Doctoral Dissertations

Orcid ID


Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Political Science

Major Professor

Brandon Prins

Committee Members

Krista Wiegand, Gary Uzonyi, Eric Keels


The modern foreign fighter (FF) came into prominence following the onset of the wars in Iraq and Syria in the early 2010s. The fact that there was a movement of over 20,000 foreign fighters to Ukraine in 2022 shows that this is a phenomenon that is not going away or slowing down. What makes this phenomenon more serious is the negative impact that FFs have on civilians. FFs have been shown to conduct disproportionate violence against the civilian population in the locations that they inhabit. For that reason, it is vital to not only understand the impact of these individuals on civilians but also to understand the factors that can act to inhibit the actions taken by FFs against civilians. This dissertation seeks to answer the following question: What impact does rebel group structure have on the actions that FFs take toward the civilian population? Chapter 1 details a novel dataset that was created, The Rebel Foreign Fighter Dataset. This dataset provides an expansion of the information on the number of FFs that are involved in 65 conflicts around the world (1985-2022) as well as providing a Centralization and Governance variable for the groups they join. Chapter 2 provides an analysis of the rebel governing structures that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen implemented and how those structures impacted the actions that FFs took toward civilians. The analysis supports the proposed hypothesis that inclusive rebel governing structures provides an avenue for FFs and civilians to become integrated and decrease the amount of disembeddedness that is experienced by the FFs which decreases the amount of civilian victimization that is linked to FFs. Chapter 3 includes a case study of the evolution of Ansar al-Islam in Iraq. As the group evolved within the conflict, there was a degradation of the centralized structure that was originally present within the rebel group. The centralized structure allowed rebel group leaders to have more oversight of soldiers' actions and hold them accountable. The results support the hypothesis that a more centralized structure can decrease the amount of civilian victimization that is linked to FFs.

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