Citizenship Stripping as a Counter-Terrorism Tool and its Consequences in the United Kingdom

Author: Makenzi Taylor, February 2020.

A stock photo/rendered image of a hand print with the UK flag design.

“Rendering individuals stateless and revoking citizenship is not a new phenomenon, but the UK has revived a trend from the past: stripping returning foreign fighters of their citizenship, leaving some of them abandoned and stateless.”


Image from Needpix. 

Since the 2001 9/11 and the 2005 7/7 attacks in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), developed and developing countries alike have become invested in fighting the War on Terror. The UK is at the forefront of counter-terrorism with its Prevent Program, which aims to “safeguard vulnerable people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, by engaging with people who are vulnerable to radicalization and protecting those who are being targeted by terrorist recruiters” (HO News Team). However, even with this leading counter-terrorism program, the UK has experienced the flight of citizens, amounting to more than 900 persons dubbed as foreign fighters, leaving to join terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq (“Only One in 10”). Such fighters have been labeled by the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee (UNCTC) as foreign terrorist fighters and are defined as “individuals who travel to a state…for the purpose of the perpetration, planning or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts or the providing or receiving of terrorist training.”

As the presence of the IS increased in Iraq and Syria in 2014, with increasing numbers of foreign fighters joining the group, Western states “faced an increasingly dire situation and no modern-day precedent” (Esbrook 1276), as hundreds of these fighters were European citizens. As a result, states began to rely on citizenship stripping, also known as denationalizing, those people who left to join the IS and now wish to return to their home countries, as the group has lost territorial control in Iraq and Syria.

The UK, which has “the most lenient citizenship-revocation laws,” has now become the front-runner of citizenship stripping as a counter-terrorism tool, justifying its actions in the name of national security (Esbrook 1285). Rendering individuals stateless and revoking citizenship is not a new phenomenon, but the UK has revived a trend from the past: stripping returning foreign fighters of their citizenship, leaving some of them abandoned and stateless. Within international law, statelessness occurs when a person “is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law” (“Ending Statelessness”). Under the 1954 and 1961 Conventions on the Reduction of Statelessness, which the UK is a party to, a framework was created to avoid further statelessness by placing an obligation on states to not “create conditions of statelessness” within its nationality laws and practices (Goris et. al 5). Under UK law, citizenship can be stripped whether the individual is a dual national/naturalized or British-born citizen, and without being found guilty of a crime. Not only do these practices leave individuals stateless, but they also deny those affected any chance of justice.

The UK serves as the main focus of this paper as the country has openly denationalized suspected IS members. The UK, however, has declined to give a reason for its increase of citizenship stripping or justifications for each case, while expanding its citizenship stripping powers. The first section of this paper explores the UK’s process of stripping the citizenship of suspected foreign fighters and its justification for such decisions. In the second section, this paper examines the consequences of rendering foreign fighters stateless or stripping dual/naturalized nationals of their citizenship; the impact that this has on international justice will be explored. In the final section, an analysis of such practices is provided.

UK Citizenship Stripping

In 2016, the UK’s Home Secretary stripped 14 individuals of their citizenship. This number increased to 104 in 2017. The Home Secretary argued that these actions were conducive to the public good as these individuals posed a threat to national security, were war criminals, or have been involved in extremism or terrorism (Verkaik). Under the British Nationality Act of 1981, the UK may deprive citizenship if an individual is seen to be “conducive to the public good” as long as it does not leave the person stateless (Macklin 1). Historically, this Act was used on dual/naturalized nationals who would not become stateless upon losing UK citizenship, but this has since changed. In 2014, Theresa May, Home Secretary at the time, implemented an amendment that provided her with the power to strip the citizenship of terror suspects, dual national or not, regardless of it leaving them stateless (Galey and Ross). Even though the UK is a party to both the 1954 and 1961 Conventions on the Reduction of Statelessness, the 2014 amendment was phrased in a way that does not violate these agreements, because it allows for citizenship stripping if there are reasonable grounds to consider the foreign fighter could be eligible for another nationality. (Travis). Mark Harper, acting UK immigration minister, argues that “citizenship is a privilege, not a right… [and we] will strengthen the Home Secretary’s powers to ensure that very dangerous individuals can be excluded from the privileges attached to citizenship if it is in the public interest to do so” (Galey and Ross). The British Home Office has previously argued that revoking citizenship is a method that has been added to counter terrorist threats (“Canada ‘disappointed’”). In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights declared May’s 2014 amendment to be lawful, dismissing a claim by a Sudan-born British citizen, suspected of terrorism, that revoking his citizenship violated his rights of a private and family life (Travis). It has been suggested and proven accurate that this ruling opens the floodgates for the UK to continue this approach, while also influencing other nations to enforce the practice more regularly.

Case Study: Shamima Begum

One case that caught international attention is the case of Shamima Begum, who left Britain at 15 years old to become an ISIS bride in Syria, which refers to the lure of women to Syria or Iraq to marry an IS fighter (Khalaf). She was discovered in a refugee camp in Syria after spending years with the IS and informed journalists that she wished to return to her native country, the UK. Her plea to be allowed home was met with debate within the UK. In February 2019, Begum’s citizenship was stripped and she was ultimately left stateless. This decision was “welcomed by those who claimed it was a necessary move to protect the country, and condemned by others who saw it as a potentially illegal step that shirked Britain’s obligations” (Hume). Sajid Javid, Former Home Secretary, made it clear that if individuals have supported terrorist organizations in any way, they will not be allowed back home (Hume). The UK argued that Begum, who was born in the UK to Bangladeshi parents, could apply for citizenship in Bangladesh through her ethnic lineage, and therefore, she has not been left stateless per se. However, Bangladesh struck down that possibility by stating Begum would face the death penalty in Bangladesh due to terrorism charges. Bangladesh also noted that Begum is Britain’s responsibility (“Shamima Begum”).

The UK admitted that in certain cases, stripping one’s citizenship is “far simpler” than attempting to prosecute the individual, as only one in ten foreign fighters who have returned, have been successfully prosecuted (“Only One in 10”). Lord Anderson, the former independent reviewer of the UK’s terrorism legislation states, “you don’t need the permission of the court, you sign an order and you don’t have to deal with them. You simply pull the rug out from under them and they can’t come back” (“Number of People Stripped”). Because there is no evidence that Begum participated in terror offenses and seemingly only became an IS bride (“Shamima Begum”), it would not be surprising if such logic is how the UK reached its decision. As of 2019, Begum is to begin her appeal process at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which will hear “challenges to decisions to remove someone’s British citizenship on national security grounds” (ITV Report). The case of Begum is one that exposes the complexity of the UK’s reasoning behind citizenship stripping.

The Laws of Nationality and Citizenship Stripping

International laws on citizenship, nationality, and denationalization are not extensive, and often leave such issues to the discretion of states themselves. An interesting concept to consider for the UK’s actions is the link between the state and the individual as there is the “absence of a widely ratified international treaty defining criteria for nationality rights” (Goris et al. 6). If such criterion existed, perhaps stripping foreign fighters of their citizenship would not be as simple, since it would expose which nation is legally responsible for that individual (Goris et al. 6). For example, demonstrating the link between Begum and the UK signifies why she should keep her British citizenship and face the consequences in the UK. The 1955 Nottebohm (Liechtenstein v. Guatemala) case serves as a landmark case regarding nationality, linkage, and citizenship. Friedrich Nottebohm, a German-born citizen who lived in Guatemala since 1903, but never became a citizen, but later became a citizen of Lichtenstein in 1939 (“Nottebohm Case” 33). When attempting to re-enter Guatemala with a Lichtenstein passport in 1940, Nottebohm was arrested at the border. Lichtenstein, on behalf of Nottebohm, sued Guatemala in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (“Nottebohm Case” 33). The ICJ ruled in favor of Guatemala, claiming Nottebohm failed to meet the criteria of having a genuine and effective link to Lichtenstein, and therefore, could not be represented by the state (“Nottebohm Case” 34). This case established such criteria as the, “… habitual residence of the individual concerned…the center of his [/her] interests, his family ties, his participation in public life, attachment shown by him for a given country and inculcated into his children” (Goris et al. 6). In Begum’s case, she could satisfy the Nottebohm principle, in which the national must prove a meaningful connection to the state in question. Begum was born in the UK, her family resides in the country, and she was involved in public life as a student prior to joining the IS. Conversely, the UK could argue that Begum broke this bond when traveling to Syria to join a terrorist group, demonstrating that she lost her will and desire to belong to the UK. Arbitrary deprivation, defined as “the failure to acknowledge the ‘genuine link’ between a person and a state and the responsibilities that adhere to this relationship” (Owen 312), seems to apply to many UK cases. Even though it has been argued that establishing a “genuine and effective link” could be most effective in jus soli, where citizenship is dependent on an individual’s country of birth, and jus sanguinis, where citizenship of an individual is determined by their parents’ citizenship, cases (Goris et al. 6; “Jus sanguinis”), it could be possible to apply it to the UK cases and ultimately, hold the state accountable for the return and prosecution of its citizens.

The UK and other European countries have exercised the denationalization of its citizens. While some may believe that leaving European citizens affiliated with the IS in Iraq or Syria “to rot” is the best option going forward, this completely undermines international law and hinders the chance of holding anyone accountable. Understandably, states may not know how to handle the complexities of such situations, but surely there is a better way than abandoning individuals and making them another state’s responsibility, such as Iraq, where IS trials are currently taking place under questionable circumstances.

Consequences

As the UK continues to employ denationalization as a counter-terrorism strategy, it now has to face the consequences. Denationalization has not only exacerbated societal tensions within the UK, but it has also created strains within the international community, as it denies justice to be achieved in any capacity. Terrorism knows no borders, so the international community needs to work together to keep each other safe (“Canada ‘disappointed’”). It has even been argued by members of the UK Parliament that denationalization has become a weapon of the state “in the war on terror by punishing citizens who are connected to terrorist groups” (Graham 607). This has allowed the UK to easily denationalize citizens who are merely accused of terrorism by removing their right to have rights (Travis). The UK has failed to hold in carrying out its responsibilities as a state by not holding accountable citizens who are abroad and suspected of links to terror.

Challenging the UK’s Justifications for Citizenship Stripping

The stated reason for denationalization is usually to protect UK national security, but Macklin rebuts this by declaring:

Citizenship-stripping is sometimes defended in the name of strengthening citizenship, but it does precisely the opposite. The defining feature of contemporary legal citizenship is that it is secure… Citizenship revocation thus weakens citizenship itself. It is an illegitimate form of punishment and it serves no practical purpose. (Macklin 1)

Macklin further identifies the latest denationalization targets, as convicted terrorists, suspected terrorists, potential terrorists, or even associates of a terrorist – most of which are Muslim men (Macklin 1). UK citizens, particularly Muslim men, who are alleged to have participated in terrorism abroad, are often stripped of their citizenship. Due to being barred from entry, these individuals are unable to respond to the deprivation notice and appeal the decision, which has resulted in increased societal tensions within the UK (Macklin 3).

Exacerbating Societal Tensions

As King’s College Professor Shiraz Maher states, “I think this is a very dangerous decision, it does create a two-tier system and a system that is frankly racist” (@BBCNewsnight). Furthermore, Maajid Nawaz, a British extremist-turned-activist, declared the UK’s actions as a “War on Citizenship” (Nawaz). He adds, if citizenship is revocable for someone like him, a British-born Muslim man, then, in fact, he never had UK citizenship, to begin with, but rather a visa (Nawaz).

The continuance of the denationalization will likely fuel tensions further. It could even be questioned if the UK’s new counter-terrorism strategy could have the very opposite effect than it intended, as revoking citizenship holds the possibility of further victimizing high target groups. One of these groups is Muslim men, who may feel further victimized in the UK, which could ease the recruitment process and offer new propaganda content to terrorist groups such as the IS, who often use grievances Muslims face in such propaganda (Benton and Banulescu-Bogdan).

Stripping Away the Chance for Justice

When the UK strips citizenship, it strips away the chance of prosecution and the chance to gain some variance of justice. A banished citizen essentially suffers a “political death” as the state ceases to have a legal or moral duty to the former citizen (Macklin 3). This is perhaps the most significant consequence of all. UK counter-terrorism policies fail to achieve justice for its citizens, as well as, the innocent civilians whose rights were violated abroad (Blakeley et al. 5). This policy will continue to fail to combat terrorism because “its development is unmoored from any substantial process of democratic accountability…the aims and means of current counter-terrorism policy have been set by a security establishment according to its own interests and values” (Blakeley et al. 6). The UK has consistently chosen the values and interests of elites over the need of upholding human rights and its responsibilities as a state (Blakeley et al. 6).

Bringing terror suspects to justice should be of the utmost importance to the UK, which should prosecute, try, and convict such individuals (Macklin 52). This should be the response to the alleged criminal activity, not denationalization. Revoking citizenship eradicates the opportunity for returning foreign fighters to self-reflect, reform, be rehabilitated, and reintegrated (Macklin 4). Macklin offers the example of Abu Hamza, an Egyptian born UK citizen, whose citizenship was attempted to be revoked, but failed because it would have rendered Hamza stateless. Since Hamza remained in the UK as a citizen, he was able to be extradited to the US, which would not have been possible had his citizenship been stripped, and further demonstrates the need for the UK to reconsider its counter-terrorism via denationalization strategy. In the US, Hamza was tried and found guilty of terrorism offenses (Macklin 52). Had he been denationalized, justice would not have been achieved and Hamza would not have faced a court at all. Citizenship stripping lets states off the hook by depriving them of the “authority to subject them to criminal prosecution and to thereby make a tangible contribution to bringing terrorists to justice under the rule of law” (Macklin 52).

Not only should Western states want to prosecute foreign fighters, but they can do so, through court systems. It is disappointing that some of the most developed countries in the world are hesitant to employ the extensive court systems to try alleged foreign fighters and, instead, pass off these responsibilities to developing countries. The UK has argued that those who joined the IS should be tried before local Syrian and Iraqi courts as these states have pledged to prosecute anyone involved with the IS (“Canada ‘disappointed’”). There are serious concerns about fair trials for the individuals who might be tried in these courts as the “lack of transparency in proceedings, the use of the death penalty, limited to no access to defense counsel in Iraqi courts, the collapse of a properly functioning judiciary and the extensive practice of torture in Syria” are common (Mehra and Paulussen). Jack Letts, a captured foreign fighter who was stripped of his UK citizenship, desires to be allowed back to the UK for trial. Letts states, “I deserve what comes to me. But I just want it to be appropriate…not just haphazard, freestyle punishment in Syria” (“Canada ‘disappointed’”). Letts’ case demonstrates the necessity for the UK to uphold its responsibility as a state to prosecute its citizens, since it has the capability to do so, and because trials held in Syria or Iraq violate basic human rights.

Legal Obligations

Binding UN Security Council Resolutions, specifically 2178 and 2396, obligate states to bring terrorists to justice and implement prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration strategies for foreign fighters (Mehra and Paulussen). The Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture also obligate states to investigate and prosecute international crimes (Arraf 14). The Rome Statute holds that, “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community…must not go unpunished and their effective prosecution must be ensured by taking measures at the national level and by enhancing international cooperation” (Arraf 14). Admittedly, prosecuting foreign fighters is easier said than done. However, Western states have criminalized the act of going abroad to join the IS since proving the acts committed while abroad is difficult due to the absence of evidence of the alleged crimes and the possible inadmissibility of evidence gained through military intelligence operations (Jenkins 17). Additionally, Western IS recruits who were active on social media during their time in Syria or Iraq, potentially offer self-incriminating material, but often used their noms de guerre, or “war name,” and it is difficult to connect a cyber identity with a specific individual (Jenkins 17). Not only does the UK need to uphold the international legal standards of denationalization, but there are moral obligations as well to follow. The world can become a dark place once moral obligations are disregarded and ignored.

Moral Obligations

States, such as Syria and Iraq, are often left with former foreign fighters, for which they are not legally responsible (Mehra and Paulussen) and their citizens deserve to be considered when weighing the options of dealing with foreign fighters. Demonstrating to the world that a state, such as the UK, is trying to solve a problem rather than passing it off to another state would set an example of how the issue of foreign fighters should be handled.

In addition, ensuring the dignity of IS victims in Iraq and Syria is certainly a moral obligation of the UK and reason enough to repatriate and prosecute its citizens who were involved with the group abroad. Investigating the atrocities carried out by the IS, such as mass murders, kidnappings, rape, and beheadings, and prosecuting those who are guilty is imperative. Not only does this allow some justice for victims of the IS but, those who are prosecuted could serve as a resource to provide evidence in other prosecutions (Jenkins 17). Stripping citizenship of foreign terrorist fighters may leave the UK feeling safe and free from obligation but this decision affects the state which has already suffered enough, and now has to deal with the UK’s radicalization and the terrorism problem on its soil. Bert Koenders, the former Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that:

We keep referring to those people as foreign terrorist fighters. The uncomfortable truth is that they are not foreign at all. They may be foreigners in the countries where they are going to. But in reality, they are our compatriots, our acquaintances, the classmates of our kids, the guys and girls we see in our supermarkets. They are part of our societies. Perhaps the only thing that’s foreign to us is their mentality (Mehra and Paulussen).

In the Name of National Security

The UK has continuously justified the denationalization of “dangerous people” by claiming that this makes the country more secure while also decreasing the risk of terrorism. As acknowledged by Blakeley et al., there is no evidence that suggests revoking citizenship is effective in deterring potential terrorists and terrorist acts (7). There is no evidence that stripping citizenship will deter a potential terrorist “any more or better than the prospect of a criminal conviction and lengthy imprisonment or, for that matter, the risk of blowing oneself up, getting killed or executed, or being detained indefinitely, rendered, or tortured” (Macklin 5). In fact, engagement in terror activities may become easier, if an individual is stripped of their citizenship, depending on the destination of the denationalized individual, which then could pose a threat to global security (Macklin 5). Essentially, denationalization enhances the “discretionary and arbitrary” power of the state “at the expense of all citizens, and of citizenship itself” (Macklin 6). While it is acknowledged that repatriating and prosecuting suspected foreign fighters can be difficult, it is certainly not impossible. Repatriation and prosecution are the best option in terms of a security perspective, especially in the long term. The UK could benefit from a controlled return of a foreign fighter as the individual could otherwise be released, escape punishment, join another terrorist group, become involved in another conflict, and ultimately, still cause harm years later if left in Iraq or Syria (Mehra and Paulussen). The UK, with its leading denationalization efforts, will now have to face the various consequences of taking this approach on the issue of its foreign fighters.

Analysis

The UK’s state stripping policy of foreign fighters has become its primary method when confronting the War on Terror as it allows the state to keep alleged terrorists out of the country. It is interesting that the UK has one of the most comprehensive counter-terrorism programs in the world, yet it is unable to repatriate citizens who were involved in terrorism. The UK is setting a dangerous precedent, which has already influenced other European states to strip the citizenship of foreign fighters or persons associated with a foreign terrorist group, such as the IS. A message is certainly being displayed to the international community that even one of the most advanced states in the world with a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, such as the UK, is unwilling and supposedly unable to repatriate or ensure the prosecution of foreign fighters or those associated with foreign terrorist groups. Even the use of the term “foreign fighter” accomplishes very little. Not all Westerners who flee their homes to join the IS become combatants and engage in violence. It is a term that feels overused and has acted as an excuse to allow states like the UK to continue its denationalization policy with no repercussions. Some may have joined the IS in Iraq and Syria to demonstrate solidarity, take a stand against oppressive regimes, offer meaning or purpose in one’s life, boost one’s self-esteem, offer one a sense of heroism and camaraderie, or false promises of a glamorous life (Barrett 17).

The UK has cheapened the value of citizenship and has arguably set a dangerous example by reversing “a long-standing ban on citizenship-stripping where doing so would leave someone stateless,” possibly influencing other states to follow suit (Galey and Ross). Abandoning terror suspects abroad is assumed to be easier than prosecuting them in their home countries, which has led to the UK’s decision to continue to denationalize foreign fighters.

Conclusion

The UK’s counter-terrorism strategy contains an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality, and no-longer-the-problem-of-the-state mindset. As the UK continues to denationalize its citizens, further research should seek to determine the effectiveness of the state’s current counter-terrorism method via denationalization by conducting an impact assessment.

 

Works Cited

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Travis, Alan. “UK can strip terror suspects of citizenship, European judges rule.” The Guardian, 9 Mar. 2017, www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/mar/09/terror-suspects-british-citizenship-european-ruling. Accessed 17 Oct. 2019.

Verkaik, Robert. “Paedophile stripped of his British citizenship and facing deportation to India” The Telegraph, 23 Dec. 2018, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/12/23/paedophile-stripped-british-citizenship-facing-deportation-india/. Accessed 17 Oct. 2018.

@BBCNewsnight. “‘I think this is a very dangerous decision, it does create this perception that there is a two tier system and a system that’s frank racist’ King’s College London’s Shiraz Maher believes it is ‘blatantly’ racist to remove Ms Begum’s citizenship.’” Twitter, 19 Feb. 2019, 3:03PM, twitter.com/BBCNewsnight/status/1097995001278025728. Accessed 18 October 2019.

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