Syria Travellers and Security Threats

Foreign fighters returning from Syria have emerged as a looming security threat in many European countries, so also in Norway. As well as preventive measures against radicalization and mobilization by the Islamic State, there have been calls for the withdrawal of citizenship and deportation of returned foreign fighters. This raises a number of questions. Are Norwegians more secure if we send potential terrorists out of the country? Is this even feasible, if Norway wants to stay within the ‘border-free’ Europe? What are the trade-offs between security and civil rights to citizenship, and how can they best be balanced? Is citizenship essentially something that needs to be earned, or is it an inalienable right? Should withdrawal of citizenship be a form of punishment, and if so, is it a good idea to open up this pandora’s box?

Under PRIOs NATION project, Katrine Fangen (Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo) and Åshild Kolås (PRIO) have published an article in Critical Studies on Terrorism: ‘The “Syria traveller”: Reintegration or legal sanctioning?’. The article analyses Norwegian discourses (in the media, policy documents, and parliamentary debates) on Islamist radicalization, with a focus on a new category of people known as ‘Syria travellers’: young Norwegians who go to Syria to fight for the Islamic State (IS).

Photo credit: Jayel Aheram

Photo credit: Jayel Aheram

We find two master narratives at work in the construction of the Syria traveller. One highlights the perceived differences between Syria travellers and the majority of Norwegians, and sees them as Muslim youth at odds with or voluntarily ‘outside’ mainstream society. Often highlighting security threats and supporting sanctions, this narrative draws on generalizations about the illiberal nature of Islam and perceived cultural clashes. The other narrative views Syria travellers as young people who have grown up in Norway and become victims of exclusion, either due to socio-economic marginalization, or anti-Muslim prejudice (‘Islamophobia’). In addition we find an emphasis on the diverse backgrounds of Syria travellers and the fact that some of them are ‘ethnic Norwegian’ converts to Islam. These two narratives influence discussions on how to react to returning Syria travellers, how to prevent IS from recruiting in Norway, and how to stop those who have been radicalized from leaving Norway to fight in Syria. According to one perspective, Syria travellers should be punished for their crimes and possibly deprived of their Norwegian citizenship, whereas the other narrative would stress the need to help those who return to reintegrate into society and deal with the trauma they have likely experienced.

In our analysis we are especially interested in negotiations around whether or not Syria travellers represent a security threat, and the measures that are being proposed to deal with them. We find disagreements on the legitimacy of preventing people from travelling to Syria, confiscating their passports and revoking their citizenship. Despite the differences, there is considerable consensus among politicians on the need to supplement legal sanctions with reintegration. There is also agreement on penalizing returned Syria travellers for participating in war or warlike actions, as long as this can be proven in a Norwegian court. Politicians across the political spectrum are favourable towards reintegration measures, though some want the police to take charge, whereas others want municipalities to be responsible. The tendency towards expressions of consensus is perhaps typical of Norway, with its deeply rooted welfare state model and liberal democratic political culture.

Since 2013, Norway has had a coalition government comprised of the Conservative Party and the Progress Party. Both parties agree on the recent tightening of Norway’s Penal Law § 147 on acts of terrorism. However, it is less clear whether they agree on the Act’s suitability for preventing participation in war in a foreign country. In July 2014, a nation-wide terror alert warned of an imminent attack by foreign fighters returning from Syria, resulting in several days of heightened security and public attention to the threat of returning Syria travellers. A month later, the Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion led by Solveig Horne (Progress Party) started an evaluation of the feasibility of penalizing foreign fighters by withdrawing their Norwegian citizenship. Horne referred specifically to Norwegian citizens who travel to Syria and ‘people who wish to participate in acts of terror and warfare’, clarifying that ‘new rules for loss of citizenship’ would apply to situations where a citizen ‘acts to strongly harm vital interests of the state or has voluntarily served in a foreign military service’. As explained by Horne, Norwegian citizenship is very valuable because it ‘offers all rights within Norwegian society’: Withdrawal of citizenship would thus send a ‘very strong signal’. However, such a scheme would require a change in the citizenship legislation, as well as conditions and guidelines for the withdrawal of citizenship.

In September 2014, Professor Benedikte Moltumyr Høgberg was appointed to assess the specific conditions that might lead to a foreign fighter’s loss of Norwegian citizenship. In her 2015 assessment report, Høgberg concluded that three conditions need to be in place to allow a withdrawal of Norwegian citizenship: 1) the individual in question must have dual citizenship so that nobody is left stateless (which would constitute a breach of international conventions); 2) a Norwegian court must have decided that the individual has taken part in warlike actions (or similar crimes); 3) the individual cannot have strong family ties in Norway (in line with human rights norms on the right to family life).

While the 2015 report was reassuring, it generated surprisingly little debate on principle grounds. This is regrettable because the proposal actually presented a new way of thinking about Norwegian citizenship, raising several important issues about the nature of Norwegian citizenship. Are Norwegians more secure if we send potential terrorists out of the country? Is this even feasible, if Norway wants to stay within the ‘border-free’ Europe? What are the trade-offs between security and civil rights to citizenship, and how can they best be balanced? Is citizenship essentially something that needs to be earned, or is it an inalienable right? Should withdrawal of citizenship be a form of punishment, and if so, is it a good idea to open up this pandora’s box?

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