France Is Helping Iraq to Kill French Citizens
A chilling abdication of state power
The Wall Street Journal has revealed that France has been passing intel to the Iraqi armed forces to help the Iraqis to target French citizens fighting on behalf of Islamic State. The stated purpose of this French policy is to prevent those same French citizens from returning to their homeland to carry out terror attacks.
We don’t know a lot of details about the French men — and possibly women — impacted by this new policy, or the process by which they essentially find themselves to be persona non grata in their own country.
The war on terror is constantly testing the bounds of legality, in the United States and around the world. A decade and a half of constant war intended to eradicate a tactic and an ideology has challenged our ideas around the rights of states and their citizens.
In its pursuit of this war the West, led by the United States, has engaged in policies of regime change where it saw fit. It has launched cross border raids and drone strikes in countries it hasn’t declared war against, in violation of norms of national sovereignty.
Yes, countries have always sough to influence the national affairs of their neighbors, allies and adversaries. But the war on terror has given them cover to escalate these efforts, with often deadly consequences for the people on the ground.
At the same time, the rights of citizenship have been fundamentally altered. The American use of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in the wake of 9/11 to enable a state of perpetual war without a Congressional declaration has accelerated a trend that began during the Cold War — the isolation of military action from public accountability, a move that cheapens American citizenship by reducing our say in how our soldiers are deployed.
Mass surveillance policies cast us all as potential suspects, a feeling that is admittedly familiar to most people of color but that was new and disorienting for many whites — myself included — in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks.
Beyond that, citizens of Western states have increasingly been the target of violence and death from their own country and its allies. Brits and Canadians have found themselves imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, where they were subjected to torture and detained for years without trial.
To some degree, it’s standard for states to exercise this kind of power over the lives and freedom of their citizens. That’s the coercive power that ultimately lies behind the state’s ability to enforce laws in its territory. That’s implied in the state’s ability to conscript an army and to deploy it in service of the state’s aims.
That monopoly on the legitimate use of force is one of the things that classically defines the state, and it carries with it an implicit threat against citizens who deviate from an acceptable range of behaviors.
That force is generally supposed to be tempered by legal and judicial restraints, however. The death penalty, in countries that still have it, is meant to be reserved for the most serious of crimes, and guilt is meant to be determined beyond a reasonable doubt.
Yes, I’m well aware that’s not ever how criminal justice has functioned in practice.
At top — a French Rafale fighter over Iraq. Above — a French Atlantique patrol plane prepares for a mission over Iraq. French government photos
Alongside especially heinous murders, historically one of the crimes punishable by death has been treason.
Which sort of brings us to the present French case. When we think of treason, we generally think of someone spying and passing intelligence on to an enemy country, or taking up arms against their own. Benedict Arnold and Robert Hanssen are our prototypes. France’s objective in enabling Iraq to kill French citizens is to prevent them from returning to their homeland to carry out an attack. It’s essentially a Minority Report-style pre-crime punishment for a possible act of treason.
There’s no guarantee that a French national in Iraq would go home to kill his compatriots. They could choose to stay in the Middle East. They could become disillusioned, as some foreign fighters do, and leave ISIS, in which case they could become helpful agents of deradicalization. They could be killed in the fight through no direct intervention of their own country.
The French government has decided, however, that these citizens are not only not entitled to a trial, but are in fact guilty of crimes they have not yet committed and are not guaranteed to commit.
Such an abrogation of citizenship is not without precedent in the West. The United States killed one of its own citizens in a drone strike in Yemen several years ago. As in the current French case, Anwar Al Awlaki had not quite ticked the usual boxes to merit the death penalty, nor was he given a trial.
Al Awlaki was a preacher whose beliefs and teachings became more extreme as the U.S.-led war on terror unfolded. Eventually, he left America first for London and then Yemen, but he was credited with recruiting at least one man who tried to carry out a terror attack in the United States, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, perhaps better known as “The Underwear Bomber.”
Despite this, he didn’t himself commit or seem to directly plan any attacks on Americans, nor was he selling state secrets — just the ideology. But then-president Barack Obama and his administration put Al Awlaki on a list of targets for the United States’ expanding drone program.
But France’s recent actions are … odd, for another reason. Not only is the government arrogating to itself even greater power than usual over the lives of its citizens. It’s essentially leasing out that power to a foreign country. It’s a simultaneous expansion of France’s state power and a strange abdication of it. While it’s typical for states to try and grow their own power over their people, they generally guard that power from other states jealously.
It’s kind of one of the core principles of state sovereignty, after all.
French citizens are France’s, not Iraq’s. Given that these particular French citizens have entered Iraqi territory and taken up arms against the Iraqi government — a challenge to Iraq’s sovereignty, sure — we certainly wouldn’t expect France to pitch a fit if French citizens happen to get killed by Iraqi forces. But to essentially farm out their assassination to Iraq in the name of French national security is a plot twist, to say the least.
The people most affected by these snowballing changes are those whose citizenship is always viewed as more marginal or conditional. The revocation of their rights and protections as citizens is easiest and happens with the least fanfare. And it’s certainly hard to sympathize with people who choose to take up arms in support of a group like ISIS.
But that’s supposed to be the difference between rights and privileges — they’re not supposed to be conditional upon certain behaviors. The more we make something like the right to a trial conditional, the easier it is to lose it altogether.