Foreigners in armed conflict: from Byron to Bin Laden and beyond


21 February 2018


Egmont Palace, Place du Petit Sablon, 8bis, Brussels

Foreigners who fight in the civil war in Syria are often perceived either as a threat to global security or as a quaint object of curiosity. By examining previous instances of conflicts that saw the participation from foreign war volunteers, a number of common characteristics can be identified. First, despite vast differences in historical circumstances and ideologies, foreign volunteers share a basic search for purpose; a belief that their engagement in a conflict abroad may provide or reinforce their sense of meaning. It can also be argued that, while there were cases of foreign volunteers who made a significant military contribution to the forces they joined, many others encountered problems which hindered their effectiveness on the battlefield: difficulties in adapting in terms of military culture and language, disillusionment and so on. The most consistent impact that foreign volunteers tend to have is in the realm of propaganda and morale. Indeed, it is their ability to attract international attention which helps to give them a historical significance that goes beyond the actual military roles the play.

About the speaker:

Nir Arielli is Associate Professor of International History at the University of Leeds. His most recent book, From Byron to bin Laden: A History of Foreign War Volunteers, was published by Harvard University Press in early 2018. Arielli is also author of Fascist Italy and the Middle East (2010), editor of the memoir Between Tel Aviv and Moscow: A Life of Dissent and Exile in Mandate Palestine and the Soviet Union (2015,) and co-editor of Transnational Soldiers: Foreign Military Enlistment in the Modern Era (2013). He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.



16h: registration

16h30: Lecture by Nir Arielli, followed by a discussion with the audience

Moderated by Thomas Renard, Senior Fellow, Egmont Institute

18h: end of the conference