Amid the anarchy of ISIS rule in Iraq and Syria, one rite of passage for some of the thousands of foreign radicals drawn to the group’s so-called caliphate was the burning of their passports.
ISIS propagandists would record and broadcast footage of extremists setting fire to the documents, renouncing their citizenship, pledging loyalty to the organisation’s pseudo-state and calling for terror attacks in their home countries.
In contrast, Shamima Begum – the East London schoolgirl who travelled to Syria to join ISIS in 2015 – took a case against the UK government for stripping her of her British citizenship on national security grounds. That she lost her legal challenge this week not only revives the thorny issue of states removing legal recognition of their citizens suspected of serious crimes, it also calls the policy itself into question.
The UK government argued that Ms Begum was entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship by descent, but Bangladesh has disputed this, rendering her, in effect, stateless. Ms Begum was born in the UK and thus was born a British citizen. Does turning a citizen into a legal non-person make the world any safer? Arguably, no. For the determined radical, committed to remaining active, passports and ID documents can always be forged.
The policy also makes the suspect somebody else’s problem. In north-eastern Syria’s sprawling Al Hol camp, Kurdish militias now play the role of ad hoc jailers, exercising shaky control over more than 60,000 people, mostly Iraqis and other foreigners, linked to ISIS. Ms Begum – who now cannot return to the UK – resides in another Syrian camp, Al Roj, which is home to more than 2,500 people suspected of ISIS involvement.
Jettisoning unwanted citizens also frustrates the judicial process. Instead of going through the difficult procedure of investigating crimes, gathering evidence and presenting a case for prosecution, the authorities can abandon the erstwhile citizen, who never stands trial in their home country.
The 2019 decision to strip Ms Begum of her British nationality also distracted from the fact that the UK already has legal mechanisms for trying underage suspects as in the 1993 case of James Bulger, the Liverpool toddler murdered by two 10-year-old boys.
Some countries whose citizens have taken up with ISIS or other extremists approach this very differently. In March 2016, French president Francois Hollande dropped plans to strip convicted terrorists of their nationality, just a few months after extremists murdered 130 people in Paris.
In most circumstances, Americans cannot be deprived of their citizenship. Even John Walker Lindh, the American who joined the Afghan Taliban and was detained as an enemy combatant while trying to kill US soldiers in 2001, kept his passport and was tried in his home country.
In April last year it was reported that Germany repatriated several citizens – 10 women and 27 children – from Syria. Four of the women accused of membership of a foreign terrorist organisation were arrested on their arrival at Frankfurt airport.
What the citizenship policy obscures is the focus required on stopping extremism at its roots. The UK government’s anti-radicalisation programme, Prevent, has been the subject of much criticism. An independent review of the strategy, eventually released on February 8, had initially been due for publication at the end of 2021 but was delayed amid political wrangling.
Nonetheless, working with community and religious leaders to counter the extremists’ message and offering ways out for those already drawn in by radical groups remains the best way to stymie the activities of those determined to target and exploit the young.
Citizenship brings rights and entitlements but it also comes with responsibilities and accountability – a fact lost on those foreign fighters burning their passports in Iraq and Syria, drawn like a moth to a flame by ISIS’s Khmer Rouge-style nihilism. If a citizen is suspected of a crime, not matter how appalling, they should stand trial and be judged accordingly. A citizen of nowhere can end up accountable to no one.