The curious case of “Jihadi Jack” having his British citizenship stripped shows just how little Western countries want to deal with their own citizens suspected of committing acts of terrorism abroad.
One expert calls it “anti-terrorism NIMBYism.”
Jack Letts, better known by his media-given name “Jihadi Jack,” converted to Islam as a young man, and travelled to the Middle East from the U.K. in 2014. While his activities in the Middle East aren’t documented extensively, it’s been alleged he was involved with ISIS and supported terrorist actions, which he and his family deny. Letts, 26, is currently being held in a prison in northern Syria by Kurdish forces. He’s been in captivity for two and a half years. In June, his parents were found guilty of funding terrorism by providing their son with funds.
Letts, his Canadian-born father, and English mother are all dual citizens of the U.K. and Canada. While it’s illegal under international law to make a citizen stateless, it’s not illegal to strip documents if they still have citizenship elsewhere, as is the case with the Letts.
Back in February, Letts said he wanted to go back to the U.K., but he didn’t think his home would take him back. For a while there seemed to be some Canadian effort to bring Letts to Canada, but that seems to have since died down. But in a recent interview with U.K. media, Letts said he hopes Canada, a country he has spent limited time in, takes him in, saying he “always expected Canada to help me and they didn't. I hope Canada does take me from here if they can."
Stripping citizenship from dual citizens linked to terror has become enough of a trend that it’s even been dubbed "anti-terrorism NIMBYism." A “not in my backyard” mentality usually refers to neighbourhoods that are supportive of one thing (typically development or low-income housing), but not if it’s happening in their area. It works internationally, too.
“All citizenship stripping is [NIMBYism] because it makes suspected terrorists another country's problem: in this case Canada's,” Kent Roach, a professor of law at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, told VICE in an email.
The Jihadi Jack case has become political fodder on both sides of the Atlantic, with Canadian Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer claiming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau loves himself some Jihadis. The British, meanwhile, decided a “domestic win” was easier than working through the complicated quagmire of bringing Letts home and prosecuting him.
“I really don't think that there is a strategic move here,” says Leah West, a lecturer in national security law and counterterrorism. “It's political, right? It's a domestic win, one where they are no longer responsible and they have washed their hands at this guy.”
Here in Canada, some are arguing we should have stripped Letts of his citizenship first—essentially putting an ally in the same situation we’re currently complaining about now. Experts say it would serve no real strategic purpose in effectively combatting terrorism—just more so cynical point-scoring.
Citizens going overseas to fight for terrorist organizations has been a larger problem in the U.K. than in Canada. While we hear about the country stripping citizenship during the more flamboyant cases—Jihadi Jack and Shamima Begum, dubbed the ”ISIS bride”—the country has stripped more than 150 of their people of citizenship. Counterterrorism expert Amarnath Amarasingam told VICE that this action amounts to the U.K. government “passing the buck” and betting “most British people will support the fact that they're stripping citizenship” over any sort of international pushback.
“I think it's largely a tactic the Brits are using to bring down the numbers of people they have to deal with in any serious way,” said Amarasingam. “They have a large number of people who went off to Syria and Iraq to fight and quite a few who are now in prison.”
For those thirsty for justice, citizenship stripping in Letts’s case may have made it difficult for there to be any meaningful prosecution. Letts didn’t leave Canada for ISIS, he left the U.K. West says the two easiest paths of prosecution, “leaving Canada to facilitate terrorist activity” and “leaving Canada to commit an offence on behalf of the terrorist group,” are now off the table.
“So now we have to prove what he did on the ground over there to get a conviction, and that is hard,” said West.
The U.K. has a better track record than Canada for attaining terrorism convictions but it’s still possible for Canada to punish an overseas fighter, West said. However, what they’re is charged with will be based on information the public does not have access to.
While the initial reaction of Canada's Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale's office was reported to be furious, a staffer told VICE that while the government is disappointed, they won’t be partaking in tit-for-tat governance.
“Investigating, arresting, charging and prosecuting any Canadian involved in terrorism or violent extremism is our primary objective,” Goodale said in a statement provided to VICE. “They must be held accountable for their actions.”
Goodale later said in an interview with the CBC that Canada has no “obligation” to help Letts and has “no intention of facilitating” Letts's travels out of Syria.
The number of suspected Canadians terrorists being held overseas is reportedly a few dozen: six men, nine women, and 18 children, according to Amarasingam, who travelled to Syria with Global News in 2018. It’s not a large number—”if we can't reintegrate 18 kids as a first-world country, that's a bit shocking,” said Amarasingam.
But to Trudeau’s Liberals, these men, women, and children represent the possibility of political ammunition for the Conservatives in an election year. With a recent fervor over a New York Times podcast about a returned Canadian ISIS fighter fresh in the minds of ruling politicians, dragging this out until after election day seems politically expedient.
Both West and Amarasingam said the northern Syria area many of the Canadian prisoners are being held in has a significant chance of being destabilized. If that happens, there is a chance the combatants could be freed and may join terror groups again. At the end of the day, according to all experts contacted for this piece, it all comes down to morality.
“I think there's still a deep moral and ethical reason to bring everybody back. Our citizens went over to a country that was in the midst of a war and made everybody's life a living hell,” Amarasingam said. “It's up to us to bring our citizens back and make sure that they don't continue to burden and harass people who've already suffered enough.”
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