Opinion: The power of the state to confiscate your passport and citizenship

The British Prime Minister has explained that there is a significant risk to our security, due to Muslim residents of the UK travelling to fight with IS/ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and returning radicalised to the UK.

The remedy, supported by Lib Dem parliamentarians, is for the government to follow the USA and give itself the power to stop people travelling out of the UK, and to generate ‘no fly lists’.  In addition, it has also been explained that the UK government is seeking the power to strip people of their acquired UK citizenship, if you travel to Syria or Iraq with the potential intention to fight.

The rationale for these sweeping authoritarian powers for the state, seems pretty flaky. Why does it apparently apply to Muslims travelling to Syria and Iraq and not the more numerous other religious zealots travelling to other countries to fight ? How is ‘intention to fight’ defined, even if it can be ? And are we to believe that persons travelling to countries they have no connection with to die for their religion are not already radicalised ?

The problem we are told is global jihad. But why commit people to legal limbo in countries abroad where they are prey to all sorts of folk ? If we know who they are, isn’t it better to have them identified and under watch in the UK after they return, than getting up to who-knows-what in the Mid East ? If such returnees commit terrorist acts in the UK won’t that be an intel failure ? But if they cannot be identified in the first place then all these new measures are useless anyway.

As eminent senior counsel at BIICL’s Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law have shown, such powers are routinely used more widely than intended, and in this case it is likely that they will eventually be used against those merely disagreeing with the UK’s foreign policy, rather than militarised religious extremists.

A reasonable guess as to what this is really all about is that the UK is seeking a self defence justification for committing itself to military action in Syria and Iraq, under international law.

Indeed such action may be ‘necessary’. But this brings us to another set of absurdities.

Dubious-looking TV clips show ragtag Sunni militants in ‘technicals’ with black flags and weapons ‘stolen’ from the Iraqi army. Such groups cannot possibly take major cities and heavily guarded infrastructure, defeating the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga,  and manning oilfields. IS/ISIS is a conventional army funded and equipped by Gulf states and others, and with kit shipped from Libya. Some were trained recently in Jordan under Western auspices, or by the US as ‘Awakening’ forces.

Whilst Cameron was laughingly drawing a distinction between ‘moderate’ Sunni Islamist fighters in Syria, versus the ‘bad’ Sunni Islamist fighters, they were both finding support and recruits amongst Sunnis next door in Iraq, long oppressed by the overly partisan Shia-led Iraqi government. But why did this army press on to Iraq, and instantly become the West’s enemy as soon as they crossed the unmarked desert border ?

The answer is Iran. With an emerging rapprochement between the US and Iran, Gulf states feared loss of influence. They felt threatened by Assad’s survival in Syria, linking with Shia-dominated Iraq, both under Iranian influence. Which Western-allied Gulf states are comfortable with beheadings and amputations ?

The truth is, the West has got itself into a terrible muddle, and as Obama so rightly put it; we have no strategy.  A few bombs will not stop a conventional army, nor will stopping handfuls of ‘war-tourists’ from leaving Birmingham. We need to undo the mess we have made, and we can start by leaning on our Gulf friends and cutting off the flow of money and kit to IS/ISIS.

Can anyone remember why we ostensibly went to war in Iraq and which UK party wisely opposed it ? I will leave it to the Liberal Democrat  leadership to remind us.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance.

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  • We do need to get serious with the Gulf States, but I’m not sure how this connects to “war tourists”. Making traveling Jihadists stateless presents all kinds of legal issues, but it would send out a very clear message. There is little support public support for letting suspected terrorists and war criminals come home and we would pretty much being arresting them before they got off the plane, Then there will be the inevitable deportation battles as various countries seek justice which further arm the anti-liberal press. It’s a liberal principle v pragmatic populism sort of argument. I hate saying this, but I can see where Cameron is coming from. Popular, saves money on security and reduces the threat to the UK.

  • There is of course another alternative that doesn’t involve removal of citizenship? :
    If there is evidence that these people took part in activities in Northern Iraq, it seem logical that they should be tried by the legal process *in* Iraq?
    In short the Iraq, and UK governments should open up a *specific* extradition treaty. If Iraq has sufficient proof of a UK citizens illegal activity on their territory, they can, and should, ask for that UK citizen to be extradited to Baghdad,..tried,.. and imprisoned there if found guilty.
    And by passing the problem and solution into the Iraq legal system, (where it truly belongs?), there is the added benefit in that, the UK taxpayer is not *yet again*, being asked to fund the expensive *watching* and *monitoring* of these individuals for the rest of their lives?

  • Maria Pretzler 8th Sep '14 - 12:54pm

    I agree with the general argument of your article, but I was surprised about your statement that there are ” more numerous other religious zealots travelling to other countries to fight”

    Would you like to clarify who these people are, which countries they are going to, and how numerous they might be?

  • Who is going to watch them and how much would that cost? Would they be kept by the taxpayer as who would employ them? Remember all the cuts to the police etc. There are no watchers left!

  • Paul Reynolds 8th Sep '14 - 1:47pm

    Thank you Maria. The key point is that the government’s proposals seem specific to Syria and Iraq. It seems odd that the government appears to be allowing the Syria/Iraq IS/ISIS issue to precipitate new powers, but is not taking the opportunity to restrict travel to other war zones – Horn of Africa, East Africa, West Africa, SE Asia, East Mediterranean, Western China, Ukraine, and Egypt – to which people have been traveling and engaging in political and kinetic activity for years.

  • A Social Liberal 8th Sep '14 - 2:06pm


    Christians to Colombia, Serbia and Spain, Sikhs to India come immediately to mind. These were not universally religious extremists, nor universally numerous (and some would say not all extremists) but they all went to another country to fight for a cause with which their home country had little to do.

  • Social Liberal :
    “but they all went to another country to fight for a cause with which their home country had little to do.”
    Whilst that is true,… how many of those other zealots, fighting in the countries you (and Paul), mention, have declared that the UK is full of infidels, whose only option is to convert or die, and possibly even both? You cannot seriously put ISIS in the same category as French or Polish citizens fighting in Ukraine, or Sikhs fighting in India?
    ISIS are a (self proclaimed), serious threat to anyone of another religion, and even to peaceful Moslems who don’t share their ‘brand’, of Islam. They want their black flag flying over Westminster, no matter who gets killed in that pursuit, and as such, we cannot consider them as ‘just’ another group of zealots?

  • Richard Dean 8th Sep '14 - 5:48pm

    “We can start by leaning on our Gulf friends and cutting off the flow of money and kit to IS/ISIS”.

    How would we do this? We need their oil.

  • Why go to the Middle East for military training? Surely any “radical” could just head to the United States and get all the weapons and paramilitary training he or she needs.

  • @Paul Reynolds
    There is a specific problem with IS in that not only have they been carrying out particularly barbaric acts, but some of them have (via the wonders of social media) been threatening to do the same in Britain, or (as in the case of the young woman from Glasgow who was in the papers last week) openly encouraging those still in Britain to carry out atrocities here.

    I’m not aware of there being the same kind of problem with people travelling to those other places you mentioned – though if you have any evidence that there is, then yes, it would seem strange that the government did not give those people the same kind of attention.

  • Paul Reynolds 8th Sep '14 - 6:59pm

    Indeed. Much attention has been paid to the barbarism shown by IS/ISIS, especially beheadings. Since IS/ISIS is a well equipped, trained and funded conventional army, one wonders about the nature of their backers. But before the UK usesthese barbaric acts as a pretext for war we might be reminded that in a 2 week period in August, one of the West’s Gulf allies beheaded 19 people, following trials regarded internationally as unfair, and including convictions for such crimes as ‘sorcery’.

  • Richard Dean 8th Sep '14 - 7:46pm

    How was it that no-one in the “intelligence” services or foreign office noticed the development of this “well equipped, trained and funded conventional army”, which could not have happened overnight? And if they saw it happening, how was it that they didn’t realise its implications?

  • Putting to one side the specific target group for this policy, I think the real challenge is what to do with people who we do not want to remain here. In the past (days of empire) we (like France and other major powers) could (and did) simply ship ‘undesirables’ off to the colonies; an option not really open to us…

  • A Social Liberal 8th Sep '14 - 8:27pm

    You were joking . . . . wasn’t you?

  • Jayne Mansfield 9th Sep '14 - 6:43am

    I agree with John Dunn.

    I don’t want these people back, and more to the point nor do the muslim acquaintances that I have, who are as likely to be victims of their vicious hatefulness as anyone else. They have burned their British passports and pledged allegiance to another self – styled state.

    Where are the funds coming from to keep a watchful eye on any returners? How much does it cost to undo the radicalisation that we are told turns normal human beings into wanabe sadistic murderers? How do we know that it is successful and there is not simply pretence?

    I have never heard such avowed hatred of our values of liberal democracy by those who have benefited from them, so I think that we are dealing with a different order of threat from these people.

  • Jayne Mansfield, you and I often agree. Can I ask you to think again about your last comment about not wanting “these people” back.
    George Orwell took up arms in the Spanish Civil War and fought as part of an Anarchist group against the Facists . the Anarchists at that time in Barcelona set fire o Cathedrals and had little time for the priesthood who up ported Franco. There were atrocities on all sides in that civil war.
    Orwell later came back to the UK and wrote Animal Farm and 1984.
    Would you have sooner that he had been banished, made stateless or been subject to some sort of “de-radicalisation”?
    I am hoping you would not.

  • Jayne Mansfield 9th Sep '14 - 8:53am

    @ John Tilley,
    I thought long and hard before I wrote what I wrote and many who know me well would be shocked by my comment, including my husband!

    The fact is, I have to be honest with myself and it is what I truly believe, uncomfortable as that makes me. I find that the behaviour of those who have joined and continue to join such a barbaric movement and who have behaved in ways which are sadistic and inhumane have tested my liberal instincts to breaking point.

    I have Muslim friends, my children have Muslim friends, and the behaviour of those that I do not want to return to this country has made their life increasingly unbearable because there are those who will always tar everyone with the same brush. It has also made life increasingly difficult for members of my own family who have brown skins, and Hindu friends.

    An incident on the London underground last week made me appraise my views. A young man of Pakistani/Arab appearance with a shaved head got on the train ( with backpack not unlike my own). When he went to sit down the man opposite put his feet up on the seat to prevent him doing so. I was shocked but at the same time I can understand the fear of people who feel that the government is not doing enough to protect them.

    I am not sure about the Spanish civil war, I think the jury is still out as to whether those who went out were opposing fascism or were communist dupes. Did they actually say that they wanted to destroy our liberal democratic way of life?

    As you know, I am only too happy to be told when I am showing ignorance of facts, and I have no doubt that you will be forthright when it comes to doing so!

  • Social Liberal
    With the post-2007 global financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency in 2008, militia activity has experienced a resurgence.
    Jayne Mansfield
    Do you remember the Shankill Butchers? Each of their victims was beaten ferociously and had their throat hacked with a butcher’s knife. Some were also tortured and attacked with a hatchet.

  • Richard Dean 9th Sep '14 - 5:44pm

    There are many good reasons why we should welcome suspected British jihadists back:

    1. As British citizens, they have the right to our support, including support through de-radicalization
    2. As British citizens and human beings, they have a right to a fair trial
    3. Keeping them under lock and key prevents them doing bad things
    4. Our security services can interrogate them and gain information about IS
    5. Those of them who are disillusioned by IS can help to counter IS propaganda here
    6. Allowing them back will reduce the distress of their relatives and friends here, even if imprisoned

  • Malcolm Todd 9th Sep '14 - 5:56pm

    Not often I get to say this, but Richard Dean is spot on: sound principled and pragmatic reasons for rejecting the appalling idea of excluding British citizens from Britain.

  • Jayne Mansfield
    Thank you for responding. Not sure where to start other than to say that I think your reaction to the sadistic behaviour of those that behead, torture, or sell women into slavery is entirely understandable. Especially so when this is being whipped up and exaggerated by the media and some in government – not just in the UK.
    But I would suggest that effective answers and actions need to be used rather than ineffective answers.
    I do not think the Cameron proposals are designed to do anything more than big up his own position and enable him to continue as an uber-pundit rather than do something effective. But he is in the pocket of The Saudis and those Gulk autocrats who fund ISIS, behead people, enslave women without comment from Cameron.

    The double standards applied to this question and the hypocrisy of those in power is staggering.

    Richard Dean’s six points for why we should welcome back jihadis (or those who have been given that description unjustly) is helpful in considering this.

    I hope you will think again. But I understand better why you made the comment that you made.

  • Richard Dean 10th Sep '14 - 2:07am

    @Malcolm Todd.

    Thanks. Here are a couple more reasons, and I’m sure there are others too …

    7. It is the Christian thing to do (prodigal son/daughter)
    8. Even Muhammad might agree – I bet there’s an example like it somewhere in the Qur’an
    9. It provides one less excuse for people to be bitter about the UK

  • As with all powers they become expanded and misused. The Middle East is a very different place as those who have lived and worked there can attest.The problem of IS is a result of the failure of western policies in that region.Can the lessons be learned or does Britain have to endlessly go on repeating those mistakes.

  • A Social Liberal 10th Sep '14 - 12:49pm

    I welcome Richard Deans six points, but with obvious caveats.

    3) Indeed, lock them up once they have had a fair trial and have been found guilty!
    4) No argument from me here – so long as we don’t break international law and so long as we accept (once they are rigorously checked) any assertions that they weren’t fighting with IS.
    5) Only if they are willing to place themselves into the possibility of harms way, and do not do so under duress.

    Although a Christian I have to disagree with number seven – it isn’t the christian thing to do, it is the RIGHT thing to do. It would be the right thing if a form of christianity was not the religion of the state.

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