Now that ISIS has essentially been defeated (or has it!), one lingering question remains for the thousands of foreign fighters and supporters who left their home countries to join the self-proclaimed Caliphate: what happens to those who survived? The most fervent believers have likely nearly all been killed in the various skirmishes and fights against ISIS, but this still leaves thousands of people from many different nations who provided some level of support to the organization. The case of American-born Hoda Muthana has recently made news as one such example of a former ISIS bride attempting to return to the United States to face the American legal system. But many nations are grappling with their own decisions about citizens who have left to join groups like ISIS. This week, we’ll take a look at the options these nations pursue and the controversial topic of expatriation (revoking citizenship).
First of all, what are citizenship rights? In the United States at least, citizenship rights are automatically conferred to a person born in America (known as birthright citizenship), or are granted to individuals who apply for and are granted citizenship. These rights allow for a variety of privileges including the right to vote and to hold political office. They also provide certain legal protections that non-citizens do not receive (including the right to return to the United States). The Muthana case has brought renewed attention to the protections of citizenship as the Trump administration is attempting to argue that Muthana is not a citizen. The legal case regarding Muthana’s citizenship status is complicated, but the protections provided to a citizen are more straightforward.
But why would people join a group like ISIS in the first place? There are many personal reasons why someone may feel compelled to engage in this behavior. As we have discussed before, it is usually not because people are “just crazy.” Many young people join because of the sense of adventure, or the romanticism of fighting for a cause. Or, as mentioned in this podcast episode, these individuals are often second generation immigrants who do not know of the actual conditions in their home country. Fundamentalist religious beliefs certainly play a part as well. The ISIS propaganda in particular was super effective at convincing people to come join the Caliphate. But many regretted as soon as they arrived, and by then it was too late to leave.
What other nations are doing about returning ISIS fighters? The British are engaged in a similar discussion of citizenship rights regarding the case of Shamima Begum. However, citizenship laws in that country allow for the expatriation of citizenship much easier than in the United States. In France, some fighters have returned to face the judicial system and sometimes jail. However, this can worsen the problem of radicalization among prison populations in Europe. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has been attempting to process returning fighters through a de-radicalization program with mixed results. Other, more authoritarian nations, simply ban former ISIS fighters from returning completely, or jail and execute them upon their return. However, this raises a host of human rights questions given the protections of the Geneva Convention.
So if former fighters cannot return home, what are their options? They would have a hard time trying to stay in the increasingly small territory left to ISIS. There they risk death at hands of both ISIS fighters and liberation forces. They could attempt to flee and live as refugees in other societies, but this can also help perpetuate radicalization in refugee camps. There are already more refugees and stateless people than at any time since the end of the Second World War. Another dramatic influx of stateless individuals would only further destabilize difficult regions and perpetuate the cycle of violence. After all, the surge of displaced and defeated Iraqis following the American occupation is part of what contributed to both Iraq’s severe civil conflicts and to the rise of ISIS itself.
But why should this matter to you? Certainly we hope none of our readers are about to go and join such organizations. But the process of revoking citizenship should not be taken lightly, no matter how terrible the crimes that are alleged to have been committed. Certainly, nobody is arguing that returning ISIS fighters ought to be granted a full pardon, but the 5th amendment provides the protections of due process. This states that the government can’t take away basic rights without first going through the legal system. Any decision surrounding the revocation of citizenship would need to be handled by the Justice Department after applying one of several laws regarding expatriation. Expatriation is a very complex process and has a high burden of proof for good reason. Without citizenship, a person loses many (but not all) of the privileges of the American legal system. These are privileges that are essential for maintaining a free and open society. Hoda’s case might seem like an obvious example of someone whose citizenship could be revoked, but what if the definition of what qualifies for expatriation changes? That’s where the it might be best to have a legislative body or the court system, and not a unitary executive, making that decision.