[Interview] Asser researcher Tarik Gherbaoui: ‘With my research I aim to reach the decision-makers in the field of counter-terrorism’

Published 13 December 2021
By Diva Estanto and Alexander Rijpma

@U.S. Department of State. The official launch of the Global Counterterrorism Forum in New York on September 22, 2011.

Tarik Gherbaoui is a researcher at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut, where he works on various projects in the context of the Institute’s work for the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF). On December 15, he will defend his PhD thesis, entitled ‘Europe’s Foreign Fighter Conundrum’ at the European University Institute. ‘It is my ambition to increase public understanding of why the rule of law and human rights are an essential part of counterterrorism efforts.’ An interview.  

What is the main research project you are working on?
‘I am currently focusing on the final stages of my PhD thesis, which I am looking forward to defend at the EUI next week. My doctoral work concerns the flow of foreign fighters to the armed conflict in Syria and Iraq. Essentially, I assess the legal responses to foreign fighters at the international, European, and domestic level from the perspective of the rule of law and human rights. In this project, I am looking at responses by the United Nations and the European Union, and I did country studies on both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

At Asser, I am about to start a new research project on countering terrorism in the digital realm. Because terrorists increasingly operate online, counter-terrorism efforts also have increasingly moved online. Online efforts raise similar issues as offline counterterrorism operations, but  also issues that are unique to the online environment, most prominently in the area of freedom of speech. The project is still in its early stages, but once I have defended my PhD thesis on foreign fighters, I would like to dive deeply into this topic.’

What is the goal of your research?
‘It is my ambition to increase public understanding of why the rule of law and human rights are such an essential part of counter-terrorism efforts. Outside the academic world, there are many politicians, legal practitioners, and policymakers who work in the field of counter-terrorism but do not pay much attention to academic expertise in the field. There sometimes seems to be a discrepancy between academic writing and counter-terrorism efforts in the real world. With my research I aim to reach the decision-makers in the field. I wish to reach people that can actually use my research in their day-to-day work, or at least to have their day to-day-to-day work informed by my research. The Asser Institute is such an outstanding place for this type of research, as the Institute has always worked in close contact with policymakers and legal practitioners in The Hague and elsewhere. Working at the Asser Institute helps me to further disseminate my research and to ensure it has practical as well as academic impact.’

 Why did you decide to study international and European law?
‘I think that my decision to specialise in international law, was influenced by my international upbringing, and the international outlook on life that I developed because of it. I was born in Amsterdam but I’m partly of Algerian descent. After finishing secondary school in the Netherlands, I lived in Rome and learned Italian. I also did an Erasmus exchange in Copenhagen and spent several months in Salamanca, Spain to learn Spanish. International law was my a favourite module during my undergraduate studies and I continued my legal studies reading for a Master of Law degree at the University of Cambridge. Although I also enjoyed studying Dutch law, I have always kept an eye on the wider world.’

Could you tell us about your work prior to joining the Asser Instituut?
‘I have pursued my PhD in international law at the European University Institute in Florence, under the supervision of Professor Martin Scheinin. More recently, I participated in the excellent ‘re:constitution’ fellowship programme run by Forum Transregionale Studien, a German foundation, which allowed me to live in different European countries to conduct research on the issue of citizenship deprivation in the counterterrorism context. Before embarking on my PhD, I did a whole lot of different things unrelated to academia. I worked short stints in diplomacy at the Dutch Embassy to Serbia and to Montenegro and at the European External Action Service (EEAS) in Brussels. My very first professional experience in the world of international law was at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, close to the Asser Institute.’

What is your advice to young academics or legal scholars who want to go into this field?
‘In my experience excellent writing skills are still extremely valued in the world of international law and diplomacy. Nowadays a lot of people have multiple degrees from good universities and speak several languages. Yet solid legal writing skills are essential for careers in international organisations and international courts and tribunals. Having solid writing skills is also a prerequisite for an academic career in the field of international law. While the English language has become essential in any international professional environment, international organisations and international courts very much value languages other than English. Many jobs in Brussels require French. Knowledge of French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian is often essential to work in the field for international organisations such as the UN and the OSCE. With so many online learning tools available, I would encourage people starting out in the field to develop their language skills, and in particular writing skills, wherever possible.’

 Watch Tarik’s defence
Register now. Tarik’s defence for his PhD thesis titled ‘Europe’s Foreign Fighter Conundrum: The European Legal Response to Foreign Fighters and its Consistency with the Rule of Law and Human Rights’ will take place at the European University Institute on 15 December 2021, 16.45 CET.

About Tarik Gherbaoui

Tarik Gherbaoui is a researcher in international law at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut within the research strand 'Human dignity and human security in international and European law' where he contributes to various projects in the context of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF). Tarik holds a Master of Laws degree from Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge, a Master of Laws degree from the European University Institute, and a Bachelor of Laws degree (cum laude) from the University of Amsterdam. He also serves as a senior editor of the European Journal of Legal Studies.

Abstract
Europe’s Foreign Fighter Conundrum - The European Legal Response to Foreign Fighters and its Consistency with the Rule of Law and Human Rights

The participation of European foreign fighters in the recent armed conflict in Syria and Iraq poses a particularly intricate security conundrum in the field of counter-terrorism. This thesis assesses to what extent legal responses to foreign fighters at the international, European, and domestic level have been consistent with the rule of law and human rights. As the inherently transnational nature of the foreign fighter phenomenon has resulted in a labyrinth of legal obligations, the thesis scrutinises the complex interplay between legal norms at these three different levels.

This assessment evaluates international and European legal instruments as well as domestic legal measures in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands against international rule of law and human rights standards. Throughout Europe’s legal response to foreign fighters four fundamental challenges have emerged which have prevented states and international organisations from resolving the foreign fighter conundrum in accordance with the rule of law and human rights.

Firstly, the UN Security Council’s international legal regime on foreign fighters is premised on the flawed concept of the ‘foreign terrorist fighter’ yet fails to define terrorism. Overly capacious definitions of terrorism have proved to be inconsistent with the principle of legality and unsuitable to address the peculiarities of the modern-day foreign fighter phenomenon.

Secondly, the thesis argues that attempts to resolve the foreign fighter conundrum through multilateral channels have by and large been inconsistent with the rule of law and human rights and have failed to add value to domestic responses.

Thirdly, the foreign fighter conundrum has exacerbated the conflation between counter-terrorism law and international humanitarian law, to the detriment of the latter. Fourthly, the thesis analyses how legal responses to foreign fighters have sharpened the preventive turn that counter-terrorism law has taken in the aftermath of 9/11, at the expense of the rule of law and human rights.