When President Trump urged U.S. allies in Europe last week to “take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial,” his remarks triggered rare approval among some security analysts.
“The U.S. does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go,” Trump tweeted. France — and to some extent Germany — so far appear to agree and are considering steps to bring some citizens back. Both nations share a sense of urgency after Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria triggered concerns that U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters may be forced to free their Islamic State detainees.
Britain and other European nations have shown a limited interest in taking those individuals back, however, and have instead impeded repatriations. On Wednesday, Britain doubled down on that approach with a legally controversial move, saying it was revoking the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a teenager who four years ago fled the country to join the Islamic State at the age of 15.
Britain wasn’t the only country raising questions this week over the citizenship of one of its former residents.
The same day, the United States also sought to prevent the return of one of its former residents-turned-ISIS-members, relying on what critics said was a similar approach. Hoda Muthana, 24, who married an Islamic State fighter in Syria after leaving her Alabama home in 2014, would not be allowed back into the United States, Trump announced on Wednesday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier that Muthana “is not a U.S. citizen” and has “no valid U.S. passport, no right to a passport, nor any visa to travel to the United States.” A lawyer for Muthana maintains she was born in the United States in 1994 and automatically obtained citizenship as her father had ceased to work as a diplomat weeks before — circumventing a constitutional provision that denies birthright citizenship to the children of foreign diplomats.
Muthana currently lives with her son in a Syrian refugee camp and has renounced ISIS through her lawyer, describing herself as “brainwashed.” There are legitimate reasons to remain skeptical of such claims: Some female ISIS members have attempted to portray themselves as victims, even though researchers maintain many of them joined the group voluntarily and consciously.
But even in the event that Muthana still secretly agrees with Islamic State ideology and obtained a U.S. passport illegitimately, the decision to now bar her from entering the country and being prosecuted in U.S. courts raises a more political question: How can the United States stand by its demand that allies should take back fighters and ISIS members who previously lived in Europe when it refuses to do the same for at least one former U.S. resident?
On both sides of the Atlantic, the answer might be similar, and it’s one likely to be challenged in courts in years to come.
The more the Islamic State gained momentum after 2013, the more its declared enemies explored the limits of what is morally acceptable and legally justifiable to combat the group. France sent its special units to the Iraqi city of Mosul to deliberately kill French members of the Islamic State, to avoid having to take them back after the group’s defeat. That approach was met with approval in Britain, where Rory Stewart, then minister of state for international development, said in October 2017 that killing British Islamic State fighters was “in almost every case” the only way to deal with them.
But hundreds of European ISIS members are still alive, creating the exact dilemma that European nations tried to avoid.
Some nations now appear more open to accepting that the only legally viable path is to take the remaining fighters and ISIS members back, and to try them in the countries’ courts. That approach holds some risks, including the possibility that crimes in Syria and Iraq may not be proved and that the repatriated fighters could eventually walk free without having to fear punishment. Supporters of that approach say it remains the safer option, as intelligence agencies would be able to monitor those individuals, compared to allowing hundreds of former fighters to potentially regroup in areas where Western authorities have no or limited access.
Despite those risks, efforts to prevent those individuals from stepping back onto European soil have gone ahead. In recent years, Britain alone has stripped more than 100 of its former citizens of their British citizenship to stop them from reentering the country. British authorities used a loophole that allows them to strip citizens of their passport as long as they hold another citizenship.
In the most recent case of Begum, British authorities appear to have made that decision based on the assumption that she may be able to seek Bangladeshi citizenship. But her case is increasingly turning into an example of the legal pitfalls of such a move. Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam has since said Begum “is not a Bangladeshi citizen,” and “there is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh.”
The fact that Begum was underage when she joined the Islamic State and recently had a baby who may technically be eligible for British citizenship have further complicated matters for British officials.
All of those concerns may also apply to some extent in the case of Muthana, indicating there won’t be an easy option out of the repatriation dilemma, no matter which path European and U.S. authorities choose to take.
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