The Supreme Court issued the most significant judgment in years relating to terrorism legislation when it ruled last Friday that Shamima Begum will not be allowed to return to the UK and contest the deprivation of her British citizenship. Revoking citizenship is a highly controversial strategy that the government has pursued against British citizens who travelled to Syria and who have recourse – however tenuous – to another nationality.
Although the Supreme Court did not rule on that particular issue, the implications of Begum’s appeal were nonetheless significant. Her lawyers argued that she should be allowed to return to contest the Home Secretary’s decision to revoke her citizenship. Had the Supreme Court allowed this, it would have opened the floodgates to other Britons also held in Syria.
That prospect represented a nightmare scenario for the government. It argues that convictions against Islamic State (IS) suspects would be hard to secure and that the best approach, therefore, is to leave people where they are. It may be a crude tactic, but that’s the approach Whitehall currently favours.
For Begum, that means remaining in limbo in one of the sprawling tent cities used to house women associated with IS. The largest of these is al-Hol, where more than 60,000 people are detained, about 10,000 of whom are foreigners. These are porous facilities with detainees regularly escaping, as guards from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take bribes to look the other way whilst women are smuggled out. They are regrouping in Idlib province, the last revolutionary redoubt where thousands of President Assad’s opponents are based.
Men are held elsewhere entirely. Around 10,000 are currently housed in squalid overcrowded facilities consisting of schools converted into makeshift prisons, of whom about 2,000 are foreigners. Riots regularly break out and the SDF has repeatedly warned it finds it difficult to maintain order. For its part, IS has also called on its supporters to free those inside, heightening pressure around the facility.
You might think Western governments would have an incentive to tackle this increasingly volatile situation. The British government in particular might have an interest, given the handful of British prisoners who have been held in such places, including Ishak Mostefaoui, a 27-year-old student from Westminster University who was killed last July (possibly when trying to escape, although accounts differ). Mostefaoui, like Begum, was one of several young Britons who left the UK to join IS before being captured when the group lost its territory.
However, the UK government seems stuck in a holding pattern, unwilling to grapple with the legal and logistical challenges of administering justice to fighters who – it argues – renounced their British citizenship by joining IS. Where it is prepared to invest resources, those resources are directed towards strengthening prison security, not confronting the underlying issues.
Indeed, this was the message of Major General Kevin Copsey, who leads British efforts with the anti-IS coalition, when he said last month that the UK will fund efforts to expand and enhance the capacity of the SDF prison facilities in the north-east. The idea is to roughly double the size of the current facility to help with overcrowding and to make the facility more secure.
“We can fund infrastructure for detainees, we can provide non-lethal systems for the SDF to administer these facilities and we can use our presence and our connectivity to try and pull various international organisations together,” said Copsey in an interview with Defense One, an American publication focusing on national security matters.
What Copsey reveals is the limitations of the UK’s military involvement in Syria. There is no meaningful plan about what to do next, nor any strategy for how to apply the British justice system to those imprisoned there. Until this changes, the government can argue that allowing members of IS to return to their home country would put public safety at risk – an argument the Supreme Court acknowledged in its judgment about Begum. The UK government lacks the means to address her case in a secure way, so it has chosen to wash its hands of her.
Begum’s case is an emotive one for many reasons. She was, after all, just 15 when she travelled to Syria. Her advocates insist she was a naive child, groomed by sophisticated recruiters, who should have a chance to redeem herself. Her detractors call her a dangerous terrorist.
But whatever the merits of her case, there is a broader issue here which goes far beyond security matters. Although it is illegal to make people stateless, the government has been extremely liberal in its interpretation of that rule. It has deemed that anyone who can potentially claim another nationality can be stripped of their British citizenship. This impacts the children of immigrants such as myself, all Jews, and anyone from Northern Ireland. For us, our citizenship is predicated on continued good behaviour, whereas for others, it exists in perpetuity. This is the precedent the UK has inadvertently set in its refusal to tackle the situation in Syria.
Away from all the emotion of Begum’s case this is the real story that has been missed. British citizenship is now two-tiered, conceived and constructed in radically different ways.
[see also: Syria’s war without end]