Returning fighters Part II: Speak No Evil
The second part of this series discusses updates in some pertinent cases of returning ISIS members and examines the implications of statements surrounding the issue made by leading political figures, specifically in how they affect government policy – and perhaps more importantly, the perception of that policy – in dealing with returning fighters and support personnel.
Since the first part of this series was published on February 18, 2019, several key events have taken place in regards to returning ISIS members. Any of these events can serve as precedent for a government’s official policy on returning ISIS members, or alternatively, how the unique conditions of each case (or, potentially, the revolving doors of cabinet ministers and federal governments) individually may make it into an outlier, standing as an exception.
Previous statements by politicians, typically on the campaign trail or as a convenient soundbite, oftentimes prove to be inconvenient or inconsistent when confronted with the reality of national security, counterterrorism, and the public perception thereof. All of this makes the work of the already overburdened and typically underfinanced investigatory and prosecutorial personnel yet even harder.
Shamima Begum, the now-19-year old woman from the UK who fled east London to join ISIS in Syria at the age of 15, was informed by letter in late February from the Home Office that the order had been given under the British Nationality Act to revoke her UK citizenship. The argument was made by Home Secretary Sajid Javid that he was: “Satisfied that deprivation (of citizenship) is conducive to the public good,” as the Act stipulates, and that she was purportedly eligible to apply for Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents.
In response, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam retorted that Begum is, in fact: “Not a Bangladeshi citizen… she is a British citizen… there is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh.” Furthermore, Begum gave birth to a son, who was technically eligible for UK citizenship. However, in recent days, reports have emerged that the baby died in the refugee camp.
In consideration of the comments from Bangladesh – a country long afflicted with its own Islamist terrorism issues – it seems likely that Begum would be rendered permanently stateless by the Home Office’s order, thereby making the move to deprive her of citizenship technically illegal, as admitted by Javid. In recent years, the UK has stripped more than 100 of its former citizens of UK citizenship, but these cases only legally stand if the individual holds another citizenship. The high-profile legal and contentious political proceedings – typically divided along party lines – surrounding Begum remain ongoing.
US President Donald Trump tweeted rather forebodingly on February 16, 2019: “The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them.”
Four days later, the President tweeted; “I have instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and he fully agrees, not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the Country!” referring to a 24-year-old Alabama woman who fled the US in 2014 to join ISIS, with funds provided by her parents that were intended for her college tuition. While in Syria, Muthana served as a mouthpiece of propaganda for the terrorist group, tweeting encouragement for acts of violence against American “cowards,” and to: “Spill all of their blood or rent a big truck n (sic) drive all over them. Kill them.” (January 7, 2015 and March 19, 2015, respectively).
The legal argument currently being made by Muthana’s family is that her father, a Yemini diplomat based in the US, had purportedly been discharged from his diplomatic position one month before she was born, thereby making her case one of birthright citizenship, while the US government (both under Obama and Trump) states the inverse – that she has no legal basis to claim citizenship, no valid US passport, no right to a passport, nor any visa to travel to the US. In response, her family filed an emergency lawsuit on February 21, 2019 to counter the decision. Unlike Begum, Muthana has expressed purported regret for her actions, vowed to condemn ISIS, and has previously stated that she would be willing to co-operate in the event criminal charges are filed.
When discussing Canadian cases, it is pertinent to recall a prominent election slogan employed by now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “A Canadian is Canadian is a Canadian,” in arguing that terrorists, convicted or otherwise, should be allowed to maintain their Canadian citizenship (even if they are, indeed, a dual citizen). In a Winnipeg town hall meeting in July 2015, PM Trudeau stated: “Because the question is, as soon as you make citizenship for some Canadians conditional on good behaviour, you devalue citizenship for everyone.”
When Trudeau was elected shortly thereafter, one of his first initiatives was repealing the Conservative-passed Bill C-24, which permitted the federal government to do what the UK and Australia have done in dozens of cases – rescind Canadian citizenship from dual nationals who are found to have committed serious offences like high treason, espionage, and terrorism. When Bill C-24 was revoked, Canada’s new federal Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Ahmed Hussen, tweeted: “Protecting your citizenship is our number one priority.” And, in response, Zakaria Amara – the Jordanian-born leader of the infamous al Qaeda-inspired 2006 ‘Toronto 18’ terrorist conspiracy – automatically had his Canadian citizenship (which had been rescinded two years earlier) restored.
Interestingly, and perhaps hypocritically, Trudeau’s Liberals kept other provisions in Bill C-24 in effect, such as its provision to allow the government to revoke, without legal proceeding, Canadian citizenship in cases of misrepresentation. The 184 revocation decisions made by the Government in its first ten months matched the total number of decisions made between 1988 and the end of the previous Conservative government under Stephen Harper in October 2015.
Insofar as citizenship is concerned, the mantra of “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” restricts almost any lateral movement by the federal government to deal with the contextual specifics of Canadian citizens who knowingly and willingly commit acts of extreme violence overseas, against civilians or Canadian and allied troops, and then turn around and beg for assistance from the same country to which they were irrevocably and existentially opposed.
Just like the UK, Australia, and to a lesser extent the US are setting precedent on the opposite side of the spectrum, Trudeau’s stance bears equally significant precedent in how the federal government is empowered to deal with returning violent extremists. When asked in early February about Canadian citizens detained in Syria, Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale stated: “We’ve heard the request… the fact of the matter remains that is a dangerous and dysfunctional part of the world, and we do not intend to endanger the lives of our consular or diplomatic officials.” In other words, Canada won’t stop ISIS members from returning to Canada, but it won’t do anything in official channels to aid them in that journey (perhaps hoping that such individuals are not able to make it back to Canada until after the upcoming federal election on October 21, 2019).
As exemplified by “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” on one side of the aisle and a presidential tweet urging countries to accept their nationals and then backpedalling on that policy all of four days later – official statements of intent by politicians in office and on the campaign trail are exactly that: formal statements that are de facto in utterance, and thereby translated into de jure policy positions. These statements have significant effect – politically and morally – and often they come to be diametrically opposed to the realist security and legal precautions or mandates that follow either simultaneously or soon thereafter. Once legal precedent is set, it exists as such for all citizens inside and outside of their respective national borders, regardless of their affiliation or the crimes they are alleged to have committed.
For the most part, it seems that the Canadian, American, and European approach (with some notable exceptions) remains one of unilateral pragmatism, rather than consistent, proactive, or durable policy positions that can counter and deter violent extremism at home and abroad. Governments have been told by their security officials for years, now, that the question of returning ISIS members to the West was going to be a major problem. The buck can only be passed for so far and for so long. Intelligence sharing among the Five Eyes partners, co-ordination among investigatory and prosecutorial entities, and a coherent and long-term government position that reconciles existing laws – or changes those laws to adequately respond to the changing reality on the ground – are needed in order to deter violent extremism at home, and effectively deal with militants who are now seeking to return to their lawful home countries after having wilfully committed, or wholeheartedly supported, acts of heinous violence abroad.
A third part of this series will explore the question of returning ISIS members from a strictly security and legal viewpoint, including three potential courses of actions that can be employed by law enforcement: criminal charges, terrorism peace bonds, and community/social service interventions.
CASEY BRUNELLE is a Canadian intelligence and strategic studies consultant with extensive experience in both the public and private sectors, specialising in counterterrorism, public safety, and geopolitics. A regular contributor to Crisis Response Journal, he is a graduate of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK, as well as the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada