The British government’s decision to strip the citizenship of a teenager who joined ISIS in Syria is a rebuke of the Trump administration, is questionable under international law, and may unwittingly bolster the Islamic State’s propaganda narrative.
Shamima Begum was a 15-year-old high school student when she left her home in London four years ago with two friends to travel to Syria and join ISIS. British media outlets discovered her in a refugee camp last week, where she said she had been married to a Dutch ISIS fighter and had given birth to three children. The first two died from malnutrition and disease, and Begum says she wants to return home to raise the third in Britain.
Begum did not exactly help her case with interviews in which she was unrepentant about joining ISIS, said she was unbothered by seeing the severed heads of the group’s victims, and claimed the 2017 Manchester attack that killed 22 people at a concert was justified. On Tuesday, Begum’s family received a letter from the British government’s Home Office informing them that she had been stripped of her citizenship. A government spokesman said the decision was made for “the safety and security of Britain and the people who live here.”
With ISIS’s “caliphate” on the verge of losing its last sliver of territory, many of the thousands of people who joined the group from around the world are looking to return to home, creating a dilemma for their countries of origin. On Saturday, President Trump tweeted, “The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them……..” Begum was not a fighter and is not in custody, but the British government’s decision in her case suggests it is in no hurry to comply with Trump’s request.
The U.S. is not immune to this dilemma either. The New York Times reported Tuesday on the case of two American wives of ISIS fighters who are now looking to return home and seeking to have the passports they destroyed reissued. Unlike in Britain, it’s extremely difficult for the United States to strip someone of citizenship, even if he or she takes up arms against the U.S. Even al-Qaeda commander Anwar al-Awlaki was still a U.S. citizen when he was killed by a U.S. drone in 2011, despite attempts by members of Congress to denationalize him.
[Update, Feb. 20, 2:30 p.m. Perhaps I spoke too soon. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has issued a statement saying that one of the women, Hoda Muthana of Alabama, is “not a U.S. citizen and will not be admitted into the United States.” It’s unclear if this means she was never a U.S. citizen, which would contradict her lawyer’s claims, or if she lost her citizenship by joining ISIS, which would be an extremely controversial move likely to bring legal challenge.]
As the BBC reports, British law allows the government to deprive someone of citizenship if it is “conducive to the public good,” as long as doing so does not render him or her stateless. (The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, and several subsequent treaties, prohibit depriving someone of nationality.)
This is a little dicey in Begum’s case, as she is not currently a citizen of any country other than Britain. Begum’s mother is Bangladeshi, which means she may be entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship. But Bangladesh’s foreign minister today put out a definitive statement rejecting this argument, saying “There is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh.”
She has also said she may apply for Dutch citizenship, via her Dutch husband, though it’s hard to imagine the Netherlands welcoming her with open arms.
The U.K.’s opposition Labour Party has opposed the Home Office’s decision on the grounds that making Begum stateless is “not just a breach of international human rights law but is a failure to meet our security obligations to the international community.” Begum and her family will almost certainly appeal the decision.
Beyond the narrow legal question, there are other reasons to be concerned about the Begum decision as a precedent, even if you have no sympathy for her case. For one thing, leaving former ISIS members stuck in legal limbo in the Middle East could be a recipe for further radicalization and violence. For another, it serves the Islamic State’s toxic propaganda.
ISIS always sought to distinguish itself from other Jihadi groups through its claims to political sovereignty. That messaging highlighted its efforts to erase the borders of what it considered illegitimate states like Iraq and Syria, and ISIS often publicized videos of foreign fighters burning the passports of their home countries. So, the notion that British citizens ceased to be British when they traveled to join ISIS—though not explicitly the government’s argument—supports the idea that the organization was something resembling an actual “state” rather than a group of terrorists and criminals.