Will a Dutch man who fought in Syria be stripped of his citizenship?

Published 4 July 2019

Maher H. is facing the possibility of losing his Dutch citizenship after fighting in Syria. The court is yet to decide. ©Shutterstock

A Dutch-Moroccan citizen is waiting for a court to decide whether his Dutch nationality will be revoked after he admitted to fighting in Syria. Although his name was removed from the terrorist watch list in 2018, Maher could still lose his Dutch citizenship.

Asser researcher Dr Rumyana van Ark (née Grozdanova), and expert on counterterrorism, comments that the timeline of events is particularly significant in this case. “Maher returned to the Netherlands in 2014, two years before the relevant legislation came into force. He has since admitted disappointment and regret. More importantly, after his conviction, he appears to have actively engaged with a reintegration programme as evidenced by his voluntary extension of the probation process and regular contact with a theologian.”

His removal from the national terrorism sanctions list in 2018 is a strong indication that he was no longer deemed to pose a threat to national security, she further argues.

Dr van Ark continues: “The court case to deprive him of nationality should be assessed within this context. This is not the quintessential case of depriving an individual from nationality in order to punish and banish them to another country before they have returned to their home. For comparison, the case of Shamima Begum - amongst others - is a particularly illustrative example of what has been the typical deprivation of citizenship case so far.”

Maher's case raises a few complex questions. One of the core principles of rehabilitation and reintegration (traditional crime) is based on the premise that if a person has been convicted and served their sentence, they have paid their debt to society and should be offered a second chance. This however does not seem to apply to the same extent in the context of terrorism related offences.

Dr van Ark explains: “If indeed terrorism related offences have such a special nature that rehabilitation and reintegration are not enough and thus further punishment is required then this suggests that the relevant reintegration and rehabilitation programmes are not seen as effective. At least - not yet. Further, it implies a more limited commitment to longer-term less visible measures in comparison to more high-impact and expeditious measures. Deprivation of citizenship certainly falls in the latter category. Naturally, it is possible that the decision to deprive Maher of citizenship is not the beginning of a slippery slope in similar circumstances. Yet, the suggestion that this is an important test case implies this is only the start.” 

According to her colleague and counterterrorism expert Dr Christophe Paulussen, this case clearly shows the symbolic and irrational nature of the measure of citizenship stripping, and that it has little to do with a well-considered and efficient response in the fight against terrorism. A fight which, in his view, and that of others, is much better served by the constant investments made by the many professionals in the Netherlands working hard to actually re-integrate people like Maher back into society than by simply exporting one’s problem to another country where the risk of reintegration problems is much higher. 

The Asser Institute, in cooperation with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, Open Society Foundations and Ashurst, is in the process of developing principles on deprivation of nationality as a counter-terrorism and national security measure. More information will be provided in due course.

Further reading
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 in Bahrain
Bahrain has been particularly active in citizenship stripping. Authorities have revoked hundreds of citizenships over the last years. According to Amnesty International, the number could be as high as 741 since 2012. In many cases, this leaves the affected persons stateless, which means that they are no longer granted pensions, health care, or housing benefits. It also denies them access to justice, as they lose their right to appear before courts. In this article in the Voice of America, Dr Paulussen points out that when people are expelled after they have been deprived of their citizenship, they simply become the problem of another state.

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.

British Citizenship Revoked, Bangladeshi Citizenship Uncertain – What Next for Shamima Begum?
Statelessness significantly endangers the rights of an individual. It renders them exceptionally vulnerable as it would be almost impossible to acquire travel and identification documents, to legally reside in a territory or access basic public services. As so compellingly put by Hannah Arendt losing a citizenship is equivalent to losing the right to have rights. In this blog post, Dr van Ark explores the impact of deprivation of liberty on an individual with reference to the Shamima Begum case.

Research Fellow Christophe Paulussen and Rumyana van Ark on dealing with foreign terrorist fighters (French)
See comments by Asser Researchers and ICCT Research Fellows Christophe Paulussen and Rumyana van Ark in this article by Radio Canada on how to deal with returning foreign terrorist fighters. Both Christophe and Rumyana discuss how states should assume their responsibilities in handling these cases.

‘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, including the Maher case, see here and here.