In the aftermath of James Foley’s killing and the concern that his killer may be from the UK, the right to British citizenship has been placed firmly at the centre of the debate about modern terrorism.
Politicians are clamouring to take citizenship away from Britons who take up arms for militant Islamist groups but this is an ill-advised strategy that could do more harm than good.
Current legislation allows the British government can rescind citizenship from people who have dual nationality or if they are a naturalised Briton. But because it is now believed that a number of Islamic State fighters were born in the UK, two senior politicians, Boris Johnson and David Davis, have led calls to strip British jihadists of their citizenship even if they were born in the UK and hold no alternative citizenship.
Yet it is unclear whether removing citizenship will help or hinder counter-terrorism efforts. This is an issue that is rarely discussed, except in terms of its implications for human rights. But even if we don’t consider the human rights arguments, taking such drastic steps would simply ne a bad counter-terrorism strategy.
Citizenship in a counter-terrorism context can function as a form of control, it can shape your world-view and identity, and can be used as an incentive or disincentive.
As a form of control, the removal of citizenship may be counter productive to counter-terrorism efforts though. If the security services know a militant was involved in extremist activity, their ability to monitor them for intelligence gathering in the UK would actually be strengthened if that person had citizenship and remained in the country or returned to it after fighting abroad.
When it comes to reducing the risk of offending or re-offending, incarceration is a far more effective tool than removing citizenship. The rate of re-offending is fairly low among militants upon their release from prison compared to those who have their citizenship removed or where they don’t have citizenship at all. Guantanamo Bay is an example of this phenomenon in action. The risk of recidivism has been shown to be much higher among ex-prisoners of the US prison when they are stateless or if they were deported upon their release.
Even removing citizenship from those with dual nationality may be a bad move in some cases. There are some countries that can’t necessarily be trusted to monitor or rehabilitate extremists. Saudi Arabia’s programme has been one which has specifically been questioned in terms of its effectiveness.
In addition, if militants who have dual nationality are deported then they might be removed from their families and positive social networks. It has been shown that families can play a positive role in encouraging de-radicalisation, and removing citizenship may just push extremists into closer dependency on the networks which have radicalised them.
Our citizenship is part of our identity and how we see ourselves. It can, as a result, have an effect on who we see as a friend and an enemy. It’s true that a possible lack of a shared identity in the first place may in fact be what motivates some calls for citizenship to be removed but that overlooks what could be a potential long-term counter-terrorism asset.
The threat of removing British citizenship will have little effect as an incentive not to re-offend in the first few years of an extremist’s return and, in fact, over the long term, citizenship becomes a powerful tool in the opposite direction. Ex-jihadists who come to self-identify as British and oppose violence have been recognised as important in counter-terrorism work because they often have greater credibility in their communities when they try to counter extremist narratives.
Finally, it’s important to remember that many of the IS fighters returning may actually be seeking an exit route and disengagement needs to be encouraged through incentives.
Many young people have been motivated to join IS for adventure and this feeling tends to pass relatively fast, in many cases to be replaced by feelings of disillusionment and burnout. Many militant groups have been defeated by providing a way out for disillusioned members and removing citizenship reduces that possibility for little in return.