Taking away citizenship as a counter terrorism tool is fraught with challenges

There are many ways to counter terrorism: citizenship revocation is one, but it is hard.

HOMELAND SECURITY TODAY — 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.

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)

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 phenomenon of ‘birth tourism’ whereby pregnant women, often from Asia, travel to give birth in Canadian hospitals. Where all this goes in under debate now).

Modern terrorism has thrown a wrench into all this. In hundreds of countries citizens have radicalised 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 organise 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 US 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 US 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 US 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.

Phil Gurski worked in security intelligence in Canada for more than 30 years and is the author of five books on terrorism.


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

Phil Gurski
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2 thoughts on “Taking away citizenship as a counter terrorism tool is fraught with challenges

  1. The US do have the right to revoke the citizenship of anyone whom it sees as a risk in the national security. Since it’s the country that grants citizenship then the US also have the power to strip the citizenship.

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