Is Germany’s Move to Strip Terrorist Citizenship the Best Route?

  • Dual-national citizens fighting in foreign terrorist movements could lose their German citizenship under a new law
  • Repatriation and prosecution might still be the better route, researcher argues `

Germany should repatriate its citizens who left to take part in violent terrorist movements abroad and prosecute or reintegrate them as appropriate, says Kilian Roithmaier, a researcher at the Asser Institute in the Netherlands, in a report published by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague.

This will ensure that they are bought to justice, he argues, but it does bring its own problems.

Like many countries, Germany has an issue with its citizens who left to join the global jihadist movement, notably the Islamic State (ISIS) and its now-defunct Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The German Federal Domestic Intelligence Service estimates that 1,050 Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) left Germany for Syria and Iraq and, so far, 350 have returned while 200 have died. A small number of dual citizens are known to be in custody in Syria and northern Iraq.

Governments are understandably often reluctant to repatriate individuals who have turned their back on their home country’s ideals. In June, the German parliament passed a new law that will deprive dual-citizen adults who have joined a “terrorist militia” of their German citizenship. This process is known as “statutory forfeiture” and can happen where the individual is of legal age and has taken part in combat operations abroad for an undefined terrorist group. There were already laws removing German citizenship from citizens who voluntarily enlist with the armed forces of a foreign state. The new law will target FTFs who fight for nonstate actors such as ISIS.

But there are already criminal laws against terrorist activity. So what will this law add other than to potentially target individuals and family members not involved in combat activity? It also means different treatment for those who carry out terrorist acts domestically. Such people face criminal sanction but not the loss of citizenship. This can appear discriminatory, the report says, and can feed the jihadi narrative and win recruits in disaffected communities.

The new German law will not be applied retroactively, but Roithmaier’s report discusses the options for foreign fighters already captured. Leaving FTFs to languish in local detention runs the risk that they may escape and disappear, especially if they end up effectively stateless, he says. With nowhere else to go, they may reappear in new or revived terrorist groups. Prosecuting locally is also hazardous. Judicial processes are not in good shape in places like Syria and Iraq. An international court specifically to prosecute ISIS fighters has been talked about, but it is thought politically unlikely.

The big difficulty with prosecution at home is obtaining enough evidence, the report notes, and the last thing anyone wants is dangerous individuals released into the community for want of evidence.

The report concludes that withdrawing German citizenship from dual-national suspects risks being the worst outcome.

“It runs the risk of creating factions of left-behind extremists that may escape any meaningful oversight, if all states shirk their responsibility towards them,” Roithmaier writes. “This will increase the danger of immersion and undetected reorganizations of terrorist networks.”

“Additionally, the measure may further the domestic alienation of certain individuals and communities, which can lead to domestic radicalization and social division,” he continues. “Both anticipated consequences suggest that the envisaged measure will in fact be counter-productive.”

The report recognizes that the phenomenon of FTF caught many countries by surprise. Fortunately, many countries are putting in place legal and other safeguards to prevent the future departure of FTFs on this scale, with the intent of reducing this problem in the future.

The report sees a global positive outcome if more states take back their FTFs rather than leave them to perhaps fight again, because it will scatter the core of ISIS fighters.

“If all states take over their fraction of the necessary surveillance and handling of returning FTFs, this will divide the burden while dispersing the movement, and will most successfully create long-term security,” argues Roithmaier.

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Phil Price is a multilingual writer and translator based in London, UK. A graduate of Oxford University, Phil went on to hold senior management positions in several major British and German companies, and spent time living and working in Germany and Poland as well the UK. For HSToday, Phil reviews the latest findings from academic research and international studies into all aspects of international terrorism and presents the key trends and insights.

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