A naturalization ceremony welcoming 61 new U.S. citizens from 39 countries on Ellis Island, New York, May 27, 2016. (Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler)

PERSPECTIVE: Taking Away Citizenship as a Counterterrorism Tool Is Fraught with Challenges

Citizenship is an important part of the modern world. Most of us are a citizen of at least one country. Having citizenship confers special privileges: the right to vote, the right to receive certain social assistance, the right to work, and a feeling of belonging. It should not be dismissed or used frivolously.

A lot of countries also grant citizenship to those who emigrate from their homelands to a new one (sometimes called ‘naturalized’). This process often takes some time – years in most cases – and is accompanied by all sorts of checks and reviews. After all, no state wants to bring in people with shady backgrounds who are capable of causing mayhem once they become ‘one of us.’

In my experience in Canada, the citizenship pathway is as good as it can be. The necessary agencies, including intelligence and law enforcement, are part of the decision-making process, ensuring to the greatest degree possible that we prevent ‘undesirables’ from making their new home in our nation. Is the system perfect? No, but it is very robust.

Under what conditions, then, should citizenship be revoked? We should assume here that the only type that can be removed is that which has been granted by the state: ordinarily those born in a country automatically receive it at birth (children of foreign diplomats may be an exception), and it far from clear whether there is anything that could – or should – lead a state to rescind birth citizenship (NB Canada is currently dealing with the phenomenon of ‘birth tourism’ whereby pregnant women, often from Asia, travel to give birth in Canadian hospitals. Where all this goes is under debate now.)

Modern terrorism has thrown a wrench into all this. In hundreds of countries citizens have radicalized to violence in accordance with an ideology, left the confines of their homeland, joined a group abroad and become part of it, committed atrocities in the group’s name on occasion and eventually seek to come home. Not surprisingly, few states want these individuals back as they could very well organize or commit acts of terrorism in their backyards. What can we do to prevent their return?

Under these circumstances, is citizenship revocation OK? Normally, no. Our governments take away what they have granted only if it can be demonstrated the process in place at the time of application was fraudulent. In other words, if so-and-so lied on a form and tried to hide certain facts from those investigating the claim, that application can be subsequently voided. This should not be controversial as all the relevant facts were not made available when needed and as a result the individual does not deserve to become one of us.

What, then, do we do in cases of terrorists, some of whom were born in our countries, some of whom got citizenship after having moved, but became terrorists later (sometime much, much later)? After all, the vast majority of terrorists are made not born. Can we take away their birthright/gift?

In the former case, no. Few if any countries have tried to do this and where they have they have tied themselves in legal knots. The UK has taken away the citizenship of ISIS member Shamima Begum despite the inconvenient fact that she was born in England. The government has tried to argue that she is ‘entitled’ to Bangladeshi citizenship as her ancestry lies in that country; hence, she has not been rendered stateless. Bangladesh sees the matter quite differently.

Then we have the case of Iyman Faris, an al-Qaeda terrorist who was found guilty and sentenced in 2003 for his role in a plot to cut the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge. A federal judge in Columbus, Ohio, stripped him of his naturalized U.S. citizenship after ruling that he had lied on immigration papers before becoming a citizen in 1999 (he entered the U.S. using the passport and visa of someone he’d met in Bosnia). The official also ruled that Faris’ terrorist affiliations demonstrated a lack of commitment to the U.S. Constitution.

Two years earlier another judge had rejected a similar request by the government, saying at the time there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Mr. Faris’ misrepresentations influenced the decision to grant him citizenship.

Where does this leave us? In a legal quandary, that’s where. The UK handling of Ms. Begum beggars disbelief as she is the citizen of one and only one country. The U.S. strategy in the case of Faris suggests that anyone who does anything illegal at any point in their life is at risk of having their citizenship clawed back. Neither case is ideal.

The bottom line is that Ms. Begum, and perhaps Mr. Faris, were radicalized where they lived and worked. They are a product of a part of our society – not a proud part, but a part nonetheless. Recalling citizenship merely displaces the problem: it does not solve it.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. (www.borealisthreatandrisk.com) and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). He worked as a senior strategic analyst at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) from 2001-2015, specializing in violent Islamist-inspired homegrown terrorism and radicalisation. From 1983 to 2001 he was employed as a senior multilingual analyst at Communications Security Establishment (CSE – Canada’s signals intelligence agency), specialising in the Middle East. He also served as senior special advisor in the National Security Directorate at Public Safety Canada from 2013, focusing on community outreach and training on radicalisation to violence, until his retirement from the civil service in May 2015, and as consultant for the Ontario Provincial Police’s Anti-Terrorism Section (PATS) from May to October 2015. He was the Director of Security and Intelligence at the SecDev Group from June 2018 to July 2019. Mr. Gurski has presented on violent Islamist-inspired and other forms of terrorism and radicalisation across Canada and around the world. He is the author of “The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West” (Rowman and Littlefield 2015) “Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security” (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), The Lesser Jihads: taking the Islamist fight to the world (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), An end to the ‘war on terrorism ’ and When religion kills: how extremist justify violence through faith (Lynne Rienner 2019). He regularly blogs and podcasts (An Intelligent Look at Terrorism – available on his Web site), and tweets (@borealissaves) on terrorism. He is an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT) in the Netherlands, a digital fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies at Concordia University, a member of the board at the National Capital Branch of the CIC (Canadian International Council) and an affiliate of the Canadian network for research on Terrorism Security and Society (TSAS). Mr. Gurski is a regular commentator on terrorism and radicalisation for a wide variety of Canadian and international media. He writes at www.borealisthreatandrisk.com.

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