Revoking citizenship is not an answer to ISIS returnee question

The UK may have created a bigger problem than might have been expected had Begum been allowed to return and prosecuted.
Saturday 23/02/2019
 A video grab shows Shamima Begum talking to a BBC reporter. (Twitter) 
 A video grab shows Shamima Begum talking to a BBC reporter. (Twitter) 

Britain has answered US President Donald Trump’s call for European countries to take back their nationals from among the 800 Islamic State (ISIS) fighters captured in Syria.

Britain deprived Shamima Begum, the teenage wife of a Dutch ISIS fighter, of her citizenship. In the process, the United Kingdom may have created a bigger problem than might have been expected had Begum been allowed to return and prosecuted.

The British decision appears to create a wedge between white and non-white British-born citizens, said Fahad Ansari, a London-based Irish solicitor who specialises in UK immigration and nationality law.

Ansari cited the difference in treatment of Begum, the UK-born daughter of immigrants, and Jack Letts, a white British-Canadian national. Letts was captured in Syria last year fighting for ISIS and was included in an agreement late last year between Canada and the Kurdish administration in north-eastern Syria for repatriation to Canada, where he had never previously lived.

On February 23, reports emerged of Letts pleading from Syrian prison to be allowed to return to the United Kingdom. Ansari said: "Neither country has taken away his citizenship and neither country is helping him.”

As with Begum, Britain never expressed any enthusiasm to take Letts back and, just as with Begum, said it could not offer consular services to Letts because these had been suspended. Here the similarities end. Letts has not been deprived of his British citizenship.

Ansari said: “The power to deprive UK citizens of their citizenship can only be used against the children of immigrant parents, meaning that the application of the policy is inherently discriminatory.” He added that Britain’s growing tendency to revoke citizenship “is nothing more than a return to the mediaeval punishment of banishment and exile against those who were always perceived to be ‘foreign’.”

Ansari means the ancient Roman punishment of “proscription” or civic and literal death. It is true that the British government has moved at great speed to cast Begum out of the fold. UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid is understood to have done so on the premise that, through her Bangladeshi mother, Begum automatically carries Bangladeshi nationality and that she has until her 21st birthday to apply to retain it.

However, the logistics of applying for and being accepted as a Bangladeshi citizen are likely to be difficult for Begum. She is ensconced in Al Hol refugee camp in north-eastern Syria and can probably neither make an evidence-based case for citizenship nor expect to have it sympathetically heard by the Bangladeshis.

Bangladesh is unlikely to be keen on someone Britain has deemed undesirable and a security threat. Ansari said this makes Begum “de facto stateless.” In fact, in a February 20 statement, Bangladesh asserted: “Ms Begum is not a Bangladeshi citizen. She is a British citizen by birth and never applied for dual nationality with Bangladesh… there is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh.”

There should be little surprise at this. Bangladesh doesn’t owe Begum anything but Britain, it could be argued, does. As a British-born-and-bred woman, Begum should have been returned from Syria and put on trial in open court for having allegedly committed one of the many offences listed under the United Kingdom’s counterterrorism laws. Justice would have been done and seen to be done.

John Walker Lindh, who was called the “American Taliban,” is a case in point. An early recruit to al-Qaeda, Lindh was 20 when he was found fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. The United States was trying to oust the Taliban, which had provided a haven for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his fighters.

Lindh’s sympathies became a matter of highly charged debate in the United States. Even so, he was returned to America, rather than to Guantanamo Bay as happened with non-American jihadist prisoners, and incarcerated after a plea bargain. Lindh, now 38, is due for release in May and, by some accounts, prison has neither served to rehabilitate him nor to make him repent.

Begum and the other Westerners linked to ISIS might display similar defiance and remorselessness but that is no argument for not accepting them back and prosecuting them. David Anderson, a barrister who formerly reviewed UK’s terrorism legislation, said stripping citizenship may have been a “far simpler” option for Britain than letting Begum return but “it could be seen as an abdication of responsibility… (for) someone who was radicalised in our country.”

The point is the United States never questioned the logic of returning Lindh, though the Trump administration seems less willing to repatriate a New Jersey-born Yemeni woman who lived in the so-called caliphate for four years. Hoda Mothana says she wants to return to the United States but this may not be allowed.

Britain has stripped Begum of her nationality, thus washing its hands off her (though not responsibility for her baby, who was born while she was British) but there are thousands of people like Begum who will have to be dealt with by Europe one way or the other.