The unsurprising thing about the Jack Letts case is that Britain isn’t taking the Oxford-born-and-bred former Islamic State fighter return. What’s surprising is the bitter public row that erupted between close Western allies on the issue.
Canada, lumped with responsibility for the formerly dual British-Canadian national, has publicly hit out at the United Kingdom. Canadian Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale expressed disappointment at Britain’s “unilateral action to offload their responsibilities.” John McKay, chairman of Canada’s parliamentary Committee on Public Safety and National Security, railed at the United Kingdom’s “gutless” behaviour.
The charge of gutlessness is easily understood. Britain stripped Letts of citizenship, thereby making him the responsibility of the Canadian government. This, despite that Letts was born in the United Kingdom, grew up in the United Kingdom, went to school in the United Kingdom, converted to Islam in the United Kingdom and left for Syria from the United Kingdom.
However, it is of a piece with Britain’s past attempts to disavow jihadists and those who associate with them. In February, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid revoked the British citizenship of Shamima Begum, the teenaged wife of a Dutch Islamic State (ISIS) fighter. Now, it’s Letts.
They are the more high-profile examples of Britain’s habitual way of dealing with citizens it deems a security threat or, at the very least, an undesirable risk to public order. Publicly available statistics indicate that at least 150 British nationals have been stripped of citizenship since 2010.
Talk in Britain after the July 2005 London suicide attacks was of the bombers’ Pakistani ethnicity. The coordinated bombings, which came to be called 7/7 in the style of 9/11 in the United States, were the worst jihadist atrocity on British soil until the 2017 Manchester Arena attack.
Three of the four perpetrators of 7/7 were second-generation Pakistanis. The subsequent British drumbeat — that Pakistan was the place as well as the reason for the bombers’ radicalisation — was slapped down by Pakistani officials and commentators. They acidly pointed out the inescapable fact that the attackers were homegrown and had been radicalised in the United Kingdom. They urged Britain to take responsibility for the actions of its own citizens.
Fourteen years on, Letts and Begum are proof that Britain remains in denial. It is unwilling to take responsibility for the young men and women who went to British schools and colleges, were part of the British system, were radicalised while in the United Kingdom and left to join the caliphate so triumphantly proclaimed by ISIS. When these British jihadists are captured overseas, the United Kingdom is quicker than most other Western countries to sever links.
For the most part, such actions provoke no domestic outcry and few calls for a reappraisal of right and wrong. Begum’s predicament made headlines for the callousness with which she was effectively rendered stateless, with Bangladeshi officials denying she had a claim to Bangladeshi citizenship through her family.
However, the cynicism of the Letts decision prompted at least one prominent British politician to speak out. Former British Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood said removing Letts’s citizenship “shunts the responsibility elsewhere” when many fighters were “radicalised here in the UK.”
He added that Britain “should be leading calls” on how “foreign fighters face justice and who is ultimately responsible for bringing them to justice.”
Clearly, Britain, like most other Western countries, has little interest in leading the way on its homegrown jihadists and the complex mix of trials, monitoring and rehabilitation required to deal with them. Instead, it prefers to make them someone else’s problem. In the first instance, it is the Kurds, who are holding Begum and Letts. For Letts, a second responsible entity is supposed to be Canada.
But Canada, which is bracing for a bitter election in October, is recalcitrant. Worse, Letts is becoming a campaign issue, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s main political rival Andrew Scheer, declaring that, if elected, he “will not lift a finger” to help Letts.
The message is clear. Once upon a time, Britain and Canada were supposed to stand for justice but they now define their national interest by narrow and nakedly political criteria. No Western politician wants to be responsible for bringing potentially dangerous radicals back home and he or she will say it as loudly as possible. Bad jihadists make good politics.