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UN resolution prompts question: When is a foreign fighter a 'terrorist'?

Security Council urges crackdown on 'foreign terrorist fighters'; analysists say could have unintended consequences

A U.N. resolution calling on governments to prosecute and punish “foreign terrorist fighters” could be misused due to a lack of consensus over when citizens traveling abroad to engage in unauthorized combat can be designated  “terrorists,” some analysts say.

While specifically calling for states to seek out those fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, including Al-Nusra Front (ANF), it may also leave states open to defining other foreign “terrorist” fighters for themselves.

The resolution, passed unanimously by the Security Council on Wednesday, “Stresses the urgent need to implement fully and immediately this resolution with respect to foreign terrorist fighters, underscores the particular and urgent need to implement this resolution with respect to those foreign fighters who are associated with ISIL, ANF, and other cells, affiliates, splinter groups or derivatives of Al-Qaida.”

It defines foreign “terrorist” fighters as:  “individuals who travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts or the providing or receiving of terrorist training, including in connection with armed conflict…”

Intelligence agencies estimate that about 15,000 foreigners have joined forces with ISIL in Syria and Iraq. The resolution is aimed at tackling the phenomenon of largely young men traveling from across the world to fight in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region.

“There hasn’t been a civil war or an uprising against a government where the government [since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.] hasn’t labeled its opponents ‘terrorists’,” said Jeremy Shapiro, an international policy analyst at Washington D.C.-based research nonprofit The Brookings Institution.

He added, “A lot of the U.N. resolutions [on “terrorism”] have qualities to them where basically any uprising against a government can involve this entire body of law. We see this everywhere.”

President Barack Obama, who chaired Wednesday’s meeting, also described this latest threat of foreign fighters and the regions they encompass as wide-ranging, including Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq.

The U.S. mission to the U.N. did not respond to a request for comment.

Shapiro and other analysts said that although the language of the resolution is broad, the references to ISIL and Al-Qaeda throughout the text indicate that the designation is intended to be narrow.

Jeffrey Laurenti, an international affairs analyst, said the Security Council specifically named ISIL and Al-Qaeda in a deliberate attempt to “short-circuit” the possibility of governments interpreting the resolution based on their own vantage points.

While Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on extremism who heads a European Commission working group on rehabilitating foreign fighters, also said that the resolution was clearly aimed at including only the groups named, and not others.

Ranstorp added that the resolution may only have specifically named ISIL and Al-Qaeda-affiliated threats because it was the only thing members could unanimously agree on.

During the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow advocates for “abandoning double standards in dividing terrorists into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.” Russia is one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest allies and is also backing the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The statement may have been a jab at U.S. support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, which Syria views as terrorists — an example of where a differing viewpoint of who is a foreign “terrorist” fighter could, in theory, be used by Syria as legal cover to crack down on the thousands of foreigners fighting with the FSA against the government forces.

Anthony Cordesman from the Washington D.C.-based think tank Center of Strategic and International Studies added that any effort to name specific groups could become quickly outdated due to the rapid evolution of extremist groups.

“Any list you give today could be invalid tomorrow, all they need to do is change their name,” he said.

“You have a steady growth of extremist Islamist groups, any effort to have a fixed list … it’s almost meaningless when it comes to dealing with the broader problem of terrorism.” 

Indeed, ISIL changed its name to Islamic State in June

And regardless of how effectively and responsibly the resolution is implemented, the security the resolutions’ sponsors are seeking won't come overnight. 

Laurenti said the measures called for in the document will take years to implement, and will be more difficult than cutting off finances, because they involve restricting the movement of people.

“Nobody imagines that this resolution will in the short term result in the drying up of fresh meat for ISIL,” he said. 

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