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Opinion: 'Lisa Smith's story will continue to divide and provoke Irish public opinion - and rightly so'

Security expert Tom Clonan outlines what could happen with Lisa Smith’s return to Ireland.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

IT HAS BEEN widely reported that former Defence Forces member Lisa Smith has reached the relative safety of Turkey from her prior place of detention in northern Syria.

Smith’s journey from trusted member of the Irish Air Corps, working on the government jet, to former Isis bride is an extraordinary one that crosses many state boundaries in Europe, north Africa and the Middle East.

She is an extremely divisive figure, and her chosen path is one that transgresses all of the values and ideals held by Irish citizens in general and Irish soldiers in particular.

Smith’s links with Isis began in 2014 when she left Ireland for Tunisia. She reportedly remained there until late 2015 when she departed for the Islamic State’s so-called ‘caliphate’ in Syria.

Smith’s time in Tunisia coincided with an attack by Islamic State on the Imperial Marhaba Resort, in Sousse, in June 2015 in which three innocent Irish citizens were executed by the Islamist extremists.

Undaunted by the murder of her fellow Irish citizens, an outrage that attracted in-depth international media coverage, Smith travelled to the centre of gravity of Islamic State’s caliphate in north eastern Syria just a few months later.

Smith’s arrival in the Caliphate came at a time when Islamic State were routinely murdering westerners, including aid workers and journalists, found in their territory.

During the period immediately before Smith’s decision to live in the caliphate, there was saturation media coverage, in print, broadcast and digital platforms of the murder and decapitation of hundreds of Syrian soldiers, Ethiopian Christians and other ethnic groups targeted by Islamic State.

To enter the Caliphate at that point was a fully informed and premeditated choice on the part of an Irish citizen who enjoyed the full protection of our constitution, laws and citizenship.

Her time there also coincided with the intensification of IS attacks throughout Europe in 2016 in which the lives of 135 innocent men, women and children were claimed. 

To willingly gravitate towards such evil, in which many thousands of her fellow Muslims were tortured and slaughtered, is to beggar belief. Smith’s claims that she was unaware of what was happening is simply not credible.

Escape from detention

Equally astonishing is her recent escape from detention in a camp abandoned by Kurdish armed elements in advance of last month’s incursion into Syria, termed ‘Operation Peace Spring’ by the Turkish military.

As her Kurdish captors fled, Smith was in immediate danger of being detained by President Assad’s forces as they moved north and east into Hasakah and Raqqa Provinces.

Had she been detained by these forces, it is likely that she would have been tortured and summarily executed, as has been the case for many Islamic State ‘Jihadis’ and their ‘brides’.

Now in Turkey with her two-year-old daughter, it is reported that she is receiving consular assistance from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in Turkey.

It is also reported that she is being supported by an Emergency Civilian Assistance Team consisting of Irish diplomatic staff, members of An Garda Síochána and members of the Defence Forces Army Ranger Wing. At this point, Smith’s options are very limited.

From a humanitarian perspective, contacts from within the Defence Forces have informed TheJournal.ie that their ‘main priority’ is to ‘evacuate’ Smith’s two-year-old daughter. They refer to her as an ‘innocent child’ caught up in a nightmare scenario.

In this regard, it is hoped that Smith can be persuaded to return to Ireland with her daughter. To choose otherwise would be to choose to effectively remain stateless, thus placing herself and her daughter in grave danger.

If the Turkish authorities were to deport her back to Raqqah province – now controlled by President Assad’s forces, her fate would be sealed. It is unlikely that any other jurisdiction would accept her.

Repatriation

The Defence Forces’ focus on Smith’s innocent child has a precedent in previous operations to repatriate Irish citizens from hostile environments. Most recently, in March 2011, the Army and Air Corps repatriated over a hundred Irish citizens and family members from Libya.

Liaising with the Irish consul to Libya, the Air Corps flew to Tripoli from an air base in Valletta, Malta – at considerable risk to themselves – and successfully evacuated a large number of Irish citizens aboard a large CASA aircraft.

The Ranger Wing and Defence Forces assets were also involved in the evacuation of Goal aid worker Sharon Commins who was kidnapped in the Darfur region in 2009.

Air Corps assets such as the government jet have also been previously used to repatriate high-profile Irish citizens such as Brian Keenan, who was released from captivity in Beirut in 1990. These operations are referred to as NEOs – Non-Combat Evacuation Operations. In the case of Smith, members of Defence Forces are emphasising that ‘this NEO Op is all about Smith’s daughter’.

In the current scenario, if Smith can be persuaded – for her daughter’s sake – to return to Ireland, she would most likely be issued with Emergency Travel Documents and flown home.

The government jet, used in previous operations in the Middle East, would be capable of taking Smith and her daughter back to Ireland in one journey without the requirement to land and refuel in any other jurisdiction.

Alternatively, she could be deported from Turkey on her emergency documents and flown home on a commercial flight, such as the Turkish Airlines direct flight from Istanbul to Dublin. As Smith would likely remain a flight risk she would require an escort home on a non-stop route – one way or another.

From an intelligence perspective, Smith is potentially of high value to the authorities here and in Britain.

As per Isis custom and practice, Smith lived among English-speaking Jihadis from Ireland and the UK during her time in the caliphate. She therefore, potentially, knows the identity of dozens of Jihadis from Ireland and Britain, who, critically at this point, have sprung from captivity by Turkey’s ‘Operation Peace Spring’.

Many, like Smith, will have made it to Turkish territory and, unlike her, will be returning home by their own devices, under the intelligence radar. For this reason, Smith’s potential knowledge of their identities is timely and will make her a person of high interest for the Irish and British authorities.

This is especially so given that the leadership of Islamic State – fragmented, but not eliminated – has given orders to its foreign ‘Jihadis’ to return to their own countries and mount attacks on their fellow citizens.

Smith’s story will continue to divide and provoke Irish public opinion. And rightly so. However, for humanitarian and intelligence reasons, the Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs are right to mobilise the resources of the state to repatriate her. Members of An Garda Siochana and the Defence Forces, will, as they have in the past, put themselves in harm’s way to repatriate her daughter, and, hopefully, to safeguard other Irish and European citizens through intelligence provided by Smith.

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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