In the early years of its “war on terror”, the US government developed an international system of secret prisons. Those suspected of being Muslim terrorists were secretly captured by the CIA or the US military and flown between these “black sites” in a process called “extraordinary rendition”. We now know that CIA officers used torture on those imprisoned. When he came into office in 2009, Barack Obama assured Americans that such practices would end. Since then, his preferred counterterrorism tactic has been the drone strike, another form of extrajudicial punishment, but one that results in death rather than detention.
The British government was complicit in extraordinary rendition: it shared information with the CIA that led to the imprisonment of individuals and it submitted questions for interrogators. In recent years, some of those who were victims of this system have sued the British government for its involvement, and the British police have opened criminal cases against UK security services officers who were involved.
The UK government now finds itself in a dilemma. On the one hand, it wants to continue to participate in Mr Obama’s war on terror. On the other hand, it fears possible repercussions from the courts and public opinion, particularly when its own citizens are victims. One solution is contained in the Justice and Security Act (2013), which makes it possible for court proceedings to be held in secret so that the activities of the UK and US intelligence services, particularly any involvement in torture, can be shielded from public scrutiny.
A second solution has been developed for cases where the terrorism suspect is a British citizen: the revocation of that person’s citizenship. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 53 Britons have been stripped of their nationality since 2002, when legislation made it possible for dual nationals to lose their British nationality. All but five of these cases have occurred since 2010. Earlier this year, new legislation was passed enabling the British government to remove the citizenship of naturalised citizens, even if to do so would render them stateless.
Next month in London, a special tribunal will hear arguments in the case of Mahdi Hashi, one of those who has been made stateless after having his British nationality revoked. Hashi’s case perfectly illustrates how the power to strip someone of their citizenship can be a convenient enabler of other abuses in the current version of the war on terror.
Hashi’s family came to Britain as refugees in the early 1990s when he was still a child. After September 11, 2001, he began to face harassment from MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency. Aged only 19, he came under pressure to become an informant on other Somalis in London. He refused and his story was reported by a national newspaper. As the harassment continued, he decided to leave Britain and return to Somalia.
Then in 2012 his family received a notice from the British government stating that his citizenship was revoked, alleging that he was involved in “Islamist extremism”. In the hope of appealing against the revocation, he travelled to neighbouring Djibouti, where there is a British consulate.
But, he alleges, he was then arrested by the Djibouti police, interrogated by the CIA and threatened with torture. Djibouti is a key US regional ally and there are claims the CIA runs a secret “black site” there.
By December 2012, Hashi had been flown to New York and was charged with providing “material support” for Al Shabab. He is one of a number of British terrorism suspects who have been extradited or rendered to the more punitive US criminal justice system rather than prosecuted in Britain, even though their alleged crimes have not taken place on US territory. Hashi is now being held in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center in lower Manhattan, where earlier this year he went on hunger strike. Still in his early 20s, he will, if convicted, receive a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The same power to remove citizenship has also been applied to two British nationals who were later killed in US drone strikes in Somalia. Mohamed Sakr and Bilal Al Berjawi had their British citizenship revoked shortly before they were killed near Mogadishu in January 2012. Because they were technically no longer British nationals, the embarrassing headline “US drone kills British citizens” never appeared in British newspapers. While even the US has had a public debate on whether it is legitimate for its citizens to be killed by drone, no such debate has occurred in Britain.
The slogan of the British government’s policy is that “citizenship is a privilege, not a right”. But as the German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt pointed out in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, citizenship is the right that enables all other rights. Understanding this, the Nazis denationalised Jews as a precursor to denying their civil rights and, ultimately, deporting them to the concentration camps.
On the extreme right wing of British politics there has long been an argument that, whatever the law says, you can only really be British if you are white. Since the new power to strip citizenship is almost always applied to non-white Britons, it is as if the law has endorsed this position. For whites, citizenship is as secure as ever; for others, it is now revocable.
This article was originally published in The National with a different title.