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World Middle East

Former ISIS members and families – an international headache

  • Paula
The name Jihadi Jack was splashed across British newspapers this week as the story of 24-year-old Jack Letts was again brought to the public’s attention.
by PAULA SLIER | Aug 22, 2019

Born to a British mother and Canadian father in the United Kingdom, Letts grew up in Oxford. Five years ago, he dropped out of university and converted to Islam before travelling to Syria. Two years later, as he tried to flee to Turkey, he was captured by Kurdish forces and imprisoned. He denies having been a member of Islamic State (IS).

But here’s where it gets complicated.

Under international law, a government can strip a person of his/her citizenship so long as it doesn’t leave them stateless.

This week, London stripped Letts of his British citizenship. Hence, this made-in-the-UK problem is now no longer Britain’s headache, but the responsibility of the Canadians. And, the Ottawa government is furious. It’s condemned the UK for “offloading its responsibilities”, and says that “terrorism knows no borders, so countries need to work together to keep each other safe”.

How to deal with citizens who have gone abroad to support terror groups – even if only allegedly – remains a pressing issue for a number of countries.

Hundreds of foreign volunteers who travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with IS have since asked to come home. Understandably, the United States and Europe have been reluctant to allow them to do so, not wanting the legal challenge of prosecuting them or the potential security risk if they are released.

One solution has been to strip them of their citizenship. It’s a policy that European human-rights judges say is legal.

Israel isn’t immune to the challenge. A 2017 amendment to the country’s nationality act allows judges to revoke citizenship in absentia of those engaged in hostile activity. If a person becomes stateless as a result, he/she is provided with a permit of residence, equivalent to what Israel grants foreign workers.

According to the Shin Bet security service, several dozen Israeli nationals have fought for IS in Iraq and Syria. While most were Israeli Arabs or East Jerusalem Palestinians, two were Jewish converts to Islam. The majority were killed in action or arrested after returning to Israel.

In April this year, Israeli authorities revoked in absentia the citizenship of Abdallah Hajleh, an Israeli Arab who travelled to Syria to join IS six years ago. It’s still unclear where he is, or if Israel knows his location.

At the beginning of this month, in a separate case, a 30-year-old Israeli-Arab, Sayyaf Sharif Daoud, who claims to have grown up in Tel Aviv, told Saudi TV he travelled to Syria and joined IS in 2015. He now wants to return home.

Switching from Arabic to Hebrew at the end of the interview, he appealed directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asking him to secure his release through a deal in the same way that other soldiers captured by Israel’s enemies are brought home.

“I am an Israeli citizen,” he pleaded. “I know you are the prime minister of a democratic state that does not differentiate between Jews and Arabs. I request that you return me to Israel. It’s very hard, this jail. It’s very, very hard. This is my request, and I know it is not hard for you to do. And, by G-d, I promise not to go back to how I used to be, and become a respectable person.”

Daoud claims that he didn’t participate in war crimes, and says he served as a nurse. IS imprisoned him because he was Israeli, he says.

“Imagine, after three years of being in the state, they imprison you, and tell you you’re Israeli. They wanted to record my voice speaking against Israel [but I did not] want to cause Israel or [my] family any trouble.”

As far as is known, Netanyahu has ignored his plea.

What’s more tricky, though, is what to do with the children of female nationals who’ve gone abroad to fight. Israel hasn’t faced this problem, but a number of European countries are struggling with it.

In March, Downing Street drew fire after it emerged that the infant baby of a British jihadi bride, 19-year-old Shamima Begum, died in a Syrian refugee camp after being refused repatriation. Begum was stripped of her British citizenship after giving interviews in which she begged to return home, but showed little remorse for having been an IS propagandist.

The lawyer representing Begum’s family wrote to the UK home secretary accusing British authorities of failing to protect the east London girl from being groomed by IS. Begum was 15 years old when she moved to Syria.

Interviews with British citizens this week – where I’m reporting from – reveal that most are emphatic that no UK citizen who has gone to fight with IS should be repatriated. Only one person I interviewed agreed with Labour Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott that the UK has a duty to deal with them, especially after they’ve been captured.

“Whenever there are reasonable grounds to suspect that someone who is entitled to return to this country has either committed or facilitated acts of terrorism, they should be fully investigated and where appropriate, prosecuted,” she told journalists.

“We are not in favour of making people stateless, that’s a punishment without due process. Simply removing citizenship may please ministers, but it isn’t justice in any sense.”

According to international charity Save the Children, more than 2 500 children from about 30 countries are living in camps in north-eastern Syria. Separated from other refugees, these children are despised by everyone, and are last in line to receive aid and services. But keeping them apart is also not a solution. Begum, for example, was radicalised as a child, and living in a camp surrounded by former IS members does nothing to reintegrate her into society.

Children’s charities are at odds with most politicians, believing that governments have a responsibility to protect these – they believe – innocent citizens.

France and Sweden are among a minority of European countries to have repatriated children of IS from Syria.

While “Jihadi Jack” aka Jack Letts languishes in prison, his parents have desperately tried to help him. After sending him money while he was in Syria in spite of concerns he had joined IS, they have been found guilty of funding terrorism, but have been spared jail.

Prosecutors say the couple “turned a blind eye” to warnings by police that the money could inadvertently fund terrorism, a crime under the Terrorism Act.

IS is a fraction of what it once was. But the ramifications of one of the deadliest terrorist organisations ever to be established continues to haunt the world.

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