Since 9/11, the Department of Justice has prosecuted more than 500 terrorism cases, yet there remains scant public understanding of what these federal cases have actually looked like and the impact they have had on communities and families. Published by The Nation in collaboration with Educators for Civil Liberties, the America After 9/11 series features contributions from scholars, researchers and advocates to provide a systematic look at the patterns of civil rights abuses in the United States’ domestic “war on terror.”
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“I am [prisoner number] 239. I even refer to myself as 239 these days. I am not sure when I will ever be anything else. It is much easier to deny human rights to those who are not deemed to be ‘human.’”
Those are the words of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident held at Guantánamo Bay, who has now been there for just over twelve years. At the State of the Union in January, President Obama reiterated his pledge to close the detention center, where more than 150 men remain in legal limbo. But what of Obama’s promise to end the other abuses Aamer and many other Guantánamo detainees have endured in the name of the “War on Terror”—the kidnappings in the dark of night, the horrific conditions of confinement, the multi-state complicity in torture alleged by Aamer and many others?
New evidence raises the possibility that American-British collaboration on the kidnapping and killing of Britons continues to the present day, albeit obscured through the application of a little known British power called citizenship deprivation. In 2002, the Home Office—the British ministerial department responsible for immigration and law and order—gained the authority to strip British dual-nationals of their citizenship with no prior approval from the courts. The home secretary merely needs to assert that depriving someone of citizenship is “conducive to the public good.” The deprivation order comes into effect immediately, and is extremely difficult to overturn.
Citizenship deprivation has gained significant coverage in the United Kingdom. But the practice remains almost completely unknown in the US, even in the wake of several cases in which Britons who had been stripped of their citizenship were suddenly and mysteriously rendered to the United States or killed in American drone strikes.
Katherine Craig works for the British legal charity Reprieve and previously represented a number of former British Guantánamo Bay detainees. As she explained to The Nation, “Revoking someone’s citizenship obviously removes a number of the obstacles to killing, kidnapping or torturing them, which might otherwise prove inconvenient or embarrassing to supporters of the US-led ‘War on Terror.’ The concern is that citizenship-stripping is being used by the UK in order to dampen legal and public opposition to President Obama’s campaign of targeted killing by drone and other unlawful practices.”
Just two miles from the offices of The Nation, 24-year-old Mahdi Hashi sits in a cell under conditions of extreme solitary confinement. His strange, twisted journey to the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan began when he was six, when his family moved to Camden, North London from Somalia to escape the civil war. Hashi had a typical British childhood, his father, Mohamed Hashi, told The Nation. He liked playing soccer and riding his bike around the neighborhood. At 19, when he was returning home from a trip abroad, Hashi was approached by an MI5 agent and asked to become an informant. He refused. As was widely documented by the press at the time, MI5 continued to pressure Hashi and five colleagues to provide information about the British Muslim community, even allegedly telling them, “if you do not work for us, we will tell any foreign country you try to travel to that you are a suspected terrorist.”
Eventually, the harassment became so severe that Hashi decided to move back to Somalia, where he married and had a son, according to news reports. In June 2012, his family in London received a letter from the Home Office stating that Hashi’s citizenship had been revoked, claiming that he was “involved in Islamist extremism.”
According to the elder Mr. Hashi, after his son heard about the deprivation order from his family he decided to travel to the British consulate in neighboring Djibouti with the hopes of lodging an appeal. Individuals have only twenty-eight days to contest a revocation, a very short window of time particularly since most individuals are outside of the UK when they receive notice. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), a British nonprofit, recently revealed that the home secretary has even waited for a suspected individual to leave the UK before issuing a deprivation order.
Moreover, challenging a deprivation order is notoriously difficult, even for those in the UK. Because deprivation orders are civil actions, not criminal charges, the burden of proof is less rigorous; it merely requires a judge to establish that the individual is more likely than not to pose a threat to British interests. Proceedings occur in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), a court in which both an appellant and his lawyer can be denied access to “sensitive” material—even if the secretly held evidence is what demonstrates the individual’s purported extremist activities. The individual never has the opportunity to be judged by a jury of his peers.
Later in the summer of 2012, Mahdi Hashi disappeared. As his family in London grew more and more concerned, they decided to contact the Foreign Office and ask for help. Instead of being offered support, they were told that their son was “no longer a British national, and as such has no right to Consular assistance.”
Hashi’s account of what happened next, told to The Nation through a source familiar with his situation, is that he was arrested by the Djibouti secret police in August 2012, as soon as he arrived in the country. Hashi claims that over the course of the next few weeks, he was interrogated by CIA and FBI agents and threatened with serious torture. The details of what happened during this interim period are murky. What we know for certain is that several months later, in mid-December 2012, Hashi resurfaced in front of a New York judge on terrorism-related charges. Documents submitted by the prosecution reveal that he was flown to the States in mid-November, then secretly held for five weeks in New York City jails under a false name. He is now believed to be at “10 South,” the federal pre-trial Special Housing Unit on the tenth floor of MCC that has become notorious for its excruciatingly harsh treatment of those facing terrorism charges.
Although the evidence is circumstantial, Hashi’s story raises questions about the degree of American and British cooperation. The Nation contacted the Home Office to ask if there was any ongoing collaboration or intelligence sharing between the US and the UK on issues relating to citizenship deprivation. A spokesperson responded, “The government will take all necessary steps to protect the public. Citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and the Home Secretary will remove British citizenship from individuals where she feels it is conducive to the public good to do so.”
The Nation also asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the British equivalent of the State Department, to comment on allegations that the US and the UK have been cooperating in the torture and rendition of individuals stripped of their citizenship. While refusing to comment on “individual citizenship cases,” a spokesperson for the FCO denied that the UK participates in, solicits or condones rendition. “We unreservedly condemn any practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’ to torture,” the spokesperson said. “We will not cooperate in any transfer of an individual where we believe there is a real risk of torture to the individual concerned. Our international partners are well aware of this position.”
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Hashi’s case is one of several in which Britons received deprivation letters, only to later face sinister action at the hands of the US government. Mohamed Sakr was born and raised in London. He and his close friend Bilal al-Berjawi—the two grew up in adjacent flats—lost their citizenship in 2010. At the time, both men were living abroad, having reportedly joined up with Al-Shabaab, a militant Somali group with links to Al Qaeda. In January 2012, Berjawi’s wife gave birth, and he called her London hospital room. Hours later, three missiles fired from a drone struck his car and he was dead.
Sakr was killed just weeks later in another US drone strike. In a March 2013 interview, Sakr’s father told TBIJ he had no doubt that the revocation order facilitated his son’s death. “I’ll never stop blaming the British government for what they did to my son.”
What happened to Berjawi and Sakr about a year and a half after they were stripped of their citizenship raises the question of a tag-team effort by the UK and US: Britain removes citizenship; the United States is then free to fire a drone strike without fear of diplomatic repercussions. But it also raises the specter of another kind of US-UK collaboration. Human rights advocates have long contended that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British equivalent of the NSA, facilitates US drone strikes by providing locational data about specific targets. These allegations seemed even more plausible after last summer’s revelations about the extent of US-UK intelligence sharing under Operation Tempora, a mass data-gathering operation in which the GCHQ has been tapping fiber optic cables and sharing the data with their US peers. In January, a top lawyer in the UK warned MPs that British intelligence officers could be held criminally liable for passing on such information to the United States if it resulted in the deaths of non-combatants.
Saghir Hussain is Hashi’s British lawyer, and he also represented Sakr and Berjawi in their efforts to fight their revocation orders. In a recent interview, he told The Nation how these concerns about data sharing hindered his ability to represent his clients. “Certainly in the case of Sakr and Berjawi, the fear we had was that even giving instructions to us would be very difficult, because we couldn’t guarantee their personal safety.”
While no evidence has been uncovered explicitly linking citizenship deprivation orders to US actions, the circumstantial evidence connecting the two is troubling. Alice Ross works for TBIJ and has written extensively on the issue of citizenship deprivation. In a recent interview she told The Nation, “When you look at the cases of Berjawi and Sakr, you have two childhood friends who each lost their citizenship, and went on to die in separate US drone strikes a month apart. It is stretching the bounds of credibility to suggest that this is all a coincidence and there is no connection between the loss of their British citizenship—with all the protections this offers—and the US’s actions.” That does not necessarily mean the UK shared locational data with the US; it is also possible that US authorities tracked Sakr and Berjawi on their own, but were notified by the UK that the two had lost their citizenship.
The notion of British collusion on American renditions or assassinations is anything but far-fetched. There is an established history of US-UK cooperation and complicity under the guise of the “War on Terror,” perhaps most notably in the case of Binyam Mohamed, a UK resident who was rendered to Morocco and Afghanistan, tortured and then rendered to Guantánamo, all with the British security service’s knowledge. The British police are also currently investigating allegations that in 2004, the UK security services assisted the United States in kidnapping two anti-Qaddafi dissidents to Libya, where they were subsequently tortured.
According to TBIJ, thirty-six people have been issued deprivation orders since Britain’s Coalition government came into power in 2010. We have no information about the vast majority of individuals who have had their citizenship revoked—so it is possible that others have faced action from American authorities after the fact. Among the small number of cases where US-UK links are known, there is too little information to deduce whether one country is requesting action from the other, which party is selecting the individuals, or if the cooperation is even that extensive.
What seems evident, however, is that both the UK and the US stand to gain from obscuring the biographies of individuals who fall into American hands. The British government has encountered legal difficulties as a result of their alleged complicity in the rendition and torture of Britons by US forces, and it continues to come under sustained pressure over the plight of Shaker Aamer. In 2012, after a protracted legal battle, five men were extradited from Britain to the United States to face terrorism charges—an expensive and embarrassing ordeal that the British government might prefer not to repeat. And while as many as eight British citizens have been killed over the years in US drone strikes, it seems clear that citizenship stripping can provide a kind of political insulation to the British government when and if the power is used.
The number of citizenship deprivations has increased rapidly over the past year, as the UK government has grown more concerned that British citizens fighting in Syria will pose a threat to the country upon their return. In January, Home Secretary Theresa May successfully introduced a last-minute amendment into an immigration bill that, if passed in its current form, would empower her to strip the citizenship of naturalized Britons even if doing so would leave them stateless. Such a move arguably flies in the face of the spirit of the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, if not its text. The protection against statelessness—which is currently written into British law—is perhaps the strongest legal recourse currently available to individuals challenging their deprivation orders.
The amendment also stands to further entrench the racialized, two-tiered system of citizenship now emerging in the UK. Currently those who were born in Britain and have no familial links to another country—in other words, the vast majority of the country’s white people—maintain their citizenship status with all its safeguards. Meanwhile other Britons can be dropped by the wayside at the home secretary’s insistence, even those who were born in Britain and received status elsewhere through a parent. And while Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office says the UK does not support or participate in rendition to torture, once former Britons are in US sights, their treatment is anything but pretty.
“There has certainly been a change in the rhetoric under Obama in that he has proclaimed the end of the ‘War on Terror,’ promised the closure of Guantánamo and announced the end of the rendition program. However, in practice, Obama has only escalated policies developed under Bush. As we see with the case of Mahdi Hashi, the extraordinary rendition program is still very much active,” said Asim Qureshi, research director of CAGE, a UK-based group that works to empower communities affected by the “War on Terror.” (Full disclosure: this author was previously employed by CAGE.)
Hashi’s experiences shed light on the conditions endured by alleged terrorists on American soil. As a likely prisoner in MCC’s 10 South, Hashi exists in complete isolation from the outside world. Prisoners are not allowed outside, exercise in a small interior room, and are prohibited from communicating with anyone else on the floor. Their only face-to-face contact is with lawyers, guards and medical/administrative staff, and they can see the sun and the sky only when they appear in court.
The Nation has learned from various sources that Madhi Hashi went on a hunger strike this past fall, demanding the right to speak to his mother on the telephone. (To date, he has still been prohibited from calling his wife or son in Somalia.) And a few years ago another terrorism suspect held at MCC, Oussama Kassir, also refused to eat in an attempt to secure more humane conditions and was forced to undergo the painful process of force-feeding.
Like Kassir, Hashi is also constrained by the imposition of special administrative measures (SAMs), which sharply curtail his communication with the outside world. Individuals held under SAMs on 10 South have been punished for saying “Asalaam Aleikum” to other detainees and even for making the call to prayer.
In London, the families of Shaker Aamer and Mahdi Hashi struggle to understand why their loved ones were kidnapped by US forces and wonder if their husband or brother will ever be released from American custody.
The elder Hashi said, “What is my son doing in the United States? He has never been to the States on holiday, he has never threatened the Americans, he was not caught on the battlefield.… [For him] to stay in America, to be judged in America, is totally wrong. It’s proof that America is on the wrong side of the world. And they cannot win [the “War on Terror”] that way.”