From the very start of the “war on terror”, the UK government approached terrorism as a problem emanating from the “other”. In the twenty years since 9/11, the UK’s counterterrorism policies have acted as a form of border control, serving to reinforce an exclusionary British identity, and control membership and belonging in the UK.
The government has made no secret of this fact, claiming in its 2009 flagship Contest strategy that: “We want to make it harder for violent extremists to operate in our country and win support for their activities and ideologies. But we also need to be clear about the kind of country which we want for ourselves.”
Twenty years since 9/11, making clear what kind of country we want for ourselves has taken the shape of the systematic erosion of the rights of British citizens with a recent history of immigration, while insulating native white far-right extremists from similar regulation.
In effect, counterterrorism is deeply enmeshed within the larger project of hierarchical and racial nation building, embodied by the “hostile environment”. Take, for example, the government’s legislative response to the 9/11 terror attacks: the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act (ATCSA) of 2001. Part 4 of the act allowed for the indefinite detention without trial of foreign individuals suspected of terrorism, which required derogation from Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to liberty.
The UK was the only state in the Council of Europe to regard the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as requiring a derogation from the ECHR, and it required this derogation in order to severely curtail the human rights of foreigners. Part 4 of the ATCSA was later ruled to be a disproportionate breach of human rights in the famous Belmarsh case. In essence, ATCSA marked the start of the UK’s understanding of terrorism as a foreign problem, with immigrants who had never been charged with a crime having fewer rights than UK citizens convicted of crimes.
Fast forward to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015, which created Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEOs). TEOs are in essence a form of exile, effectively invalidating British passports for a period of up to two years. They are applicable to all British citizens who choose to fight abroad but since far-right extremism, though international in scope, remains a more localised threat with individuals less likely to leave to fight or join organisations abroad, TEOs are thus more likely to be used against British Muslims rather than white citizens linked to far right extremism.
TEOs are vivid reminders to citizens of immigrant backgrounds that they occupy a lesser category of citizenship and are more vulnerable to exile than British citizens with no recent history of immigration.
For further evidence that UK counterterrorism is a form of border control, look no further than the Immigration Act of 2014, which increased the power of the state to deprive someone of their British citizenship. Deprivation of citizenship can only be used against those that have a recent history of immigration, that is, naturalised citizens, or those with parents or grandparents who immigrated to Britain, or those who have the ability to obtain foreign citizenship by other means such as marriage. This shifts the burden to prevent statelessness, which is illegal under international law, from the state onto the citizen themselves.
After all, it’s not the state that is making you stateless, but your own inability to apply for another citizenship. Theresa May, then home secretary, made this very same argument in court in the case of Hilal Al-Jedda, arguing that it was not her order to deprive him of his British nationality that made Al-Jedda stateless, but his own failure to apply for Iraqi citizenship. This is a type of cruel institutional gaslighting that places British citizens on a racial hierarchy of human rights. And there is no better example of the brutality of this hierarchy than the case of Shamima Begum.
Begum was deprived of her citizenship in 2019, when then home secretary, Sajid Javid, deemed her a security risk, and stated that he would not allow anyone in the UK who “hated our country”. Begum’s parents are originally from Bangladesh and though she does not hold Bangladeshi citizenship and has never been to Bangladesh, the possibility that she might be eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship was enough for UK authorities to strip her of her citizenship and abandon their duty towards her and her child.
Begum had not been charged with any crimes or terrorist offences at the time of her deprivation of citizenship. And yet, her punishment, perhaps the strongest punishment a state can give to a citizen aside from the death penalty, has not and cannot be used against far-right extremists, even those who have actually killed people such as Thomas Mair, who murdered the MP Jo Cox.
Begum is not an anomaly. Since 2010, 37 people have lost their British citizenship. In 2012, Mahdi Hashi, lost his British citizenship while he was in his native Somalia, before the US carried out an extraordinary rendition on him, whisking him to a New York jail.
Bilal al-Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr were deprived of their British nationality while abroad and were then killed by US drone strikes in Somalia. With the most draconian powers only applicable to British citizens of immigrant backgrounds, UK counterterrorism continues with the racial control of British identity and belonging that is deeply rooted in the Empire.
It is not surprising that for Britain the legacy of 9/11 also takes the shape of a hierarchical society, where racialised citizens are subject to an internal type of border control, and human rights protections are not universal. This is what happens when 20 years of the war on terror are waged on your own citizens, both abroad and at home.
Maria Norris is a research fellow at the University of Warwick, focussing on the UK counterterrorism strategy, white supremacy, and far-right extremism. She hosts the Enemies of the People podcast