I was inspired to ask this question (on ELL) because of something in a CNN article that didn't sound right to me.

Per capita, Belgium has the highest number of foreign fighters in Syria of any Western European nation. Experts say nearly 500 men and women have left Belgium for Syria and Iraq since 2012.

The context of the article gave the impression that a "foreign fighter" or at least the subject of the article, were people who expatriate to side with someone else in a conflict.

Unfortunately, I could not find any clear definitions or references to the exact meaning of the term; so what exactly is a "foreign fighter"?

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    Ok, picture all the fighters in Syria. Now exclude the large portion of those who are native-born Syrians. You're left with a bunch of fighters from other countries, i.e. foreigners. They're foreign fighters. Of the foreign fighters, if you classify them by the country they're originally from, divided by the total population of that country, Belgians make up the biggest piece of the pie.
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 24, 2016 at 13:59
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    @DanBron You can take the Belgian out of Belgium, but the Belgian remains Belgian; oh Belgium. Mar 24, 2016 at 14:40
  • @Elliott Frisch: Of course that begs the question of whether those foreign fighters are in any sense, other than the strictly legalistic, Belgian. But that's at least as much politics as language, like describing the people who set off the recent bombs as 'terrorists' rather than the IMHO more accurate 'jihadists'.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 24, 2016 at 16:52

3 Answers 3


The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian and Human Rights' Briefing No. 7: Foreign Fighters under International Law adopts the following definition (p6) of 'foreign fighter':

A foreign fighter is an individual who leaves his or her country of origin or habitual residence to join a non-state armed group in an armed conflict abroad and who is primarily motivated by ideology, religion and/or kinship.

The CNN article is saying that in Syria, of all the foreign fighters from Western European nations, the largest number come from Belgium.


Foreign fighter is relatively recent expression used to refer to a fighter permanently based in a "foreign" territory (with respect to the one they are fighting for):

  • Until a few months ago the term foreign fighters was foreign to all but practitioners of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. With politicians and the media using the term on a daily basis many ordinary people are left wondering what it means and why there is so much fuss around the topic.

  • The foreign fighters label came to prominence in Iraq about 10 years ago when Coalition officers believed, incorrectly, that the "Sunni insurgency" in that country was being dominated by fighters from outside. The concept of foreign fighters - individuals who travel to a foreign country to fight for a cause is, however, much older. From the Crusades through to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, young men have been mobilised to fight for an ideological


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    Your description seems is at odds with my understanding of the term, and also with your quotes. As I hear it used in U.S. media, the term refers to a fighter permanently based in a a territory that is "foreign" with respect to the fighter's native country, and who is fighting for a cause or organization local to the place they are based.
    – PellMel
    Mar 24, 2016 at 14:22
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    Your description would seem to fit, say, a French national in the French Foreign Legion, permanently stationed in Algeria and fighting for France. As I understand it, the term would be a much better description for a French Muslim who moves to Algeria to fight for a local Algerian organization dedicated to purging the country of European influence. I usually hear it describing U.S. or European citizens who relocate to the mideast to fight for terrorist groups. They are generally based in a territory that is local with respect to the cause they are fighting for.
    – PellMel
    Mar 24, 2016 at 14:34
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    I think it is now mainly used to refer to people born or permanently resident in one country (country A ) that fight against their home country (A) in favour of the cause of another country (B) for a number of reasons. So they are "foreign" with respect to coutry B for which they fight for. They may move to country B and fight locally, of course.
    – user66974
    Mar 24, 2016 at 14:46
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    No, I disagree. A U.S. national who fights in the U.S. for ISIS is a traitor, but not a "foreign fighter". If that person travels to Syria to fight for ISIS, however, then there, he is a "foreign fighter".
    – PellMel
    Mar 24, 2016 at 14:56
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    @SpehroPefhany, you may be right, but that pertains to relatively fine details of how the term is currently used, whereas Josh61 asserts an altogether different and unnatural definition. Note the OP's quote: "Belgium has the highest number of foreign fighters in Syria". This is about Belgians fighting in Syria, for ISIS, not for Belgium. The perceived risk is that these people might return to Belgium to conduct terrorist operations, but if they do so, they are not "foreign fighters" in their home country.
    – PellMel
    Mar 25, 2016 at 14:34

As it is currently used in the U.S. -- primarily by the media -- the term refers to a citizen or permanent resident of one country who fights in a foreign country, pretty much as the words' natural meanings would indicate. Current usage of the term is generally reserved for people whom one might suppose would not be foreign; otherwise, emphasizing the foreignness would be pointless.

Lately, the term is most often used to refer to people who relocate from elsewhere to ISIS-held regions of Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS. This is similar to the situation described in @Josh61's Al Jazeera quotation:

The foreign fighters label came to prominence in Iraq about 10 years ago when Coalition officers believed, incorrectly, that the "Sunni insurgency" in that country was being dominated by fighters from outside.

In that situation, the Sunnis who came from other countries to fight in support of the Iraqi Sunni insurgency were foreign to Iraq, and therefore "foreign fighters" in the literal sense. Inasmuch as the cause was essentially a local one within Iraq, one might have expected the insurgents all to be Iraqis, so the presence among them of fighters from other countries was significant (however many such fighters there actually were). Note also that those fighters were not fighting against their own countries, nor even necessarily against their countries' national interests.

Although the term's natural meaning fits other people too, such as uniformed members of a nation's armed forces conducting combat operations outside their home country, it is not typically applied to people whose foreignness (with respect to the location of the fighting) or whose fighting itself is not their most distinguishing or most relevant characteristic. Such people are typically identified by profession, cause, or both: "foreign soldiers", "Sunni fighters", or "U.S. Marines".

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    +1 in that the key takeaway is that foreign fighter is a term of art from the international relations and global security worlds, not simply a fighter who is foreign, and has been in use for some time (see e.g. this 2005 Foreign Affairs article).
    – choster
    Mar 25, 2016 at 18:41

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