Pulling back the welcome mat

In the struggle to come up with strategies to deal with violent extremism (notice I didn’t say “War on Terror”?) a number of policies, strategies and measures are continually being proposed by governments, academics, experts and thinktanks around the world.  There is even some attempt at coordinating positions and coming to some agreement on what works and what doesn’t through organisations such as the Global CounterTerrorism Forum (of which Canada is a member).

One strategy that is getting more and more airtime in some countries is removing citizenship from convicted terrorists.  It is now being proposed in Canada as the federal government says it wants to take back the Canadian citizenship granted to Hiva Alizadeh, who pleaded guilty late last year to terrorism conspiracy in Ottawa (see article here).  Australia and the UK have also mused about putting this tool in the CVE kit.

The debate surrounding citizenship is not new in this country.  Some have long suggested that naturalised citizens who commit serious crimes (like murder) should have their status yanked and punted from Canada.  I recall a lot of attention being paid to Jamaican Canadians who committed crimes in the Toronto area a few years back.

The trick of course is that you cannot take away someone’s citizenship if they only have one: i.e. you cannot render someone stateless (kinda like Tom Hanks in The Terminal).  All countries, I think, abide by that rule.

So what about Mr. Alizadeh?  After all, he is a naturalised Canadian, having immigrated here from Iran in the early 2000s.  Why shouldn’t we take away what we all know is a membership card to the best country in the world?  He had his chance to become a contributing citizen and instead he went for door number two and became a terrorist. Bad choice.

I must confess I am standing on the fence on this issue (how Canadian!).  I understand the visceral desire to remove a valued privilege from those who have truly abused it.  Not to mention the disgust at having to pay for a terrorist’s time in our prisons.

But I do see two counterarguments as well.

First, shouldn’t we have to deal with those who are convicted in Canada?  He planned his act here, was followed here, arrested here, tried here and pleaded guilty here.  So in a sense he is our problem – remember we gave him citizenship.  Besides, if we deport him, what is the guarantee that the country on the receiving end will know what to do with him?  Are we not just displacing rather than solving the issue?

Secondly, and this may come as a shock to some, but Mr. Alizadeh is an anomaly.  The vast majority of the small number of people who radicalise and join terrorist groups or plan acts here were born and raised in Canada. I don’t think you can cancel the status of someone born here, nor can you deport them elsewhere.  Take Momin Khawaja, the first person charged and convicted under Canada’s anti-terrorism laws.  He was born in Ottawa: where would you suggest we deport him to – Halifax?  Hence citizenship revocation will not be applicable in most cases.

It’ll be interesting to see where this debate goes in the months and years to come.  Canada will continue to draw hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year keen to start a new life.

And they all won’t be angels.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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