Blog: Citizenship deprivation will strengthen IS jihadist ideology

Published 8 November 2019

Customs area at the International Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, ©Shutterstock.

Asser researcher Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi argues that the deprivation of citizenship of former IS fighters is not an effective sanction. ‘It actually strengthens jihadist ideology, which is based on the rejection of citizenship.’

By Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi

European countries, reluctant to repatriate their Islamic State militants from Syria, are instead more inclined to revoking their citizenship. Hot debates are currently taking place to determine the best way to deal with returning fighters, as evidenced by the current disagreement between the Dutch public prosecution service and Minister Grapperhaus (Justice and Security). The public prosecution service wants to bring the Dutch IS fighters to justice in the Netherlands as quickly as possible, writes the Dutch newspaper NRC, while the Minister wants to revoke the nationality of these so-called foreign fighters. 

Many academics and NGOs criticise citizenship deprivation of foreign fighters. The main argument is that when states facilitate the recourse to this measure, they also increase the risk of statelessness, especially when there is no clear requirement that the individual has a second nationality as a backup. But even when states are complying with international norms and ensuring that deprivation of citizenship will not lead to statelessness, the long-term effectiveness of such measure in countering terrorism is unsure. Moreover, I argue that revoking citizenships inherently strengthens jihadist ideology. 

Disbelief in citizenship, a condition to belong to IS
Even if often framed as a tool to protect security, the deprivation of citizenship - historically and by its function - also appears to be a sanction. The measure applies to individuals for embracing jihadist ideology; it condemns a behaviour.

But deprivation of citizenship is a sanction that uniquely replicates the very essence of the behaviour it condemns. IS foreign fighters embrace a jihadist ideology that actually draws on the withering national identity and citizenship. Numerous IS propaganda documents are aimed at deconstructing the idea and the emotional bond of belonging to a nation or a political community. These documents explicitly make disbelief in citizenship a condition for belonging to the group. The Dabiq, the online magazine used by IS for propaganda and recruitment, is telling:

Amongst the greatest deeds the muwahhid performs is his rejection of nationalism. Rather, his Islam is not correct until he disbelieves in nationalism, as nationalism declares people equal regardless of their religion, it does not discriminate between them accordingly, it limits the religion to a nationalist border, and it prohibits its expansion beyond.

Sanctions should have a function. An effective sanction can, for instance, exclude someone from the rest of the society. Or it can, by creating a fear of punishment, have a deterrent effect on other people tempted to join IS. A sanction can also be retributive; evaluate the harm caused and try to erase it through an equivalent sanction.

A sanction without function
When analysing deprivation of citizenship as a way to punish the acceptance of the jihadist ideology, the deterrent effect of such measure is considerably low. On the contrary, a state that pronounces such a measure, confirms to anybody who is tempted to join a jihadist group that the link with such group is more stable than their citizenship. In this case, deprivation of citizenship can even have the counterproductive effect of incentivising the tempted wrongdoers to reject their citizenship, and hence facilitate radicalisation.

It is hard to see how confirming a cornerstone of jihadist ideology (‘your citizenship link with your state is weak and fake, so you should join our community’) is performing a function of retribution, or of erasing the act. On the contrary, such a sanction falls into the trap set out by the jihadist ideology and actually further promotes its core policy, namely stripping the individual of their national identity.

Therefore, although deprivation of citizenship is an intuitively understandable reaction of a society - in an urge to exclude members who actively embrace a jihadist ideology that has caused great harm - it in fact holds the risk of reinforcing the ideology it aims to fight.

In the long run, the message sent through deprivation of citizenship can be extremely harmful. The decision to deprive citizens from their citizenship is not only problematic from a human rights perspective for the foreign fighters: it is counterproductive in the fight against terrorism, and perilous for society as a whole.

Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi is part of the Asser research strand Human dignity and human security in international and European law, which adopts as its normative framework a human rights approach to contemporary global challenges in the fields of counter-terrorism, international and transnational crimes, challenges at sea, new technologies & and artificial intelligence, non-discrimination and historical memory. It examines what it means to safeguard human dignity - also in relation to human security - in these areas.

Further reading
Blog: ‘Deprivation of nationality of Dutch IS fighters is counter-productive’
According to Dutch newspaper NRC, the Dutch public prosecution service and Minister Grapperhaus (Justice and Security) are taking opposing sides in the question of IS fighters. The public prosecution service wants to bring the Dutch IS fighters to justice in the Netherlands as quickly as possible, writes the newspaper, while the Minister wants to revoke the nationality of these so-called foreign fighters. This deprivation of nationality as a counter-terrorism measure is inefficient and even counter-productive, think Asser researchers Dr Christophe Paulussen and Dr Rumyana van Ark.

Countering terrorism through the stripping of citizenship: ineffective and counterproductive
In this perspective, Dr Christophe Paulussen examines the scope and nature of citizenship stripping as a counter-terrorism measure and argues that it stands out in comparison to other counter-terrorism measures. This is because of its highly symbolic nature, its far-reaching effects, as well as its emphasis on ‘addressing’ the problem by making it the problem of other states. (ICCT Perspective, 2018)

Citizenship stripping: Protecting national security of passing the buck?
While the United States and its allies are clearing out the last pocket of territory in Syria controlled by the jihadist group Islamic State (IS), and celebrating the end of the ‘Caliphate’, there is a debate raging in western countries about the potential return of citizens who went to fight with IS, and their families. In addition to long-running discussions about whether to repatriate the fighters to face western courts, and ‘rescue’ their wives and children, now the discussion is centred on the potential to take away their citizenships, to prevent them from returning. In this interview with Justice Hub, Dr Christophe Paulussen explains why this is now a big discussion point.

Should Europe uphold the right to return even for Daesh families?
European powers are yet to claim their citizens, who want to return home from former Daesh-held territories in Syria, posing a significant question over whether the legal principle of the right to return will be applied. An interview in TRT World, featuring Dr Christophe Paulussen.

‘Legislative fever is not a long-term solution for stopping terrorism incitement’
Legislators and policy-makers should put more emphasis, expertise, and resources towards resolving the root causes of terrorism, rather than trying to curb the spread of extremism by feverishly expanding counter-terrorism legislation. That is the main conclusion of a new ICCT Perspective ‘Incitement to Terrorism – Treating the Symptoms or Addressing the Causal Malady?’ by Asser researcher and ICCT research fellow Dr Rumyana Grozdanova.

Policy brief: ‘Counter-terrorism measures need to be evaluated’
Read the full policy brief in which Asser researcher Dr Berenice Boutin discusses methods for evaluating counter-terrorism measures and provides suggestions for policy-makers. 

Asser International Crimes Database
The International Crimes Database offers an extensive online collection of international crimes broadly defined, such as genocide, war crimes, terrorism and piracy. It provides access to a range of information, not just for scholars and practitioners (such as judges, prosecutors and defence counsel), but also for students, journalists, families and communities of victims of crimes. It also contains a specific tab dealing with cases of foreign fighters.