In Terror Fight, Australia Debates Revoking Citizenship
Image Credit: Jamie Kennedy

In Terror Fight, Australia Debates Revoking Citizenship


Australians make up one of the largest per capita cohorts of foreigners fighting for ISIS. More than 100 citizens are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq and approximately 30 have been killed in fighting. Another 150 have been identified as supporting ISIS from within Australia and a further 400 high priority cases are being investigated by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. With the memory of the Lindt Café siege late last year still looming large in Australian government and intelligence circles, and as Australian troops are deployed to fight ISIS, the government has taken a tough line approach to try to stem the trend in radicalization. Yet many in policy circles and the Australian Muslim community argue that the current approach is counter-productive. They may well be right.

In recent weeks the Abbott government has debated whether to strip dual citizens involved in terrorism of their Australian citizenship. There has been initial bipartisan support in government for the move. It is, after all, not a unique idea. New Zealand, France, Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., all have some basis for such revoking of citizenship. For Australia, legally and ethically it is problematic but logically it has a solid enough base to warrant serious discussion.

For the Australian government, a key motivation for the revoking of citizenship is to support the Australian Defence Force deployed in Iraq. Military operations are hampered by restrictions on the sharing of intelligence on Australian citizens with third parties in the coalition. As Rodger Shanahan explains “individuals of sufficient importance are placed on a High Value Target List, and when actionable intelligence becomes available they may be targeted.“ However, this action, Shanahan notes, is complicated if they are an Australian citizen as Australia forces are restricted from sharing intelligence on its own citizens within the coalition. By revoking their citizenship it would allow Australian forces to share and act on intelligence freely.

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In the debate on revoking citizenship of dual citizens, the Abbott government hasn’t made its task any easier. While there is bipartisan support for revoking the citizenship of dual citizens, leaked cabinet meeting discussions revealed that the Abbott government wants to go further. Those leaks made public a willingness to also establish a right to revoke the citizenship of those who do not hold dual citizenship but may have the right to access other citizenship. In effect, this would render these individuals stateless, at least until another government offered the would-be-terrorist citizenship. It was a controversial proposal, put forth outside of the normal procedures of cabinet. Under that proposal, although details remain vague, the Immigration Minister would have veto power on citizenship. In effect, at his discretion and acting on intelligence and without court proceedings, the minister could strip an Australian of his or her citizenship. The proposal was backed by the prime minister but howled down by other cabinet members that saw it circumventing the rule of law.

These debates on stripping citizenship go against the view of many experts, such as the former head of MI6, who suggest that citizens returning from Iraq and Syria are the best placed to dissuade others from going to fight. If those views are correct stripping citizenship may be stripping nations of the best assets available to them in counterterrorism.

Public Debate

Understandably, the proposals have flared significant public debate on citizenship in Australia. This debate has played into a wider rhetoric on Australian values and, more worryingly, the desirability of certain citizens. Importantly, these difficult debates, the stewarding of which is an unenviable task, do not tackle the underlying problems that are at their core of identity and belonging.

David Kilcullen, a senior advisor on counterterrorism to U.S. General David Petraeus in Iraq, argues that the intractability of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been led by a lack of focus on structural inequalities and underlying grievances. While Australia’s domestic battlefield is of course wildly different from Iraq circa 2007, those lessons may still be instructive. Problems of social inclusion are at the heart of radicalization.

The Abbott government and much of mainstream Australia media have clumsily pitted this as a problem with Islam in Australia rather than as a problem with social inclusion. Being tough on security has been popular among the voting public for the previously embattled Abbott government. Political survival and not pragmatic politics is aiding the government’s current approach. Yet this narrative, which asserts that Islam is the core problem, has alienated the very population the government needs on side.

According to the 2011 census, 476,291 Australians follow Islam, 2.2 percent of the population. Yet there is a dearth of Australian Muslims in government and more broadly in visible leadership roles in society. A significant rise in the number of people who identify themselves as Muslim – a 39.9 percent increase between 2006 and 2011 – partly explains this. Australian society has been slow to catch up with these changes. Enabling individuals with moderate views on Islam to become role models in the public space is one of the best ways to counter extremist narratives.

Other more progressive approaches have been largely overlooked (some of the actionable policy options are explored here). Unlike others in the region such as Singapore, Indonesia or Malaysia, Australia has done little to explore deradicalization programs. Stronger research partnerships would go a long way, at the very least, in aiding understanding of underlying motivations and helping to etch out a roadmap on how to deal with radicalization.

While controversial measures such as revoking citizenship may be deemed necessary at one end of the problem, Australia must do more to tackle the root causes of radicalization. Ultimately, while Australia has the hard side of terrorism right, the softer side of community engagement and empowerment, arguably the most important part, is still going wanting.

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