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Ireland trying to make arrangements to bring Lisa Smith home

The Dundalk woman and her young daughter are currently in Syria.

Lisa Smith
Lisa Smith
Image: Getty

IRISH AUTHORITIES ARE trying to make arrangements to bring Lisa Smith back to Ireland.

The 37-year-old Dundalk woman was captured by Kurdish forces in northeast Syria and is being held with her two-year old daughter in the Al-Hawl displacement camp for the wives and children of Islamic State (IS) fighters.

Smith left Ireland in late 2013 and went to Tunisia where she met and married a Muslim man from Britain. It is reported that she became radicalised and by 2015 had travelled to Syria.

The fate of Smith and her daughter has been uncertain in recent months, but yesterday Leo Varadkar said he wants them to come to Ireland. 

The Taoiseach told Today with Sean O’Rourke: “I definitely want her child to be able to come home and I would never separate her child from their mother, so yes I do want her to come home.”

However, he added: “We have to bear in mind the fact that we don’t want to put at risk any of our personnel, diplomats or military people.”

Varadkar also noted there are “security issues” to consider and should Smith return home, “gardaí will want to talk to her”. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice today told TheJournal.ie the situation is complex. 

“The return to states in the EU of persons suspected of having been active in conflict in Iraq or Syria or residing in conflict areas present complex challenges, including questions of public protection, the prosecution of offences, the protection of citizens’ rights, particularly the rights of non-combatants, and deradicalisation, none of which matters lend themselves to easy resolution.

The complexity of these cases is such that issues will arise where there is no ready solution and such cases can only be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Earlier today Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan told the Irish Times in Finland that authorities here are “engaging with international actors in order to offer assistance” to bring Smith and her child to Ireland.

“There are unique circumstances attached to this particular case insofar as the terrain is concerned. It’s a real challenge for Irish officials or people acting on behalf of the Irish state to enter one of the most challenging areas of conflict in the world,” Flanagan added.

The fall of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria has left many countries, including Ireland, grappling with what to do with citizens who engaged with the terrorist organisation but now wish to return home.

The last IS strongholds fell in March and some 55,000 people are being held in Iraq and Syria, including thousands of foreigners.

The United Nations last month said IS fighters and family members being held must be tried or released. Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on countries to take responsibility for their citizens and take them back if they have not been charged with a crime.

In an interview with RTÉ News this week, Smith said she fears her daughter will be seen as a child of a terrorist if she returns to Ireland. Smith has insisted she did not commit any crimes in the name of is, and that she had no involvement in training young girls.

Legislation in Ireland

TheJournal.ie explored the Smith case and relevant legislation in an episode of The Explainer.

Source: The Explainer/SoundCloud

The Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005 provides that the Offences Against the State Acts can apply to any terrorist group as if it were an unlawful group. 

This would allow for a conviction if the authorities here could prove a person was an active member of the Islamic State group while they were living in Ireland – and it carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years. 

Gardaí have in recent times also arrested a number of people suspected of terrorist financing. Specialist garda units are working with Irish banks to stop money being laundered and filtered through Irish institutions.

In cases where a person has joined Islamic State after they left, it is less clear. There is an EU directive on combating terrorism that makes it an offence to travel to a third country to conduct terrorist acts there, but we have not fully adopted its provisions yet.

The main difficulty for the gardaí in all of these cases will be obtaining the evidence needed to secure a prosecution.

Around 50 people are believed to have left Ireland to fight in the Syrian civil war – at least 30 of those on the side of Islamic State. Gardaí have said they believe the majority of Islamic extremists who left Ireland to fight in Syria or Iraq are either dead or missing.

The authorities here are aware of a small number who have already returned under the radar – these are not people who were being held by Kurdish forces like the recent examples we have heard of. The figures are believed to be in the low double digits and they are being monitored.

Many other countries are facing the same predicament as Ireland in terms of citizens returning home, often on a much larger scale. So, how are they dealing with the situation? 


By June 2018, almost 400 of the nearly 900 British citizens who went to Iraq and Syria had returned, mainly women and children.

Some 40 people have been prosecuted. Britain has also set up deradicalisation programmes – a topic previously examined by TheJournal.ie.

In January 2019, London estimated at 200 the number of British jihadists still in Iraq and Syria. Earlier this year a top anti-terrorism official qualified their return as a “big national security threat”.


Around 50 French men and women, as well as 80 children, are being detained in Syria by the SDF.

Another 250 men were still at large in Syria in January 2019, along with women and children. More than 300 French jihadists are believed to have been killed while fighting for IS.

The French authorities say they want to avoid the jihadists scattering and have raised the prospect of repatriating the 130 nationals currently in SDF hands. Details of the operation are unclear.


Out of more than 400 Belgians who went to fight with the jihadists since 2012, around 150 were still active in Syria and Iraq in late 2018. Added to them are some 160 children and adolescents born to at least one Belgian parent.

Belgium has said it will help the repatriation of children younger than 10, as long as the link with one Belgian parent is proven. “For the others it is case by case,” the government said. 


A third of the more than 1,050 Islamists who made the journey from Germany to Syria or Iraq have returned.

“All German citizens, including those suspected of having fought for the IS, have the right to return to Germany,” according to the foreign ministry.


Nearly 4,500 Russian citizens went abroad to fight alongside “the terrorists”, the Russian security services said in early 2018. Some took their families with them.

Moscow has not announced plans to repatriate jihadists but since last year around 100 women and children, mainly from Russia’s Islamic republics in the Caucasus, have returned under a programme championed by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.

In November 2018, however, Chechen activist Kheda Saratova accused Russia’s FSB security service of blocking attempts to bring back the remaining widows and children of Russian IS fighters.

“According to our organisation, there are over 2,000 of them left in Syria and Iraq,” Saratova, who is on Kadyrov’s human rights council, said at the time.

Kosovo and Albania

Out of the 300 jihadists from Kosovo who went to Iraq and Syria, 145, half of them women and children, are still there.

Under a new law, the jihadists face between five and 15 years prison on their return. Some 20 imams have been selected to carry out deradicalisation programmes in prison.

In neighbouring Albania, 145 people, including women and children, went to jihadist zones between 2012 and 2014. The death of 23 of them has been confirmed and 45 have returned.

The Tirana authorities have carried out deradicalisation projects, including economic aid for returnees. Those recruiting jihadists face up to 18 years in prison.


In 2015, the number of Moroccans fighting alongside groups in Iraq and Syria was estimated at more than 1,600.

On their return they are systematically arrested, put on trial and jailed. Sentences range from 10-15 years. More than 200 returnees had been prosecuted by mid-2018.


Between 3,000 and 5,000 Tunisian citizens are estimated to have gone to fight in jihadist organisations in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

The Tunis government is unwilling to help them return. “The Constitution provides for accepting all citizens, but they have to go via the justice system and eventually prison,” President Beji Caid Essebsi previously said.


Some 590 Indonesians who have joined IS are understood to still be in Syria, although the figure for Iraq is not known.

Those who return have to go through a deradicalisation programme, before being freed, but remain under surveillance.


In a series exploring radicalisation, an expert previously told TheJournal.ie Ireland must act to prevent the spread of extreme ideologies here. 

Professor Pat Dolan, a co-founder and Director of the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, said it’s “inevitable” some people “will be lured into feeling that they don’t belong” and, as a result, may be more susceptible to radicalisation.

We’re inviting something here that we’re not talking about enough. And it really worries me. Will it take an attack in Ireland? Is that what it’s going to take? Do we have to wait for this attack to do what we need to do?

“The evidence is already there that if you marginalise people so much they still stay on the margins, it will lead them to do things that we don’t want them to do. So, you know, this is not rocket science.”

Contains reporting from Michelle Hennessy and © AFP 2019  

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Órla Ryan

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