to go, whereas others remained loyal for the next 70 years and still were committed to the cause.

Erica Vowles: While some viewed these who fought against Franco as heroes, thrill seeking and darker motivations also came into play back then.

David Malet: There are absolutely a lot of people who are going as thrill seekers, particularly if they don’t have far to go from home, and you see this in some of the recruitment material, this idea that you can make a difference, you can be a hero, which I think is going to appeal to the same demographic of young guys basically. The FBI did a study of Americans in the International Brigades, and through interviews they decided that most of them were narcissists who were expecting to be recognised as heroes for their contributions. And so there’s probably an element of that today too.

Erica Vowles: I’m Erica Vowles and you’re listening to Rear Vision on ABC RN, on the web, via your smart phone or your favourite podcasting service. Visit our website and check out our past stories. You can also leave a comment, or you can send me tweet about the program: @erica_vowles.

The post-war period was marked by wars of decolonisation, and intense rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. This saw fighters of noble and not so noble persuasions make their way to conflicts in Africa.

Sarah Percy: Well, this is where the line between a mercenary and a foreign fighter gets very, very fuzzy, because there were certainly lots of foreigners who were involved in the wars associated with decolonisation in Africa. Quite a lot of those people were straight-up mercenaries. They had been recruited by ads in the national newspapers in the UK to go fight, and they were doing it for the money and there was no ideological commitment.

There were some people who were there because they wanted to resist the forces of decolonisation, they wanted to resist Africans being put back in charge of their own countries, and they often had a vested colonial interest themselves. So you see a lot of movements of white South Africans who believed in the ideals of apartheid going to assist in conflicts around the borderlands of South Africa, so in places like Rhodesia and to an extent in Angola. But we see lots and lots of foreigners drawn to these conflicts but it can be hard to distinguish who was there for which reason.

Journalist [archival]: A representative of the Zimbabwe African National Union, Mr Mumbengegwi, told a federal parliamentary subcommittee yesterday that many Australian mercenaries had been recruited for the Smith regime by the Rhodesian Information Centre in Sydney. This was denied today by the…

Erica Vowles: In the late 1970s there was concern that Australians may have been getting involved in civil wars in Africa. There was also evidence that some citizens of Croatian descent were training in Australia to commit terrorist attacks in Yugoslavia.

While other governments had outlawed foreign fighters several years before, Australia had no such laws on the books. So the government passed legislation to deal with this threat. Up until recently, Andrew Zammit was a researcher at Monash University‘s Global Terrorism Research Centre. He’s now a PhD candidate at Melbourne University.

Andrew Zammit: The Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act was introduced by the Fraser government. It followed a number of incursions into Yugoslavia by some Croatian Australians who were trying to overthrow the Tito government. So it was introduced then in 1978. It hasn’t often been used. It has been used to convict at least 11 people, and that has included some Australians who were trying to overthrow governments in the Comoros Islands, and to fight in Cameroon, and also a few Australians who waned to fight in Papua against the Indonesians.

Erica Vowles: The late 1970s and early ’80s are also when we start to see the emergence of jihadist causes that start to draw in foreign fighters.

David Malet: The real turning point comes in the 1980s with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. You have some people who were Islamist activists who had actually been inspired by some of the Arab groups that had mobilised during the Israeli war of independence with transnational volunteers, foreign fighters, who decided they were going to recreate that to fight against the Soviet Union.

So you have a Palestinian militant named Abdullah Azzam who is the mentor to Osama bin Laden and who begins recruiting what he calls his Brigade of Strangers to go and fight against the Soviet Union. And he really didn’t make a lot of headway, no more than a couple of dozen people. It’s until around 1984 when Osama bin Laden comes in and opens up his wallet and starts buying plane tickets and financially making it possible for volunteers to come from the Middle East, from Southeast Asia. There were probably no more than a few hundred volunteers fighting against the Soviet Union during the war, but after the Soviet Union withdrew, perhaps 20,000 showed up to say that they had participated in the jihad against it.

A lot of the people who went to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s had been involved in militant activity previously. A lot of Arab governments essentially opened their prisons to let dissidents out on the assumption that they would get killed on the battlefield and stop being a concern, and that didn’t happen. And a lot of the people in what became Al Qaeda knew that they could not go back home, so they began to look for other wars to go and fight in. They went first to Bosnia. They gained combat skills in Bosnia that they never really gained in Afghanistan. And they spread out from there to Algeria, to the Philippines, to Chechnya. And it was really the beginnings of Al Qaeda and the sort of international armed jihadi movement.

Andrew Zammit: While foreign fighters aren’t new, a lot of the blow-back coming to Western countries from their own foreign fighters is relatively new. So we do need specific measures to deal with that. Generally the historical trend has been that most of the people who go fight with jihadist groups overseas don’t become a threat on return, but a very small number do, and they often prove extremely dangerous and have been behind some of the most notorious terrorist attacks within Western countries.

So, for example, some of the people behind the 9/11 attack initially travelled to Afghanistan to go fight in Chechnya against the Russian army, but while they were there Al Qaeda redirected them to carry out an attack on the West. Some of the people behind the Bali bombings were Indonesians who had gone and fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets. And there has been a number of studies of jihadist plots in Western countries, finding that almost half of them contained people who had fought or trend with jihadist groups overseas, and those tended to be the plots that were more effective. And similarly we have already seen some plots in Europe involving people who have returned from Syria, including the murders of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

Erica Vowles: There is a European researcher who is quoted a lot, Thomas Hegghammer, he looked at the threat posed by returning foreign fighters. What did he decide was the threat?

Andrew Zammit: His argument was that historically up to a maximum of one in nine has ended up proving a threat in return, although he has often said that the real figure is more likely to be around one in 20. The one in nine estimate, the maximum one, is the one that gets used a lot. But a point he makes that’s also very important is it depends what organisation they go fight with and what the organisation’s strategic priorities are. So, many of the people who went to fight in Somalia, in almost no cases did they become a threat on return, with the exception of Australia with the Holsworthy Barracks plot. In most other cases they didn’t become a threat on return.

Similarly, many of those who went to fight in Iraq in the 2000s were largely used as suicide bombers or cannon fodder within Iraq and didn’t end up posing a threat to the West, with a possible exception of a suicide bombing in Sweden. However, many of those who went to train in Afghanistan, particularly in the late 1990s, early 2000s, did become a threat because Al Qaeda’s strategic priority was attacking Western countries, and it wanted to use its Western fighters for that purpose. It saw Western passports as a treasured resource and made that a priority for how it uses them.

So the question really is; to what extent does ISIS and does Jabhat al-Nusra see attacks in the West as a priority for its foreign fighters? And at the moment it looks like ISIS doesn’t see it as a very high priority for its fighters, for a couple of reasons. One is that it seems to be able to successfully inspire attacks at a distance without having to actually train people and send them back. But in addition to that, ISIS is not just running training camps, they are fighting a war and they are building a state, so they need their fighters for a lot of reasons, in fact they need people to carry out a number of tasks. So they are calling for doctors to come over, for engineers to come, for administrators. For the fighters themselves, they often want them at the front lines. Sometimes the foreigners are more willing to carry out atrocities than locals, and of course they can be used for suicide bombings and propaganda videos.

Erica Vowles: Like the civil war in Spain more than 75 years before, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have drawn in vast numbers of foreign recruits, despite all the risks. And like the international fighters in Spain, many foreigners are going to the Middle East with little or no military experience. Australia is believed to have lost at least 30 people in these conflicts, with the wars claiming the lives of people fighting both for and against ISIS.

Journalist [archival]: A Gold Coast man who was killed while fighting Islamic State forces in Syria has appeared in a video explaining his reasons for joining the conflict.

Journalist [archival]: The video of Reece Harding was posted on Facebook by the Kurdish soldiers he fought with. The 23-year-old was killed last Saturday when he stood on a landmine during a night operation…

Andrew Zammit: Many countries that previously didn’t have much of an issue with this are now finding that their citizens are going off to go fight in Syria and Iraq. Geographically it’s a lot easy to get there. People are going to Turkey and getting across the border relatively easily. Social media has played a very big role, it has popularised it. There is also great religious significance to it. A lot of battles in early Islamic history took place here, and groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra very much play on that and often will actually put forward some apocalyptic narratives.

And before the jihadists really got substantially involved in the conflict there was a brutal civil war in Syria with tens of thousands and now hundreds of thousands of people being killed, and that generated a wider sense of moral outrage that the jihadists were then able to exploit after the fact.

David Malet: The vast majority of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria today are from Arab states. Out of 25,000 there may be 3,000 or 4,000 Westerners. We don’t know the exact numbers but it’s a fairly small percentage of the overall total. It’s hard to get an exact count, but Australia has been one of the leaders per capita in Western countries or even the entire world of foreign fighters, first in Syria and then in Iraq.

Erica Vowles: So, we have a problem. Foreign fighters may bring terrorism back home. But there is nuance in this picture. The experiences that people have when they are fighting abroad and whether they have fought and possibly have become disillusioned or just trained can change their risk profile when they come home.

Tony Abbott [archival]: If immigration and border protection faces a choice, to let in or keep out people with security questions over them, we should choose to keep them out.

Erica Vowles: Currently, a Parliamentary joint committee* is considering a bill, which would revoke the citizenship of dual nationals if they are found to have fought with a terrorist group.

Tony Abbott [archival]: The government will develop amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act, so that we can revoke or suspend Australian citizenship in the case of dual nationals.

Erica Vowles: David Malet says the history of the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan shows this isn’t always an effective solution for stopping terrorist attacks.

David Malet: I think the best evidence against the policy of barring foreign fighters from returning home is Osama bin Laden. He is exhibit A of what happens when somebody is stripped of their citizenship, which is what Saudi Arabia did, they disowned him, but as far as the rest of the world was concerned he was always a Saudi. He ended up going first to Sudan, and when he was eventually driven out of Sudan, back to Afghanistan again.

We’ve seen a harder line taken by Commonwealth countries. But in continental Europe you’re seeing a very different approach. Denmark in particular is offering not only amnesty but they are offering rehabilitation services, job training, psychological counselling, anything you want to foreign fighters, and they are saying their numbers of people going off to fight have dropped off from a couple of hundred to just one last year.

Erica Vowles: Andrew Zammit says the full force of the law can and should be brought to bear on returning foreign fighters, and several new laws have been passed in recent years to aid our security forces and police.

Andrew Zammit: Suppose there is a case that someone who Australia has intelligence indicating they may have fought with ISIS and is going to return to Australia, it’s really mischaracterising the situation to portray Australia as so powerless that the only thing they can do about such an individual is to strip their citizenship. So with such an individual, we would have already limited their movement by confiscating their passport. So to return to Australia they would need to contact an embassy and get a special one-way document, and in all likelihood they would then be returned, escorted by federal police officers on that plane home.

When they land they could be subject to coercive questioning using ASIO special powers or the Australian Crime Commission special powers which have stepped in this space recently. These questioning powers take away the right to silence and therefore can be very useful about gaining information on what someone is up to. They can also be placed under a control order, the thresholds for which were recently lowered, and these can place a wide range of restrictions on someone’s activities.

They can potentially be prosecuted. That will often be difficult but I don’t think we should act like prosecution is impossible. There have been many countries at the moment in Europe prosecuting returned fighters. We have prosecuted people before for their activities overseas. And we recently just only a few months ago introduced new law changes to make it easier to prosecute them, to change the foreign evidence rules. And failing all that, it may still be the person doesn’t end up going to jail but that person might be innocent and that is just something we have to live with in a democracy.

Erica Vowles: Andrew Zammit, previously a researcher with the Global Terrorism Unit at Monash University, now a PhD candidate at Melbourne University. You can find out more information about our other guests on our website. You’ve been listening to Rear Vision. The sound engineer for this program is Chris Lawson and I’m Erica Vowles. Bye for now.


* The original version of this program, which aired on RN on 26th July, 2015, and 27th July, 2015, stated incorrectly that a House of Representatives committee was considering changes to Australia’s citizenship laws. The bill is in fact being considered by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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