Academic journal article Parameters

Beyond Information Sharing: NATO and the Foreign Fighter Threat

Academic journal article Parameters

Beyond Information Sharing: NATO and the Foreign Fighter Threat

Article excerpt

Abstract: Despite disagreement among experts and policymakers over its significance, the foreign fighter threat to Europe is very real. Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), such as NATO, have an important role to play in countering this threat, including through information sharing. Even though the North Adantic alliance has its hands full at the moment, member states can further leverage NATO's unique advantages.


The foreign fighter threat in Europe and North America is a real one, as the January 2015 attacks at the office of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo have made clear. However, there is significant debate among experts over just how significant that threat is. On the one hand, the flow of foreign fighters from the West to Syria and Iraq today is larger than that of any recent conflict. On the other hand, few of those fighters appear to be returning to Europe or the United States to engage in terrorist plots or attacks, and so the threat appears real yet not terribly significant.

Regardless of which side of the debate one supports, the challenge of foreign fighters, like all transnational problems, is not one individual states can solve on their own. Certainly states can and should individually take necessary steps to prevent, prohibit, and respond to the threat of foreign fighters. However, collective measures are necessary as well to maximize, leverage, and enable the actions taken by individual countries.

To this end, several Western states have engaged in bilateral and multilateral exchanges of information and other forms of collaboration, such as the All Partners Access Network, an unclassified information sharing service developed by the US Department of Defense (DoD). In addition to these ad hoc forms of cooperation among two or more states, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) may have an important role to play. Indeed, there is already evidence IGOs, such as the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have begun to contribute to countering the foreign fighter challenge.

Specifically, the North Atlantic alliance has emphasized the importance of intelligence sharing as a means of countering the foreign fighter threat. But is this the role it is best suited to play? How can NATO's member states best leverage the alliance's comparative advantages, especially since membership includes the United States and its vast array of military resources? If the United States is to play an increased or modified role through NATO, how can the US Army contribute? In order to answer these and related questions, this article first surveys the nature and scope of the foreign fighter threat. Determining the significance of the foreign fighter threat is critically important to assessing whether and how NATO might do more. Certainly facilitating information sharing, as the alliance does today, is vital, but NATO is equipped and structured to do more, or to do so more effectively. Some members may be reluctant to see the securitization--or NATO-ization--of a domestic law enforcement area, while outside critics might argue NATO lacks effective tools to address the foreign fighters' center of gravity. In short, although the short-term outlook for a greater NATO role in this area is likely limited, the allies risk foregoing an important means of countering the foreign fighter problem if they do not fully leverage NATO's potential.

Foreign Fighters

"Foreign fighter" is the label used to refer to nonindigenous individuals who choose to engage in insurgent military operations in foreign conflict zones without the promise of financial remuneration. (1) One prominent scholar has defined Islamic foreign fighters as unpaid combatants with no apparent link to the conflict other than religious affinity. (2) Depending on the number of foreign fighters flowing into a given conflict zone, as well as the capabilities and skills they bring with them, foreign fighters can play an important role, perhaps even a decisive one, in a particular conflict. …

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