Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Monday 5 June 2023 Dublin: 13°C
Tom Conachy
Opinion 'Lisa Smith needs to be exploited to the maximum as an intelligence source on her return'
“While Smith was living with IS during 2016, 135 European citizens were slaughtered in 10 separate attacks that year,” security expert Tom Clonan writes.

RECENT INTERVIEWS WITH so-called jihadi bride Lisa Smith at Al Hawl refugee camp in northern Syria indicate her strongly expressed desire to return to Ireland with her young daughter. 

This has divided public opinion in Ireland. 

On social media platforms, some commentators state that she should ‘rot’ in Syria and face the consequences of her actions. 

Smith is currently located in a Kurdish controlled jurisdiction. Her situation is precarious as she holds no passport and is effectively stateless. Kurdish control of the Al Hawl area is equally precarious – the future of this part of northern Syria is uncertain. 

Given the vagaries of the war in Syria, if Smith and her daughter end up in territory controlled by President Assad’s Syrian Arab National Army forces, she would face torture and summary execution. Other similar foreign fighters and Jihadi ‘brides’ have been executed in Syria by Assad’s Russian backed troops. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Irish government have indicated that they wish to support her repatriation as an Irish citizen and are ‘exploring’ ways of getting her out of Syria. On her return to Ireland, she and her daughter would require monitoring – and possibly protection from the state. 

Lisa Smith’s pathway to radicalisation and journey from Ireland to Tunisia and then Syria raise very serious questions and concerns for the Irish authorities – and the Irish public. It is reported that she converted to Islam when serving as a member of the Irish Defence Forces prior to her discharge in 2011. The Defence Forces has a commitment to diversity and equality within the ranks and apparently supported her in this decision.

Subsequent events raise serious questions that Smith may be in a position to answer. 

Some of the answers might prove invaluable to An Garda Síochána and their international intelligence partners in Britain, the USA and elsewhere. International intelligence agencies are very focussed on understanding the path to radicalisation among young Muslims. 

Internationally, a recruitment process or ‘grooming’ of young Muslims by radical groups such as IS has been observed. Some of this ‘grooming’ process is online and some of it takes place – face to face – in radical religious schools or madrassas. Some of these madrassas are unofficial, as are some prayer rooms and other radicalised Islamist networks.

Many young Muslims who are radicalised in this way are considered ‘vulnerable’ to grooming and easily recruited as jihadists. Shamima Begum for example, was a 15-year-old schoolgirl when she and others ran away from home in London to join Islamic State’s so-called caliphate. 

As a child ‘bride’ she was effectively repeatedly raped by her IS associates and had a number of pregnancies that ended in miscarriage and infant mortality.

Lisa Smith however was a fully independent and empowered woman – around 30 years of age – and with a successful career in the Defence Forces behind her when she was radicalised. 

As a mature adult woman, enjoying the protections of Irish law and our constitutional guarantees for male and female Irish citizens, she took an informed decision to travel to the IS caliphate where she would become a second-class citizen, a chattel under a perverted form of Sharia law.

Her radicalisation could have involved several steps and several individuals in Ireland or elsewhere that Smith should identify for gardaí. Specifically, we need to know if she was radicalised in Ireland – and if so, in what madrassas, in what mosque or prayer room, by whom and by what inducements or methods?

European attacks

It is reported that Smith travelled from Ireland to Tunisia in North Africa in 2014 and that she remained there until late 2015. Smith should reveal to An Garda Síochána who her Tunisian contacts and recruiters were. 

She has a moral obligation to reveal to the Irish authorities who facilitated, organised and paid for her travel from Tunisia to Syria in 2015. While she was transiting through Tunisia, members of the Islamic State murdered three Irish citizens – Martina Hayes, Laurence Hayes and Lorna Carty – in an attack on the Imperial Marhaba Hotel at the resort of Sousse in June 2015.

Smith would have been aware of this attack and may be in position to identify IS members operating in Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa at this time. Apart from the tragic Irish connection here, it is believed that many leading IS figures have fled the caliphate for North Africa and are currently re-organising there for renewed terror attacks in Europe. 

Smith’s insights into Islamic State’s operations in Tunisia, and any jihadi recruiters or travel agents there, might prove invaluable to Irish and international intelligence agencies.

Smith’s arrival in Syria, in late 2015, where she actively sought out Islamic State’s caliphate, also coincides with the IS attack on the Bataclan Theatre in Paris in November 2015. 

Two fellow Dundalk natives – Katie Healy and David Nolan – were caught up in the attack. Nolan was shot and injured but both he and Healy managed to narrowly escape with their lives. 

Smith’s decision to live with the caliphate coincided directly with these attacks on innocent Irish citizens and she integrated into Islamic State during 2016, the bloodiest year in Europe for IS attacks. 

While Smith was living with IS during 2016, 135 European citizens were slaughtered in 10 separate attacks that year – from the Brussels Airport bombing to the Nice attack to the Berlin Christmas attack in December 2016.

As an English-speaking foreign ‘bride’ or jihadi, Smith would have been placed initially in a madafa or women’s living quarters with other English speakers. Smith has reportedly said that she spent five months in such a madafa. As a consequence, Smith may be able to identify other Irish, British or other English-speaking female jihadis to gardaí and their British and international intelligence partners.

Smith has a categorical moral obligation to do so.

Foreigners treated differently

As was standard operating procedure with Islamic State, Smith claims she was eventually matched up with an English-speaking foreign Jihadi, Sajid Aslam – a British citizen from Birmingham. 

It is known that Islamic State kept Anglophone and Francophone groups of foreign jihadis together in groups. It is therefore likely that Smith knows the identities of dozens of British and perhaps Irish jihadis who were operating in Syria.

It is also the case that Islamic State used foreign jihadis as ‘cannon fodder’ at the front line of their combat operations – accompanied by wives and children who were later used as human shields during their defensive operations. As such, Smith’s claims not to have witnessed  – or participated in – the violence and fighting require, in my opinion, rigorous sceptical interrogation.

For all of these reasons, but particularly to help identify other jihadis who may be currently under the intelligence radar, Lisa Smith needs to be exploited to the maximum on her return as an intelligence source. 

She might also be useful – in the absence of a legislative framework within which to charge her with a criminal offence – as an example to young Irish citizens of the dangers of radicalisation.

Apart from her legal situation, she has an absolute moral obligation to tell the Irish authorities everything she knows about Islamic State on this island and elsewhere. 

I do not believe that Lisa Smith was a naïve ingénue. 

But, neither do I believe that she should be abandoned to suffer a fate similar to that inflicted on others by her fellow travellers. 

We need to get her home and harvest her intelligence potential.  

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.     


In episode #3 of The Explainer,’s news podcast, we looked at the case of Islamic State member Lisa Smith, who is Irish and was married to an Islamic State member. We examine the current state of play regarding Islamic State in Syria, why its members are leaving the country, and what Ireland’s options are for returning citizens. 

We went on a deep dive into the current situation, and what the options are, with guests Professor Pat Dolan of NUI Galway and Ajmal Hussain of the School of Social Sciences in the University of Manchester, and senior reporter Michelle Hennessy.

The Explainer / SoundCloud

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment

    Leave a commentcancel