You Can’t Fight Beheadings with Paperwork

Why stripping Britain’s ISIS militants of their passports is stupid, dangerous, and wrong

By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez


In the days after the gruesome murder of kidnapped American journalist James Foley, linguists focused on how his killer—a self-proclaimed member of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—spoke with a distinctly British accent. Now that same militant, known to the public as “Jihadi John,” appears to have beheaded another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, and is threatening a third captive, British security contractor David Cawthorne Haines. London, already aware — and weary — of British nationals enlisting with ISIS, is justifiably displeased: On Monday U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said he would grant British police the right to withhold passports from suspected terrorists traveling to the region.

Meanwhile Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s far-right party, UKIP, took the opportunity to attack two of his least favorite things: immigrants and welfare.

“It would be totally unforgivable and unacceptable for U.K. nationals who have made the decision to go and fight for Islamic State militants in the Middle East to be permitted to return to the U.K. and quietly slide back into our communities to take advantage of all that modern Britain has to offer,” Farage said, fretting about their potential to access free health care, government benefits, and social housing.

His proposed solution? Strip any British nationals fighting for ISIS of their citizenship. They have “rendered themselves effectively stateless,” Farage said: Why should the U.K. treat them as their own?

True, these men are stateless, at least in spirit — after all, the wannabe caliphate is unlikely to gain any sort of international recognition even if it does form a genuine Islamic State.

And it’s not illegal to disown some of these fighters already. British law has allowed for the denationalization of dual citizens suspected of terrorist ties since the early days of the war on terror (a law has been successfully invoked at least 53 times, according to a brilliant 2013 investigation by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism). And earlier this year the House of Lords passed an expanded version of this legislation that can actually render a Brit stateless if he or she was naturalized as an adult.

Taking away citizenship from suspected militants costs no money. It puts no soldiers’ lives directly at risk. It rouses up support for nationalist politicians. Most important, it makes it seem like governments are doing something.

The problem that in the short term, it’s totally pointless — and in the long term, it can even be dangerous.

First and foremost: Jihadi John probably doesn’t give a toss, as his countrymen would put it, about whether he remains in their ranks or not. His British accent didn’t prevent him from brutally murdering James Foley or Steven Sotloff; his British nationality, or lack of it, probably won’t stop him from doing the same again. It’s understandable that his government would want to distance itself from such an unsavory character — who wouldn’t? — but waving a pen and dissolving his standing as a Brit won’t change where he came from, it won’t magically make him him less fond of Marmite, and it won’t make him less inclined to use medieval forms of torture.

Denaturalization might even make the problem of “homegrown” terrorism worse. It’s not a stretch to imagine that a British Muslim who feels welcomed in her home country would be less inclined to fight in foreign wars than an individual whose membership in a community is constantly being threatened. Denaturalization campaigns drive home the idea that there are two types of British citizens: the real ones, and the fake ones who remain British until proven otherwise.

Disowning extremists with Western citizenship also validates the beliefs that these groups hold. Militants don’t think of the Islamic State as part of any existing organized nation. As the Wall Street Journal’s Anand Gopal put it in a recent interview with Vice, the fighters “have basically rejected the international order… and are claiming their own order, an Islamic order harking back to the caliphate days.”

In other words, the fundamentalists pay no heed to borders, conventions, sovereignty, and international niceties. Telling them they aren’t British anymore confirms exactly what they think — and suggests that they should come up with their own version of a state, one that rejects so-called British values. Which sounds an awful lot like what they’re doing.

Finally, like most ill-considered rules and regulations that came out of the war on terror, the most dangerous effect of denaturalization isn’t one that will be felt immediately. Moves like this have a long tail. It’s very difficult and costly to appeal these cases, and the reasoning behind revocation is often murky and non-transparent. What’s to stop the government from going after an average Brit with connections to Sana’a or Homs, whether in error or intentionally? The potential for overreach is enormous, especially because the legislation targets a group of people who are already discriminated against for simply being born in the “wrong” place, practicing the “wrong” religion, or having skin a few shades darker than British nationalists deem ideal. A law like this one also makes it easier to deport people legally living in the U.K. on tenuous grounds, and opens up the possibility of McCarthy-style witch hunts against people of Middle Eastern or African descent.

So far, the United States has held off on denationalizing its own “homegrown” terrorists, which seems surprising given that grandmas still need to take their shoes off at airport security on their way home to Florida. The reason for this isn’t executive restraint, but a robust precedent set by the Supreme Court in 1967 that prohibits the state from stripping individuals of their citizenship.

This has significantly curbed the country’s ability to deprive individuals of all stripes —including Edward Snowden to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — of certain rights that they are entitled to under U.S. law.

However, the U.S. has engaged in some moves that could be considered de facto citizenship-stripping. The most blatant is the assassination of American citizens abroad (your country of origin is pretty arbitrary if you’ve been blown to bits by a drone. Call it de-naturing). Then there’s also the cancellation of travel documents. Snowden famously had his U.S. passport invalidated to prevent him from leaving Hong Kong, and, as reported by Firedoglake and Al Jazeera America, hundreds of Yemeni-Americans were denied the right to renew their passports after a suspected fraud. There’s no evidence of a coordinated U.S. effort to deprive these individuals of their passports — and their ability to enjoy all the rights of an American citizen— but the effect is the same.

Combine American actions with the U.K.’s willingness to engage in formal denationalizations and you can get frightening scenarios like the ones Aviva Stahl describes in The Nation: Britons stripped of their citizenship and “suddenly and mysteriously rendered to the United States or killed in American drone strikes.” Stahl describes several situations that “raise the question of a tag-team effort by the U.K. and U.S.” where British denationalizations could lead to U.S. drone strikes “without fear of diplomatic repercussions.”

Stripping people of their citizenship puts the U.K. in the company of Myanmar and (sorry) the Nazis, who waged massive denationalization campaigns against Jews — hardly flattering associations.

It’s unlikely to make much of a difference when it comes to curbing the Islamic State’s barbaric actions. It sets a dangerous precedent for the treatment of immigrants in the U.K., giving the state a chance to expel them from their home without a moment’s notice. Finally, making fighters of a stateless terrorist group legally stateless implicitly endorses the idea that this group should form their own, post-national unit — which is precisely what ISIS wants, and what Western countries want to prevent. This kind of logic is unlikely to advance British interests at home, or abroad.

In fact, if the creeping prominence of ISIS tells us anything, it’s that ideologies tied to no state can be as scary as other countries forming “axes of evil.” The people fighting for these groups turn their backs on their nations. They cannot be contained by an eroding sense of national identity, or the laws that bind them back home. Telling them they’re no longer members of polite society is useless: It’s part of their plan.

But the fact that a country is withholding or canceling citizenship? That’s the fear that its grasp—its sovereignty, its values, its entire identity—is being weakened. What governments today need to understand is that rendering people stateless only legitimizes the new world that terrifies them so much.

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