Victims or Terrorists: the Fate of ex-ISIS Combatants

A national debate has begun after 19 year old ex-ISIS combatant, Shamima Begum, has pleaded with the British Home Office to allow her and her child to return to the UK. Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, has received significant backlash over his decision to render Shamima Begum stateless. Under international law, it is completely illegal and unprecedented to strip someone of their sole citizenship. This decision violates the universal declaration of human rights, which states that every person has a right to a nationality which cannot be arbitrarily removed. Government records show that in 2017, 104 people were stripped from their British citizenship simply on the ground that their presence would not be conducive to the public good within the UK.

Amongst other UK citizens who have since lost their citizenship are Taquir Sharif, an aid worker who moved to Idlib to speak out against Bashir al-Assads oppressive regime, built schools and orphanages, brought attention to the dire conditions of refugee camps, and provided general aid to people and families in Syria. Taquir was an aid worker before leaving for Syria, and his history of work in Syria has been very well documented with 41 running projects and 170 members of staff. Under section 40(5) of the British Nationalities Act 1981, Taquir was to be deprived of his British citizenship because the UK assessed him to be “aligned with an al-Qaida-aligned group”, and that his return would pose a threat to national security. Though there is a security risk in accepting the return of people from high-risk countries, it seems unconvincing that the Home Office has spent enough time assessing the legitimacy of the people whose citizenship they are revoking. By stripping Taquir of his citizenship, the UK sent a message to Muslims everywhere that they should be fearful of political dissidence and Britain’s non-acceptance.

Image Courtesy of Royal-Queen via © Flickr, 2019, some rights reserved


While I agree that the UK’s decision to render people stateless is both dangerous, illegal, and unprecedented, it begs the question of whether Shamima and other British citizens should be allowed to return home from Syria. ISIS is one of the most deadly cell-terrorist organizations of the decade, and its controversial defeat should be treated with extreme caution. There is no obvious answer to whether ex-ISIS combatants should be allowed back, as it leads to the bigger question of whether terrorists are innately dangerous or victims of a cult. What Sajid Javid’s decision has made clear, however, is that the UK is unafraid to weaponize citizenship and abandon people stateless in the international order.

While there are many ethical, legal, and security questions surrounding the fate of ex-ISIS members, it is undeniable that conditions in Syria have become dire. As early as last week, Shamima Begum’s infant was declared dead at al-Hawl camp in Syria due to shortage of food, blankets, and tents. Regardless of the situation, politics should never stand in the way of the lives of infants and children. European officials should begin to cautiously welcome back their citizens and go through the formal legal processes in court, where they can be adequately assessed and charged with formal indictments, even if it is membership of a terrorist organization.

Banner picture: Image Courtesy of Sara Wood via © Flickr, 2019, some rights reserved