Paris attacks and foreign fighters. A research agenda

The dramatic Paris attacks has raised attention (and concern) over the phenomenon of the so-called “foreign fighters“. Several scholars have already focused on the role played by foreign insurgents fighting on behalf of local rebel groups. (See for instance the detailed historical analysis, from the Texas revolution to Afghanistan, by David Malet). Since the end of the Cold War sub-national and transnational actors have played a growing role in global politics. The foreign fighters are the most recent and controversial example of the increasing relevance of transnational actors, especially in contemporary warfare.

Recent research has tried to track “Western” foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. For instance, the ICSR team has created a unique database with the social media profiles of nearly 200 British, European and Western fighters in Syria. Others consider the current conflict against the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) as a “game changer” for the extremist threat to Western countries. The border between domestic and international security appears as blurring due to the possible menaces posed by those fighters, mainly in terms of consequences related to their experience on the ground (blowback effects, terrorist attacks, radical propaganda, etc.).

In next weeks/months also Venus in Arms will focus on the issue of foreign fighters. Through the case of the ISIL  we are interested in analyze the process of learning and adaptation of foreign insurgents in contemporary conflicts. In a forthcoming book chapter we investigate the effective extent of the role played by the foreign fighters in the process of elaboration and diffusion of approaches, tactics and lessons learnt in a cross-time analysis (2011-2014).

Despite a mounting interest over such issue, a scarce attention has been devoted to the mechanisms through which the foreign fighters are trained and, above all, the ways adopted for spreading military innovation and adaptation across conflicts and crises. From a bottom-up approach focused on foreign fighters, the book chapter (more details on the book  in next weeks..) examines how the lessons learnt derived from other conflicts have affected the ways through which insurgent organizations in Syria and Iraq changed to face new challenges on the ground. Thanks to primary and secondary sources, the study sheds light on the mechanisms of inter-organizational learning and the adoption of practices that come from the experience of foreign fighters.

Findings will allow to better assessing the role played by those fighters in contemporary warfare, illustrating the “institutionalization” of lessons learned in insurgent organizations.

Stay tuned…

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