enemy combatant

An enemy combatant can be defined as a person who, in times of armed conflict, engages in hostilities for the other side. 

The term enemy combatant is a concept creating an extraordinary legal status with specific rules that were established by President George W. Bush’s Administration to describe the combatants suspected of having supported or participated in armed and/or terrorist activities against the United States. The term “enemy combatant” has therefore been used by U.S. military authorities to detain suspects, indefinitely and without charge. The extraordinary status that accompanies the concept of “enemy combatant” has allowed the U.S. military to override the rules of international law and deny the detained suspects the rights and protections granted to prisoners of war by the Third Geneva Convention of 1949.

The term enemy combatant was first used to detain members of Al-Qaïda, the terrorist organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and to Taliban fighters. The qualification was therefore given to terrorists and other fighters engaged in hostile actions against the United States. A large amount of enemy-combatant suspects were transferred to Guantanamo prison, where they were detained indefinitely without charge and subject to interrogation techniques described as torture.

The main question arising out of the status of enemy-combatants is whether such suspects would be entitled to the protections granted by the Constitution (because they were detained in prisons and military camps outside the U.S. territory). Also, it was argued by the Bush administration that their status of “enemy-combatants” deprived them from the protections granted by the Geneva Convention. Two decisions rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court marked changes in the rules applicable to enemy combatants: first, in Rasul v. Bush in 2004 the Supreme Court asserted that the suspects detained under the enemy combatant qualification still have the right to challenge their imprisonment through habeas corpus petition filed in U.S. Courts; second, in Boumediene v. Bush in 2008 the Supreme Court confirmed the right of enemy combatants to challenge their imprisonment in federal courts. 

In 2009, the administration of President Barack Obama ruled that the suspects detained in Guantanamo under the qualification of enemy-combatants would no longer be designated as so. However, the detainees would remain indefinitely kept in such prisons, without charge.

See also: war powers

[Last updated in April of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]