Published in May 2021.
This module is a resource for lecturers
Topic 3. Contemporary issues relating to foreign terrorist fighters
Foreign Terrorist Fighters and deprivation of nationality laws
One threat in terrorism has been the rise of the so-called “foreign fighter“ phenomenon, which relates to individuals leaving their country of residence or nationality to either fight in an armed conflict abroad or to provide other forms of support and service for recognized terrorist organizations, such as propaganda production, engineering work, education, or even marriage and raising families. While not a new phenomenon, the conflict in Syria - which started in 2011 - has inspired record numbers of individuals to travel abroad to take up arms and become members of violent organizations (e.g., Benmelech, Efraim and Klor, 2018; ICCT).
The flow of foreign fighters creates a distinct security threat for States in terms of what to do when such individuals seek to return home. One common but problematic policy adopted by several governments has been the introduction of deprivation of nationality laws, whereby individuals deemed to have provided some form of support for terrorist organizations are stripped of their citizenship and prevented from returning.
This approach is seemingly effective in the short-term, removing the risk of having such individuals within the home State’s territory, and allowing the government to avoid the blame for any potential attacks against their constituents which could be linked back to a returning fighter. The highly symbolic action can also be popular in political terms, as it appears as a strong measure against terror threats.
Arguably, however, such an approach may not be a desirable tool of counter-terrorism, as it may undermine several of the core tenets of good strategy. For some, the appeal of declaring individuals non-citizens feeds into growing ultra-nationalist and far-right narratives about belonging (Lazaridis, 2016), singling out minority groups and fuelling future domestic terrorism. The State could also lose control of the individuals in question, making surveillance or rehabilitation impossible, while the severing of jurisdictional links additionally removes the option of prosecution. Furthermore, if individuals targeted by these policies are from ethnic minorities and technically may be citizens of more than one country, the attempt to make an individual another State’s problem, especially when they have no formal links to the other State, raises the risk of the subject in question becoming stateless. The United Nations has committed to eliminating this status due to its clear connection to increasing vulnerability, abuse, and suffering. Finally, policies depriving nationalities fail adequately to take into account long-term impacts, such as on those close to the targeted person, especially children and family members, which in turn can lead to a distinct sense of exclusion, marginalization, and discrimination risks radicalizing future generations (UNHCR, 2014).