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Britain Debates Revoking Passports Of Fighters Returning From Syria, Iraq

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Many of the militants fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria aren't from those countries. In fact many of them are from Europe. Some are American. So far authorities here have arrested 10 Americans on U.S. soil, charging them with the intention of helping terrorists. The challenge is what U.S. officials can do if the fighters have already left the country. Great Britain is debating one possible option - revoking the passports and maybe even the citizenship of British ISIS members. It's a debate Washington is watching closely. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: British Prime Minister David Cameron is preparing legislation that would not only revoke passports for those trying to join the so-called Islamic State, but also strip them of their citizenship. The prime minister presented the reason for his plan to the House of Commons last month.

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PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: It is apparent that people who declare their allegiance elsewhere are able to return to the United Kingdom and pose a threat to our national security.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Cameron's terrorism provisions are very popular in Britain. The return of foreign fighters to attack at home is seen as a very real threat, although there's some debate about whether what he's proposing is even legal. There are about 600 U.K. citizens who are thought to have joined the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Compared to the U.K. figures, the number of U.S. foreign fighters is much smaller. Officials say about 140 Americans have gone to Syria, but only about a dozen have joined ISIS. That's why the Obama administration is looking at the less drastic of the British proposals - revoking passports, either before or after people travel.

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JAMES COMEY: It's of interest to us.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's FBI director James Comey speaking on Capitol Hill during a hearing last month.

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COMEY: I'm interested in any tool that might help us identify and incapacitate these people, but I'd want to understand the details a little bit better.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Today canceling an American passport can't be done lightly. Right now the State Department has the authority to revoke passports. It can be done quickly on a case-by-case basis if necessary, but stripping jihadists of passports and even citizenship after they've left a fight could have unintended consequences. Consider what happened in the 1980s when Muslims from around the world went to Afghanistan to battle the Soviets. When the war was over...

PETER NEUMANN: Instead of going home, which they couldn't, they went on to the next battlefront.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Peter Neumann is a securities studies professor at King's College London.

NEUMANN: And over five or six years, you had the emergence of international networks of foreign fighters, out of which al-Qaida emerged.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So that's one potential side effect. Barring people from returning home might lead them to battlefields elsewhere. There's another potential problem. Richard Barrett is a senior vice president at the Soufan Group and a former British intelligence officer. And he worries if the U.K. decides to go ahead with this plan, it could lose valuable information.

RICHARD BARRETT: That the benefits of being able to understand better what it means to go out to fight in Syria, why people are doing it, what's happening to them, why they're there and indeed why they're deciding to come back, I think would help enormously in the formulation of policy to prevent another 600 from going.

TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. officials have been focused on that aspect - the intelligence gained by questioning fighters after they return. They've been reluctant to revoke the passports of the dozen-or-so Americans they want to question when they get back to the U.S. And it's still not clear whether the people who went to Syria really mean to do harm in the U.S. or Britain once they return. Again, former British Intelligence Officer Richard Barrett.

BARRETT: If you think that there's a sort of natural progression from being a foreign fighter in Syria to being a domestic terrorist at home, well, fine, but we haven't seen that that is by any means an inevitable or natural linear progression.

TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. officials are waiting to see how the debate unfolds in Britain. Parliament could act on the new terrorism legislation by the end of the year. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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