Within hours of the March 22nd attack in London, politicians in parts of the Western world were calling for a ban on migration from the Middle East. It was an inflammatory and opportunistic demand and ludicrously off the mark.
The London attacker, Khalid Masood, was not from the Middle East or North Africa. He was from Kent, the green and pleasant county often referred to as the garden of England. Born and bred in Britain, Masood was a convert to Islam, a former jailbird with a history of knife violence. A past employer said Masood, 52, showed no inclination to Islamist extremism.
Masood’s puzzling rise to infamy in middle age has left British authorities with a raging headache. What do you do when one of your own turns on you? How do you pre-empt an attacker who was not on the security services’ radar? How do you decode the motivation for a murderous attack when the home-grown criminal is described by someone who knows him as “apolitical” and uninterested in radical Islam?
Western countries are confronting these questions in different ways. Germany, for the first time, has begun the process of deporting two German-born non-citizens over their alleged involvement in planning a terrorist attack. Australia, Canada and Britain have consistently revoked the citizenship of dual-nationals who join extremist groups overseas. Even the United States is trying to turn a Pakistani-born naturalised US citizen who was convicted on terrorism charges into a non-citizen.
The motivations are obvious. Western governments are under pressure to demonstrate their resolve to fight extremism and they have to prevent extremists from entering their countries and launching attacks. This is the case with Australia, Canada and Britain. There are estimates that, from 2010–16, at least 33 people were stripped of their British nationality on terrorism-related grounds.
But Donald Trump came to power on a harder-edged promise — that of ensuring radicalism’s dark shadow never falls on the US. Trump was loud and offensive on the campaign trail about the links he perceived between the Muslim community and terrorism. He indicated over and over that it was in the United States’ interest to keep Muslims out of the country and that those already within the country should be subject to strict surveillance and something that can only be called patriotism protocols.
It is unsurprising then that Trump’s Justice Department is arguing a rare case — the need to revoke a convicted terrorist’s US citizenship. The argument is as follows: The man fraudulently obtained citizenship and his terrorist affiliations demonstrate a lack of commitment to the US constitution.
The US Justice Department has also promised to step up efforts “to pursue de-naturalisation proceedings against known or suspected terrorists who procured their citizenship by fraud.” It said that this will be done to prevent “the exploitation of our nation’s immigration system by those who would do harm to our country.”
Fair enough, some might say. Except that it may not be fair at all. According to some legal scholars, revoking a terrorist’s US citizenship would solidify the post-9/11 trend of treating accused terrorists differently from others who break the law. Karen Greenberg, director of the Fordham Law School’s Centre on National Security in New York says that taking away citizenship adds an extra punishment that is not in the criminal statute under which a terrorist is convicted.
This granular examination of an arcane issue may sound like legal quibbling. It is not. The just treatment of citizens — terrorist or not — is important for countries that claim to be governed by the rule of law.
In this regard, most of the cases involving convicted terrorists from Australia, Canada and Britain seem justified. Citizenship is a privilege, not a right and acquired citizenship all the more so. These cases are largely said to involve dual-nationals, so the revocation of citizenship does not leave them stateless. Also, they are seen to have substantial ties to another country, which probably makes their ban from Australia, Canada or Britain bearable to them.
But the proposed deportation from Germany to Algeria and Nigeria of two non-citizens born on German soil is troubling. First, because the men have not been convicted of any offence. Second, their main link to Algeria and Nigeria is their parents’ heritage and they have never lived in those countries.
That is a pretty hard line to take.
But perhaps it is the obvious one in an election year. Even though Angela Merkel’s party won the March 26 election in the tiny state of Saarland, the German chancellor cannot afford to relax ahead of September’s federal poll. The anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, received 6.2% of the vote in Saarland, clearing the way for it to sit in its 12th state legislature. Just four more and it will have all of Germany covered. The stakes may never have been higher in the debate over who gets to stay in Germany.