Terrorism & Lawful Combatants

Terrorism & Lawful Combatants

I bet you're wondering why on earth this small security consulting firm would be posting about terrorism... but, I also hope that you're not. Every single American should be very well aware of threats both foreign and domestic. The enemy doesn't care about you or your family, they just want to cause you harm. 

Whenever you hear about a person taking innocent lives whether that be in a school, a shopping mall, etc., these are domestic violent extremist (DVE). While DVE is a very broad topic, lets first discuss what exactly is terrorism, what are lawful combatants and how to identify a terrorist organization (it's not always so obvious).

Quick disclaimer, these are my ideas and definitions and mine alone. I do not represent any organization other than MB Security.

Definition: Terrorist

Al Shabaab, BBC News

The term “terrorist” is simply a noun or title of an individual or group who engages in acts of terror. A terrorist can engage in either domestic or international terrorism, or both. International terrorism is defined by the FBI as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored)” (Terrorism | FBI, 2022). Domestic terrorist commit the same violent, criminal acts, however these acts come from domestic influences or motivations. These motivations might be political, religious, social, racial, or environmental (Terrorism | FBI, 2022). Therefore, an international and/or domestic terrorist uses violence and unlawful acts to promote their own agenda and ideologies.

Definition: Combatant (Lawful and Unlawful)

 A combatant is an individual who engages or is ready to engage in combat where “combat” is defined as war (Combatant, 2022). The term combatant is also defined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 under Article 43 of Protocol I as an individual of a centralized party in a conflict who directly participates in the hostilities of war (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2022).

Definition: Criminal

 A criminal is a person who has committed, legally convicted or connected with/to a crime (Criminal, 2022). In order for someone to be a criminal, they would have to break a law respective to where the act was committed. Meaning, if stealing isn’t illegal in a country then an individual cannot be a criminal since there is no law stating stealing is a crime. Therefore, the law of the nation or land dictates whether or not someone can be termed a criminal and legally punished/tried for their crimes. 

How It All Relates

How we label a terrorist is critical to the fate of not only the terrorist, but the tone we set for the entire country. A lawful combatant is covered under the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention is simply a set of International Humanitarian Laws (IHL) devised into protocols and articles that dictate what cannot be done during a time of war. These humanitarian and moral restrictions on acts such as mutilation and torture of prisoners of war, for example, remind countries at war to remain somewhat civil. If a terrorist is engaged in war and conducts themselves within the restraints of the Geneva Convention then how they are treated once captured and whether they committed a crimes is determined.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) prohibits acts of terror if they involve violence towards protected parties within the International Humanitarian Laws or Geneva Convention. These protected parties include civilians, medical units or those providing aid to injured people. However, attacks made towards military units or otherwise known as parties not protected by IHL are not considered to be acts of terror even if the catalyst for the attack is political, socially, racially, etc., driven (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2015). It is also important to note that the IHL mostly applies to parties at war.

Why Should Anyone Be Concerned Whether the U.S. Government Treats Terrorist As Criminals or Wartime Lawful Combatants?

The easiest way to answer this question is to consolidate the definitions above and relate them to their practical application. If a terrorist is treated as a wartime lawful combatant, they are afforded certain rights and protections under IHL and therefore would not be able to be tried for their crimes if their crimes were not outlawed in the IHL. Therefore, the U.S. would have to accept the IHL definition of terrorism, which is much different than its own. Next, if the terrorist did not break an IHL law, they cannot be deemed a criminal and tried since no crimes would have been committed. However, if a terrorist is deemed a criminal they then are susceptible to punishment under U.S. Code and Law. For example, a terrorist who is categorized a criminal for killing a U.S. citizen would be tried fairly (as IHL states) for such and face capital punishment of a death sentence or life in prison (18 USC Ch. 113B: TERRORISM, 2022).


About the Author:

Jessie Virga is the founder of Mulier Bellator Security, LLC based in California. She specializes in physical security to include network security, cloud solutions and integration of electronic security systems. Jessie has technical experience working as a security integrator for access control systems (ACS), video surveillance (VSS) and intrusion detection (IDS). She also has an extensive background leading security programs and projects for the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and other federal and local government agencies.
Jessie holds a Master of Business Administration degree and Doctor of Business Administration degree with an emphasis in homeland security. She served ten years in United States Navy as a Fire Controlman and with security forces. She has over a decade of experience specializing in international security to include threat management, anti-terrorism, and counterterrorism operations. She is a federally certified interview and interrogator and has served as a cross examination subject matter expert for public and private investigations.









18 USC Ch. 113B: TERRORISM. (2022). Cornell Law. https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?path=/prelim@title18/part1/chapter113B&edition=prelim

American Red Cross. (2011). Summary of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional protocols [PDF file]. Author. https://www.redcross.org/content/dam/redcross/atg/PDF_s/International_Services/International_Humanitarian_Law/IHL_SummaryGenevaConv.pdf

Combatant. (2022). Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/combatant

Criminal. (2022). Cornell Law. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/criminal

International Committee of the Red Cross. (2022). Armed Forces. International Committee of the Red Cross. https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/ART/470-750053?OpenDocument

International Committee of the Red Cross. (2015). The applicability of IHL to terrorism and counterterrorism. ICRC. https://www.icrc.org/en/document/applicability-ihl-terrorism-and-counterterrorism

Terrorism | FBI. (2022). Federal Bureau of Investigation. https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/terrorism

Virga, J. (2022). Distinguishing Between Terrorist and Lawful Combatants, and Identifying Terrorist Organizations. NCU. Unpublished.

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