Foreign fighters test the state’s monopoly on violence

Three Australian IS fighters may have been killed in the last month, including Mohammad Ali Baryalei. AAP Image/YouTube

Estimates are that there are more than 60 Australian citizens in the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) armies sweeping through Syria and Iraq.

In a recent case, reported by the Sydney Morning Herald last week, four brothers from a Sydney family left Australia for what they claimed was a holiday in Thailand.

Their family only heard of their true destination when one of the brothers sent a text message from Syria. The brothers were apparent “clean skins” (meaning they weren’t on any watch lists) who had shown no prior signs of radicalisation.

Now their parents and siblings must wait for word of their fate. But in the chaos of a war zone reliable information is scarce: three Australian IS fighters may have been killed in the last month alone, including the notorious Islamic State kingpin Mohammad Ali Baryalei, but at least two of those reported deaths remain unconfirmed.

Young men (and occasionally young women) volunteering to fight in distant conflicts, for causes separate and even antithetical to their home country, is nothing new. But for authorities in the West, the “war on terror” has thrown up some particularly troubling examples, in part because the perceived threat of so-called home-grown terrorists means the war is not so distant after all, and in part because those volunteers demonstrate that ideology can trump national allegiance with alarming ease.

An Iraqi man stands amid the rubble of a destroyed school at the scene where fighting took place between the Iraqi forces and the fighters of Islamic state at Qirnas village, near Tikrit, north of Iraq, this month. Ali Mohammed/EPA

The London accent of Jihadi John, serial murderer of Western hostages, is jarring in its familiarity, which is itself a kind of taunt. The red hair and youthful features of Bankstown teenager Adbullah Emir creates a similar – if less sinister – spectacle.

The propaganda value of these foreign fighters – estimated to be in the vicinity of 15,000 by the United Nations – is significant. The recent IS video publicising the killing of aid worker Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig and a group of Syrian government soldiers carefully highlighted the presence of foreign faces among the executioners.

In this way, foreign fighters are used to convey both the broad appeal and the moral legitimacy of the IS cause to potential recruits.

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks in 2013. Dean Lewins/AAP Image

Aside from their symbolic value, foreign fighters in the war on terror also test the legislative reach and punitive apparatus of the state, as David Hicks’ six-year imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay and dubious conviction for fighting with the Taliban (currently under appeal) demonstrate.

Whether Australia’s latest legislative response – the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Act 2014, which, among other provisions, prohibits travel to “declared areas” where conflicts are taking place – will be an effective deterrent remains to be seen.

New security measures proposed in Britain, which has had an estimated 500 citizens fighting in the ranks of Islamic State, emphasise control of movement across its national borders and include the authority to prevent fighters from re-entering Britain for two years and to pre-emptively seize passports from would-be recruits.

The current crop of foreign volunteers therefore have a broader conceptual significance, since they raise questions about the durability of the state’s monopoly on violence and what it can (or ought) to do to preserve it.

As Max Weber famously argued in Politics as Vocation (1919), this monopoly is the cornerstone of the authority of the modern state and is made explicit in the state’s mandate to decide what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate violence.

American sociologist Charles Tilly framed this monopolisation as not simply a function of statehood but also an instrument of its creation. His formulation that “war made the state and the state made war” holds that modern state structures were produced by a mutually-reinforcing relationship between emerging military institutions, the fiscal arrangements required to fund them (such as taxation regimes) and the bargains struck with local elites to ensure their compliance.

Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips. Wikimedia Commons

The emergence of nationalist politics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries added another dimension to this monopoly on violence, insofar as notions of male citizenship became bound up with military service and states made greater claims to control the military activities of individual citizens for use in national armies.

It was during this period that states began to enact laws that criminalised fighting for foreign states or groups: the Neutrality Act in the United States, and the Foreign Enlistment Act in Britain. Yet this was also an era of revolutionary and Romantic idealisms, and the wars of independence in South America, the Greek War of Independence and the wars of Italian unification drew volunteers from both nations.

Perhaps the most famous participant was the poet Lord Byron, who joined the Greek cause in 1823 and died in Mesolongi in April 1824. The Greek conflict tapped deep veins of sympathy in Britain, and as a result the government appeared to be wary of enforcing the Foreign Enlistment Act too rigorously.

As historian S.P. MacKenzie has pointed out, the Foreign Enlistment Act was also ineffective when confronted with the most celebrated example of this type of volunteering in the 20th century: the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, comprised of more than 40,000 pro-Republican volunteers from more than 50 countries.

Republican International Brigadiers at the Battle of Belchite ride on a T-26 tank. Wikimedia Commons

Cases routinely foundered on a lack of corroboratory evidence, and none of the more than 2,000 British volunteers were ever punished for their participation.

Nor were the estimated 70 Australian participants subject to any significant legal sanctions. Like the case of Greece, we cannot discount the influence of public sympathy in shaping this lack of enforcement, even as Britain and Australia proclaimed their neutrality in the Spanish conflict.

How are these historical examples relevant to the case of the foreign fighters of Islamic State? Few would argue for a moral equivalence between the volunteers in the 19th-century wars of independence, the Spanish Civil War and the armies of Islamic State.

Yet there is a kind of structural affinity in the legislative regimes states have enacted to enforce their monopoly on violence against the minority of citizens participating in these conflicts. But there is a caveat: that states do not simply claim a monopoly on violence but choose when and how to assert that monopoly – if they seek to assert it at all.

In the case of Islamic State, the intent of Western governments, including Australia, seems clear. Whether it can be achieved in practice is another question.


The Conversation is currently running a series looking at the history and nature of violence.