UK terror suspects stripped of citizenship, hit by drones

The legality of targeting U.S. citizens dominates drone debates here but Britain's approach follows same logic

Published March 1, 2013 3:00PM (EST)

Demonstrators protest U.S. treatment of terror suspects (Shutterstock)
Demonstrators protest U.S. treatment of terror suspects (Shutterstock)

The legality of targeting U.S. citizens remains at the fore of debates over the Obama administration's drone program. In the U.K., the issue of citizenship and extrajudicial killing has taken a very different shape.

According to a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) for British newspaper The Independent, "the [British Government has secretly ramped up a controversial program that strips people of their British citizenship on national security grounds – with two of the men subsequently killed by American drone attacks."

The BIJ found that since 2010 the U.K.'s Home Secretary Theresa May has revoked the passports of 16 individuals, many of whom are alleged to have had links to militant groups. Of these sixteen, at least five were born in Britain -- one man had lived there for almost 50 years. "Critics of the program warn that it allows ministers to 'wash their hands' of British nationals suspected of terrorism who could be subject to torture and illegal detention abroad," The Independent noted.

Two of the expatriated men -- "Bilal al-Berjawi, a British-Lebanese citizen who came to the U.K. as a baby and grew up in London, but left for Somalia in 2009 with his close friend the British-born Mohamed Sakr, who also held Egyptian nationality" -- were stripped of their British passports in 2010 when British intelligence reported that they were deeply involved with militant group al-Shabaab. In June 2011, al-Berjawi was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Somalia; Sakr was killed in a February airstrike.

As Justin Elliott and Cora Curier at ProPublica pointed out, the focus on American citizens in drone debates (and let's include U.K. citizens here too) "overshadows a far more common, and less understood, type of strike: those that do not target American citizens, Al Qaida leaders, or, in fact, any other specific individual." And indeed the civilian death toll and questioning drone attacks on unidentified targets must remain central to challenging the Obama administration's shrouded counterterror "disposition matrix." However, looking at how both the U.S. and the U.K. treat their own nationals paints a telling picture of how executive powers in the two countries work differently, while in step with each other.

In 2002, laws passed in the U.K. permitting the government to revoke the citizenship of of any dual nationals who had done something “seriously prejudicial” to the U.K.. According to The Independent, "the power had rarely been used before the current government took office." In the U.S., however, forced expatriation is nearly impossible. In 2010, Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced the Terrorist Expatriation Act, which -- had it not failed -- would have added “joining a foreign terrorist organization or engaging in or supporting hostilities against the United States” to the list of reasons for denaturalization. Rather, as we have seen in recent months, the U.S. seeks justification within the stretches of the government's juridical framework to justify targeting Americans with drones -- hence the classified, and reportedly questionable DoJ legal opinions on kill lists currently sought by some senators.

Given that the U.S. carries out the drone strikes, this difference makes sense in the current context -- the U.K. provides intelligence then washes its hands of suspects, the U.S. does the rest. The extradition of terror suspects from the U.K. to the U.S. follows the same pattern.

In his 2005 book "State of Exception," Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben points out that the prolonged extension of executive powers, normalizing a state of national emergency, effectively operates to remove individuals from the legal category of citizen. In the U.K., the revoking of passports allowing for unfettered killing or extradition bears out Agamben's point with chilling literalness. In the U.S., while denaturalization does not take place, the effect is no different -- through the targeted killing, rendition and indefinite detention of citizens (and in attempts to retroactively inscribe these practices into legislation), the U.S. executive can devoid citizenship of any of its meaningful attributes under law.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Al-qaida Citizenship Counterterror Denaturalization Drones Expatriates Passport Terrorism U.k.