Should the state take away passports from terrorists? A definite yes

Most citizens don’t like terrorists and think they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.  I suppose there is something about terrorism – the targeting of innocent people, the levels of carnage, the boastful statements by groups and threats of future attacks – that really bothers people.  It is hard to find anyone to defend terrorists, Omar Khadr notwithstanding.  Few protest when terrorists who are arrested before they can inflict their slaughter or survive their acts (i.e. not suicide bombers or those killed by law enforcement agencies like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau in October 2014) receive long sentences.

But what of other punishments?  What about citizenship revocation? Or restrictions on travel?  Or passport seizure?   Or peace bonds?  All of these have come up for debate in Canada, with the last two in particular used on many occasions.  Are they all valid or needed?  What are the arguments for and against?

I have already written a lot about peace bonds in the past (review: I don’t think they are a good tool for counter terrorism) so I will focus here on passport seizure and citizenship revocation.  My views are mixed: absolute support for the former but not for the latter, except for in very narrow circumstances.

First passports.  These travel documents are issued by the state and are a privilege, not a right.  No citizen has blanket entitlement to a passport no matter what people think.  They are the property of the government and can be seized when warranted.  And being a terrorist and/or belonging to a terrorist group is clearly one of those occasions on which a passport should be taken away.  As a nation in the international community Canada (and every other country for that matter) has a legal, and I would add moral, obligation to not allow its citizens to leave to engage in terrorist activity.  This requirement has not always been observed, either through negligence or ignorance, as we have seen in the cases of the thousands of ‘foreign fighters’ who left to hook up with terrorist entities such as Islamic State (IS) or when our own have participated in terrorist plots abroad (the role played by two residents of London, Ontario in the 2013 In Amenas gas plant massacre in Algeria would be a good example of this).  When we know of violent extremist intent outside our borders we have no option other than to detain and prevent travel through the removal of passports.  Just ‘letting them go’ should never be an option.  They may decide to strike here if we nix their departure, but that is another issue.

Citizenship revocation is very different to my mind.  This matter has come up once again in the UK as that country struggles with a very serious and largely unmanageable homegrown terrorist problem.  Here is the rub.  Citizenship is normally conferred on a person based on where they are born.  We all have at least one citizenship.  It can also be acquired in a second country through a process of naturalisation.  No one should be ‘stateless.’  Citizenship can only be taken away in most cases if it is obtained via naturalisation and where the process itself was fraudulent.  For example, if an individual lied on an application form or failed to disclose some important information, there may be grounds for revocation.  In Canada for example, since November 2015 a total of 19 people have seen their Canadian citizenship annulled because they failed to own up to crimes committed while a permanent resident or before immigrating here.  This strikes me as fair as it is an abuse of process.

The Harper government tried to extend this power to those who happen to be dual nationals and who were convicted of terrorism in Canada.  The Trudeau Liberals famously campaigned on the slogan ‘a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian’ and nixed the Conservative proposed law.  So, who is in the right here?  I side with the Trudeau government not because I am an apologist for terrorism (I sure hope that is beyond doubt by now) but because it does nothing to address the issue of how terrorists are created.  Every single case that I am aware of since 9/11 of homegrown terrorists involved individuals radicalised here in Canada.  This means that we are not faced with an onslaught of people who come to our shore already violent extremists.  The mere fact that their descent to jihadism took place here should tell people that they are ours: we own them.  Removing their Canadian citizenship (which, by the way can only be done where someone is a dual citizen as we cannot render people ‘stateless’) may feel good but it is clearly not an answer to violent radicalisation.   Cancellation of a (second) citizenship should be viable only when it can be demonstrated that it was obtained dishonestly and not for offences, including terrorism, committed AFTER it has been (legitimately) received.

I expect that many will not like this position and I can only imagine the reaction I will get once I post this to social media.  I nevertheless stick to my views and still believe that we have many tools in our legal toolkit to deal with terrorism.  We don’t need a knee-jerk resort to citizenship removal, no matter how good it makes us feel.


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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