Up until the emergence of Daesh, the numbers of young Europeans joining a foreign terror cell were all but negligible. Granted, there were isolated cases of individuals heading abroad to support paramilitary terrorist organizations before, yet in most of them are now homegrown (or at least from a nearby neighborhood) terrorists and sympathizers. Now over 800 are waiting to be tried overseas, or as U.S. President Donald Trump has asked his European allies, rather be allowed back home in order to be tried there. For the purpose of this analysis we shall focus on Germany in particular to make a point. By "young Europeans" this article refers to anyone with a European passport regardless of whether he or she has a wider migratory family background or not. Let us first recall though what is actually at the center of the debate before we take a close look at how Germany aims to solve the issue.
At the center of the debate is a topic which should make every parent and basically every citizen everywhere in Europe greatly worry; if observers are right the root cause of terrorism is not simply one lone wolf youth or young adult who unintentionally confuses cold-blooded killing machines with idealized freedom fighters, but instead the root cause as many analysts argue is the acceptance of violence as a means to solve conflicts and an apparently easy access to manipulators who have nothing else in mind but to radicalize previously innocent youngsters.
And innocent they must have been for sure before catastrophe occurs: A young person or an adult all of a sudden decides to leave home and goes abroad, most likely without explicit consent from their parents or guardians because as long as this individual is older than 16 years old he or she can legally travel overseas alone. That same person then joins a foreign terror militia either in an active role or as a sympathizer. One day in the future no matter the reason and no matter how many years later either, that person wants to return home. How shall our societies react and what about their families? Is this a human rights case where we must welcome returning criminals with open arms, or simply a question of how to deal with a dangerous individual and perhaps even keeping her or him away for good? Today's debate about revoking citizenship status from former terrorists or sympathizers is an addition to that debate but not its actual inception.
Four potential solutions
Firstly, that former foreign fighter, terrorist, and or criminal is allowed to re-enter their home country and will be tried by a local court for whatever crimes they have committed whilst abroad, or in the adverse case, shall be re-integrated into society if no acts of terror can be undeniably linked to that individual. But is a full re-integration ever possible?
Secondly, in case they have been captured by another foreign power or group will they be tried according to the laws (if in place) of that same foreign territory, entity, country and may spend a prison sentence in that territory, entity, and or country? But would there not be a risk of torture or the death penalty?
Thirdly, the person decides to stay abroad by basically disappearing from the radar of both the home nation and current location, yet is not in captivity and either continues on his or her ill-fated path of creating anarchy and supporting murder, or alternatively decides to stay abroad yet cut all ties with terror networks. Highly unlikely, as where would such a person ever find permanent shelter and under which disguise? Would he or she obtain a fake identity and passport?
Fourthly, the home nation of that person denies continued citizen's rights and revokes their passport and thus nationality; hence a return is all but impossible. Whether this can only be applied for people with dual nationality is a linked issue. Would this fourth scenario perhaps turn "part-time terrorists" into full-time terrorists orchestrating attacks on home soil from abroad?
It seems there are more questions than clear answers. Let us now continue by looking at Germany's legal situation and how Berlin proposes to proceed.
Germany is getting tough
In the past German nationality law clearly stated the few potential reasons for revoking German citizenship. All scenarios are based on the legal necessity that a person losing German nationality has citizen's rights in another country, hence dual nationality.
Previously, and the subclause lifted from the above mentioned nationality law is relevant for this opinion article, the case was that if a German national voluntarily joins the armed forces of another country and has the nationality of that other country, that German national would lose German citizenship. The only exceptions were rare cases of when the German Defense Ministry grants that right to join.
The extension of that nationality law and as proposed some days ago by the coalition government now foresees that anyone who joins a foreign paramilitary grouping and or participates in foreign acts of combat for that militia would now fall under the category of potentially losing German citizenship.
Yet, only if three conditions apply: The individual must be over 18 years of age, must hold the nationality of another country and is not already in prison abroad; hence what the proposed new law says is that only terrorist fighters may lose their right to German citizenship.
On the one hand the most pressing question now is how many, or all, of German nationals currently awaiting trial abroad will be repatriated and eventually tried at home. On the other hand one has to wonder whether the threat of losing one nationality as long as you still carry the passport of another will really deter future combatants to join a terror groupings ranks.
Reality on the ground will tell in a few years from now once the proposed new law was fully operational for some time whether or not it worked.
The wider picture
As a matter of fact that "someone" is all of us. Parents, neighborhoods, peer groups, schools, universities, colleges, vocational schools, employers, colleagues, politicians, teachers, members of the media… each and every one of us. We must be honest to ourselves in so far as we as a society overlooked the symptoms, neglected the potential danger of being radicalized, turned a blind eye to violence on our streets and more or less hoped for the best without really wanting to know.
A young person who runs away would be portrayed as a troubled kid, hailing from a troubled family living in a troubled neighborhood; "job done, it can never happen in the part of town where I live."
And the greatest mistake we collectively made was to assume that all of these troubled youngsters are minorities with migratory backgrounds. Terror does not know any physical borders; terror does not distinguish between races, either. When the unfortunate trend of joining Daesh finally surfaced around as a hot issue in Brussels political circles five years ago (yet had started long before), European intelligence assumed that between 250 and 300 "foreign imported fighters" hailing from Europe had already joined their ranks and that many of them were actually "white."
As our societies are ever more radicalized in a different way – almost accepting violence as a daily occurrence (think knife crimes, acid attacks, bullying at school, armed robberies, drugs and so forth) and allowing young people to watch extremely violent movies on television or the internet,it's no wonder that if a clever manipulator preaching hatred in society finds easy prey among disoriented youth someone may soon decide to engage in the real thing. That is to say a young person might confuse a fight for freedom with a situation where they are being abused by heinous terrorists.
There is no easy fix but even if Daesh and related networks are soon wiped out from our world other copycats may follow. And as long as we accept and tolerate violence as a daily staple diet in all the formats mentioned above, nothing will ever change.
Do terrorists and their active sympathizers have citizenship rights? Dare I argue, not per default as long as they can legally reside someplace else. Yet what if the anti-terror laws of that second country change their, too, and then revoke that nationality as well, or could they? The debate has started in earnest and that is a good sign, because this debate will be with us for years to come, if not longer.
* Political analyst, journalist based in London