Lisa Smith’s taxi neared the roundabout where a man’s corpse with eyes gouged out hung from a cross. “Don’t look,” the driver warned, but Smith saw the lifeless body and the empty sockets. She wasn’t sure what his crime was, she would later tell gardaí, but he may have been a spy.
The crucifixion was carried out in Raqqa some time after June 2016, less than one year after Lisa Smith, having quit the Irish army, left her home in Dundalk to live inside the Islamic State. Isis carried out many similar atrocities in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital city, following the announcement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of a new caliphate that then spread through Iraq and Syria. Most watched with horror when video footage emerged of Isis fighters setting fire to a Jordanian pilot or locking men in cages to drown them or murder them with rockets. Smith watched those videos but would tell gardaí she didn’t know what was true and what were lies, staged to defame Muslims. She would insist over and over it was her religion that compelled her to go, not a desire to join a terrorist group or to use her army training to help Isis spread their version of Islam by the sword. She believed in Islamic prophesies that the return of Jesus, an important Islamic prophet, and the Day of Judgement would be heralded by the emergence of a new caliphate with power and land. She believed in hellfire, she said, and was certain that to disobey the call to the caliphate would be to disobey God and condemn herself to an eternity burning in the fires of hell.
But how did an Irish soldier from Dundalk become so convinced of that religious obligation that she could, in full knowledge of the atrocities carried out by Isis, decide to travel there? To help explain her decision, lawyers at her trial before the Special Criminal Court called on experts like Professor Hugh Kennedy, considered one of the leading scholars on the history of caliphates and their meaning in Islam. The trial also heard from Dr Florence Gaub, an expert on conflicts in the Middle East and from Tania Joya, a former jihadist who met Lisa Smith when she first visited Syria in 2013.
But the story of Lisa Smith’s background was first told to the court by Smith herself and by those who knew her in the years leading up to her decision to move to the Islamic State.
The first witness in the trial was Una McCartney, who said she and Smith were friends for about 20 years. She recalled Smith’s life growing up “wasn’t too great”, that her dad was an alcoholic and was “probably a bit violent or whatever”. When they entered adulthood she and Smith became “a wee bit wild in the way young people are; drink maybe or an odd bit of hash.”
They had a falling out around 2007 and by the time they began speaking again in 2011, Smith had converted to Islam. McCartney, a Catholic, said they discussed religion often but nothing her friend said caused her concern. She knew Smith wanted to live among other Muslims but this didn’t alarm her. She said: “I’m Catholic and I like to go to Medjugorje or Lourdes because there are people there of the same faith as me and Lisa wanted to go to a place with Muslims.”
Smith was reading a lot about Islam and they discussed what she was learning. She was, McCartney said, the kind of person who would go “hell for leather” at the beginning of any new pursuit but then it would fizzle out. She believed her interest in Islam would fizzle out as well, and added: “My impression was that Lisa needed help or counselling or something but she had burnt bridges with friends and maybe was looking for belonging or comfort. She was vulnerable and isolated.”
From her 20 years of friendship, she believed Smith was “very naive and easily taken in”, particularly by someone promising her something.
Carol Karimah Duffy, a Dundalk woman who converted to Islam in 2001, belongs to the Salafi sect, although she said in court she prefers to be referred to as a Sunni. She agreed with Lisa Smith’s defence counsel Michael O’Higgins that Salafi Muslims adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam that controls women’s movements and freedoms and requires them to wear a hijab that covers the entire body and hair. Dating is not permitted so marriages have to be arranged and any meetings prior to marriage are attended by a chaperone.
Duffy had known the Smith family since childhood and was surprised when one day in 2010 Lisa Smith turned up at the Dundalk mosque saying she wanted to become a Muslim. “She had dabbled in other religions and thought this was the one for her.” Smith told Duffy she had tried Buddhism, Hinduism and other spiritual practices including one encompassing a belief in fairies. But when she read the Koran, she was immediately hooked. As Smith would tell gardaí in 2019, her first reading of the Koran in 2010 made her laugh and cry and she was immediately convinced what she was reading was the truth.
There were other things going on in Smith’s life at that time. Smith had been in a long-term relationship that was coming to an end. She was, Duffy said, vulnerable because she was heartbroken and part of her interest in coming to the religion may have been to get back with the man she loved. Duffy said when Smith started speaking online to an American Islamic convert and Isis recruiter named John Georgelas, he may have “pulled on her heartstrings a little bit and she went with it. She was vulnerable, her heart was broken and she was very naive.”
For most new converts, Duffy said, there is a period of learning about the history and practices of Islam but Smith’s approach was: “I know that; when can I start wearing the hijab?”. Duffy found her eagerness unusual and explained to her the challenges she would face. “The stuff you give up, weddings, christenings, Christmas, birthdays; we don’t do that. It’s very hard to explain to your family that you don’t do this any more.”
She told Smith wearing the hijab attracts attention: “you get awful abuse on the streets.” And she explained it is hard to give up the things you have taken for granted all your life. Smith’s reaction, she said, was, “I’ll be fine.”
Things were moving quickly so Duffy encouraged the convert to attend classes at the mosque to learn about Islam. She didn’t come often and when she did “it didn’t go very well”, Duffy remembered. The other women at the mosque were uncomfortable with the topics Smith raised and some even thought she was a “plant”. She focused on the political side of Islam or the “harsh end of Islam” as Duffy put it. At that time al Qaeda was in the news and Smith wanted to talk about jihad and justifying why suicide bombings were happening. Smith’s attitude, as Duffy saw it, was that “we are being attacked so we are attacking back. It was us and them.”
When Smith spoke of jihad, it was the “holy war jihad” and Duffy recalled Smith saying she wanted a husband who would die “shahid” - as a martyr to the religion. According to Duffy, Smith told her sisters in the mosque it was important to push their husbands for shahid. Duffy added: “There are some who believe that if you die shahid it is the most honourable way for a Muslim to die.”
Around this time Smith had to move out of her apartment. She didn’t believe she could live a Muslim life if she moved back with her parents, so Duffy suggested she move in with her. Duffy recalled that once Smith’s relationship finally ended, she was adamant she wanted to marry a Muslim man. Duffy told Smith’s lawyers she warned her against marriage but “there was no talking to her... It was her way or no way.” Her first marriage lasted only months and, Duffy said, was dogged by frequent arguments because Smith didn’t think her husband was religious enough. She wanted him to grow a beard, as part of the religion, but he called her a hypocrite for not wearing the hijab while on army duty.
Lisa Smith had a different memory of her time with Duffy. In her Garda interviews she claimed Duffy taught her about conspiracy theories and was at least partly responsible for her radicalisation. She said it was at the Dundalk mosque she learned about the mujahideen in Afghanistan and ideas like American complicity in the 9/11 attacks or that Islam is “spread by the sword”. She accused Duffy of having “messed my mind with Islam”, telling her things like music, colourful clothes, talking to men or travelling without a male relative were “haram” - forbidden by Islam. She said she learned her role in the Irish army was haram; she might be posted to an area where Muslims were fighting and it would be haram for her to participate. She also claimed she was told paying taxes was forbidden because the money might be used to fund wars against other Muslims.
She was concerned that by not wearing the hijab while on Defence Forces duty she was committing a sin so she asked for special permission to be allowed to don the head and body covering. When her superior officers refused, she decided to leave the army. In her Garda interviews she described this decision as a “no-brainer” because although she would lose her army pay and pension, failure to obey god’s command would result in an eternity of hellfire.
She put some of the blame for her decision to quit the army on Duffy who, she said, told her “everything is haram”. She had begun, she said, to hate the religion and the strict interpretation that she was learning. Duffy denied telling Smith these things and said Smith had her own ideas and may have interpreted things the way she wanted.
Smith would say when she met John Georgelas online he told her the opposite of what she was learning in Dundalk. Duffy realised that Smith was talking to Muslims online when the recent convert began challenging Duffy’s teachings using arguments she had learned from Georgelas. She described Smith as sometimes “offensive” in her arguments while also being naive and simply believing without question what she read on the internet. Duffy said she never saw Smith reading any of the source material to find out the truth for herself.
She also believed he was a misogynist who used the Quran to justify lying to her. She said he had “psychopathic tendencies” and recalled that he thought torturing people would be fun
Among the things Georgelas told Smith was that it was not haram to speak to men, to wear colourful clothes or listen to music. He was, according to Smith’s lawyers, telling her what she wanted to hear, giving her a way to practice the religion without giving up the things she enjoyed.
Georgelas was an American convert to Islam who took the name Abu Hussan. He wrote Isis propaganda and according to his former wife Tania Joya, he was respected among Islamic scholars for papers he had written about Islamic teachings and practice. She said he could speak many languages and spoke Arabic better than many Arabs. He had written poetry in Arabic, Joya said, and was asked by the state of Qatar to translate Islamic laws. Georgelas used a Facebook page called “We Hear We Obey” to promote his teachings and to make contact with Muslims like Lisa Smith who were looking for answers and guidance. Joya described her husband as a charismatic, charming man who could draw people to him and overwhelm them with his intelligence and knowledge of scripture.
She also believed he was a misogynist who used the Koran to justify lying to her. She said he had “psychopathic tendencies” and recalled that he thought torturing people would be fun. Joya, who spoke to Smith frequently online and met her in 2013, felt Smith was not on Georgelas’s intellectual level and had begun to admire him and “look up to him in a very big way”.
By 2012 Joya was aware Georgelas was spending a lot of time talking to Smith online and was suggesting to her she visit them in Egypt. Among the Islamic concepts that featured in the trial is the “hijrah” which is a requirement that Muslims living alongside non-Muslims must travel to a Muslim area if they have the means. Georgelas was suggesting to Smith that she make hijrah to live with them.
But a crackdown on Islamists in Egypt forced Joya, her husband and their children to leave. They moved to Istanbul where Smith joined them in late August 2013. They stayed for a time in the same hotel but Joya was unhappy that Smith and Georgelas were suggesting they travel to Syria to join one of the militia fighting against the Assad regime. She said Smith felt an obligation to help the rebels because she felt they were being oppressed. Joya told the court that many Muslims are “brainwashed” into thinking if they die a martyr they go to Paradise and bring all their loved ones with them.
In Turkey they were struggling to find a place to live and one night, having wandered the streets looking for accommodation, they got on a bus - Joya, Georgelas, their children and Smith. Joya said she didn’t know where they were going but as the sun came up she realised they had crossed the border into Syria where they joined up with a local militia.
She told the trial: “Lisa was excited. I see her face in my head and there was excitement there... She had made it to where she had always planned to go.” She said Smith was “planning to die there and be a martyr. It wasn’t unusual. A lot of Muslims were saying that.”
In Syria Joya said nobody spoke to her or Smith because “we were women and inferior” but a Sheikh who knew Georgelas told the militia to take care of them. They were brought to a villa which had no running water or electricity. The windows were smashed and there were bullet holes in the walls. It was dirty, Joya said, and was used by many people arriving into the country.
There was a curfew and it was hard to get food but the militia brought drinking water and groceries. Joya complained but she said Smith was happy. She added: “Lisa had a good attitude. She was very optimistic whereas I was the exact opposite.” Everyone loved Smith, the witness said, in particular because she covered herself in the way considered appropriate for women, something Joya refused to do.
Joya felt Smith needed to marry because the “Arab men were drooling over her because of her white skin”. But she didn’t approve of the husband she chose, a Tunisian member of al Qaeda. They couldn’t talk to one another, she said, and Smith only wanted to marry him because he was “hot”, and he was a fighter.
She described him as a good-looking and charming Tunisian with a cute smile. He wanted to marry Smith, the witness said, because she was white. Joya refused to attend the wedding ceremony. She said: “She knew I thought it was ridiculous but she didn’t care. To her I wasn’t a good Muslim. And I wasn’t, because I didn’t want to be a Muslim.”
Joya had decided she was going to leave and arranged to get out of Syria. Before she left she said Smith asked if she was going to report her to the authorities. Joya told her she would have to. Smith, she said, immediately blocked her on Facebook.
Smith would tell gardaí that during this time she asked the militia fighters what she could do to help but was laughed at and told to get in the kitchen.
Although the expert called by the prosecution, Dr Florence Gaub, would say religion was not a big factor for people who moved to the Isis caliphate, Smith’s defence argued religion was one of the main motivations for many people and the motivation for Smith. Joya agreed, telling Smith’s lawyers that when she was younger she firmly believed in hellfire and joined a previous caliphate in 2006 believing that failure to do so would result in eternal damnation. Joya said Smith was indoctrinated and told what to think and was manipulated because she believed in a false god: a god of hate and intolerance.
However, she also contrasted her own indoctrination with Smith’s, saying she had never been exposed to criticism of these extreme ideas, having come from a community that told her not to read or listen to anything that contradicted what she was being taught. Georgelas, whom she married at a young age, had also prevented her from learning new ideas. Smith, on the other hand, had all the freedoms she did not and “threw it all away to join a violent, extremist ideology”. She said Smith had been rejected by her own people but was embraced by Muslims and that the ideology of Isis was attractive to people who felt hatred.
Joya also said that when in the Middle East Smith enjoyed the attention she got from Arab men, who the witness said have “this lust and craze for white people”. She added: “Lisa didn’t get that from her own people, so she liked it.”
According to her own account, Lisa Smith stayed for a number of months in Syria with her Tunisian husband before they left for Istanbul. She flew to Ireland and he went back to Tunisia.
Back in Dundalk, Smith continued to speak online with other Muslims including Georgelas and a German convert who took the name Abu Laith. There were others too, including an Australian jihadist named Robert Cerantonio and other Isis sympathisers in Australia and elsewhere. Using messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook Messenger they discussed the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi’s new caliphate and the extreme violence being used by Isis in Syria.
The prosecution used Smith’s online conversations around this time to suggest she was aware of what Isis was doing before she decided to travel. Among the videos she watched online and discussed were those showing the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot and the drowning of men in cages
In early 2015 Georgelas was injured in fighting somewhere in Syria and asked Smith to send him money to help with his rehabilitation. On May 6, 2015 she sent euro 800 to him using Western Union. Smith would tell gardaí she intended the money only for Georgelas’s personal use, to help him to buy a scooter so he could get around while he recovered from his injuries. She insisted the money was not intended to help a terrorist organisation but it was this transfer that triggered the charge against her of financing terrorism. Sean Gillane SC for the prosecution said Smith intended the money to help Georgelas, an Isis fighter, get back on the battlefield.
The prosecution used Smith’s online conversations around this time to suggest she was aware of what Isis was doing before she decided to travel. Among the videos she watched online and discussed were those showing the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot and the drowning of men in cages. Other caged men were shown being fired at with rockets and Smith also watched as an Isis gunman slaughtered tourists, including an Irish couple, in Tunisia.
There was also a video of Isis fighters driving around in a car in Syria randomly shooting at and murdering whoever crossed their paths.
Rather than outright condemning what she saw, Smith asked whether such atrocities were really permitted in Islam. Georgelas responded by telling her, “we are commanded to strike fear into our enemies”. He told her there was nothing wrong with the random killings of Muslims in Syria because “they deserve it, they are Shia.” If they got their heads cut off, he said: “That is their due in this life and in the next life they get torment.”
Smith’s response was: “I get what you are saying.” When speaking to gardaí she would say she meant she understood what Georgelas and others involved in the conversation were saying, not that she agreed.
In July 2014, Smith discussed with Georgelas her own husband’s reluctance to give “bay’a” - an oath of allegiance or loyalty to al-Baghdadi that takes its origins from the earliest days of the caliphates following the death of Muhammad. She stated whether al-Baghdadi was good or bad did not matter as he had fulfilled his responsibilities. She spoke of her frustration that her husband, still living in Tunisia, couldn’t see what al-Baghdadi was achieving.
On July 9, 2014 Smith posted an article to the group which quoted leading Muslim scholars from across the world who had rejected the Isis caliphate and condemned al-Baghdadi and his methods. Smith’s comment was, “what have the scholars ever done for us? At least al-Baghdadi did something.” She added: “People love to talk but no one wants to walk the line.”
Gillane said her online conversations showed Smith knew what Isis was doing before she travelled to Isis territory. She also knew al-Baghdadi was an outlier in the worldwide Muslim community, he said
However, defence expert Professor Hugh Kennedy said there was much debate within the Islamic community about the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi’s caliphate. He said there were respected scholars within the Islamic community who could argue that al-Baghdadi was a legitimate caliph.
In the trial, Professor Kennedy said Isis took certain aspects of the religion’s history and exaggerated them to make their point and to justify barbarism. “If you look hard enough you can find a way to justify anything,” he said. Looking back on the rule of different caliphs, he said, you can find some that were aggressive and others who were peaceful and open to new ideas. He said Isis propaganda was persuasive, used selective ancient texts and spoke to people who “wanted straightforward answers. It gave certainty which was important for people who wanted simple answers to life’s questions.”
Smith’s lawyers argued if there was debate among learned Islamic scholars about the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi’s caliphate then a recent Muslim convert such as Lisa Smith would have no chance of knowing what was right or wrong, what was legitimate or otherwise.
Smith gave her own account of her thoughts and feelings before travelling to Syria when she was questioned by gardaí in 2019. She said in September 2014 she was preparing to go to Tunisia to be with her husband but when al-Baghdadi announced the caliphate and called on all Muslims to travel to help create a new Islamic State, she wondered if it was legitimate, or whether it was a “good or bad thing”. She added: “I needed more information, was it real? Was it something I had to do? Because there is a lot of confusion around Islam, what’s right and what’s not, moderates and extremism.” She said Georgelas and others online told her it was legitimate and “anyone who doesn’t give praise is going to be in the hellfire”.
She spent four days in an Istanbul hotel where her only contact from inside Islamic State was a German Isis fighter who told her to delete everything from her phone and wait for a call
She said: “I don’t want to go to Syria, what am I supposed to do? Muslims were travelling from all over the world; do I do nothing while Muslims are getting slaughtered by Assad. The Muslims of Syria are calling Muslims from all over the world, so I need to think what is best for my religion. Abu [Georgelas] encouraged me to come. I made my decision... I have to go because I don’t want to go to the hellfire.”
In another interview she remembered watching her mother light the fire in their Dundalk home and, she said, she would “nearly collapse to the ground; I would be screaming. I had a lot of fear about the hellfire at that time, that scared me so much I said, “I have to go”.”
Georgelas told her what she needed to do, so on October 1, 2015 she got on a flight to Istanbul but didn’t tell her friends or family her final destination was Syria.
She spent four days in an Istanbul hotel where her only contact from inside Islamic State was a German Isis fighter who told her to delete everything from her phone and wait for a call. When the call arrived she was told to get on a bus to a certain place and once there the phone rang again and she was told to go to a taxi that was waiting for her. She handed the phone to the taxi driver who spoke in Turkish to the person on the other end. They drove around the block and the phone rang again. The man told the taxi driver to wait and then another man arrived and took Smith from the taxi. She said: “I was scared. I didn’t know what was going on.”
After being taken to another car Smith was driven through a forest area for “miles and miles, driving for ages” until they met another man who was going to take her across the border. He looked inside Smith’s bag and took the €7,000 she had hoped to use if she ever decided she wanted to leave Syria. She had just €450 left. She said: “I was really scared, just oh my god, just standing there at the border. I thought, I won’t go but how am I going to get home? Even to get back up the road? So I crossed the way into Syria.”
There she was met by men from Islamic State and put into a “madaffa” - a home for unmarried women; single women were not allowed to travel inside the Islamic State. Smith described it as a prison with 50 to 60 women from all over the world in one house. They were not allowed to leave and their phones, laptops and passports were taken from them. Food and water were scarce. She was unable to contact Georgelas and her German contact spoke to her only once, telling her she would be there no longer than a month. But it proved difficult to get her out so it was five months before Georgelas arrived with a piece of paper that allowed her to go and live with his family on the outskirts of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. The prosecution’s expert witness, Dr Florence Gaub, would tell the trial this was unusual as Isis did not permit women to be released into the hands of anyone other than a husband or father.
Smith said she thought she would live with Georgelas as his student. She said: “You know, it’s going to be so cool is what I’m thinking. But he is a man and doesn’t really enjoy speaking to women that much.” She stayed at his home but Georgelas didn’t spend much time there and when he did, she said he would just go to his room. She added: “I didn’t get what I wanted from him - information, knowledge. He left me with his Syrian family and I don’t understand them.” She described Georgelas’s new wife’s family as “not educated, really bad-mannered,” so after about three months she asked Georgelas to find her a husband. She had already divorced her Tunisian husband while in the madaffa after he refused to come to Syria and offer allegiance to al-Baghdadi. The authorities in Syria permitted the divorce under Islamic law.
Georgelas introduced her to a British/Pakistani man. She said she didn’t want to marry him but Georgelas told her there wasn’t much choice. He told her if she married an Arab he might lock her in his house and keep her like a prisoner. She added: “He said I don’t trust to marry you to an Arab. They will beat you up, a lot of men treat women badly.” Georgelas said the man he had chosen had good manners, speaks English and is not strict. She reluctantly agreed to the marriage.
Her new husband took her to his home in Raqqa but the marriage was not happy. He was a teacher but the authorities closed the school and he was sent for a time to the border. He got a job teaching English to doctors and nurses but was accused of improperly correcting exam papers and was fired. He became stressed, she said, and was often violent. He beat her on six occasions, leaving her badly bruised.
After three months Smith was pregnant.
Her husband wasn’t working. She encouraged him to do something but he said he didn’t want to work for the State because “they just want you to go to the front line and get killed.” She suggested he do a sniper’s course so he would be his own boss. He did the course but, she said, he never actually served as a sniper
Smith described her time in Raqqa in those early months as relatively peaceful. She said she did not see any of the atrocities carried out by Isis in a square in the centre of the city and although bombs were falling, her home was far enough from the city centre that they didn’t trouble her. The crucifixion was the nearest she came to seeing what Isis was doing, she said, despite gardaí repeatedly telling her they didn’t believe she could have lived in Raqqa but saw and knew almost nothing of what was happening there. Her husband, she said, protected her from much of what was going on and didn’t allow her to read magazines or watch videos showing how the war was going or what was happening elsewhere in Raqqa and throughout Syria.
For those first few months of married life she said she mostly cooked and cleaned at home and studied Arabic. Sometimes she would go to a friend’s house to have tea and chocolate or she might go for a walk with her husband or go shopping.
In late 2015 Smith’s family made contact with her. Her sister Lorna told her: “All we do is cry worrying about you. Where are you, are you with friends?”
When Smith revealed she was in Syria, Lorna said: “You told us Tunisia,” and said their mother would have a breakdown if she did not return home. Smith said she would never be home again and added: “Become Muslim and I will meet you all in heaven. Otherwise, I will definitely not see you again.”
The accused told her sister it was an obligation for Muslims to travel to Syria. She added: “Tell mam and dad I’m sorry for not telling them but I didn’t want them to stand in my way. I’m sorry for everything, but I’m fine.” When Lorna told her sister the family missed her, Lisa Smith replied: “Inshallah, Just become Muslims before it’s too late.”
While these message exchanges were taking place the forces of the Assad regime were making their way towards Raqqa and by February 2016 the bombings became more frequent and the troops started making their move. Smith’s husband was not home at the time but when members of the local government began to leave Smith realised she would have to run. Georgelas helped her get to Mayadin where she lived once again with Georgelas and his family. Two days later her home in Raqqa was bombed, she said. She spent one month with Georgelas before her husband arrived and they found their own apartment above a falafel shop. It was here that their daughter was born in summer 2017.
She said she wanted to leave but couldn’t. It cost tens of thousands of dollars to get out using human traffickers and she didn’t have any money. To try to escape on her own, she said, would be impossible
A short time later, she said, the Syrian forces made their way to Mayadin and she was forced to run again, now with her newborn baby. She went “village by village” as the Syrian forces pushed Isis into retreat. Georgelas was killed in a bombing, possibly a targeted drone strike.
For Smith, the caliphate was finished. Rather than being a powerful state with a single ruler, it had broken up into pockets scattered across Iraq and Syria. She said: “Everyone was leaving, we were running for the hills trying to escape this. Raqqa was the capital, that was gone. This was the end of the Islamic State basically.”
She said she wanted to leave but couldn’t. It cost tens of thousands of dollars to get out using human traffickers and she didn’t have any money. To try to escape on her own, she said, would be impossible. Many women, she said, were tortured if they were suspected of trying to escape and even if she made it out of Islamic State territory, she dreaded falling into the hands of the army of the Assad regime.
As she fled, she remembered crossing a river as the Russians, who were backing Assad, dropped bombs on the fleeing masses. “I was holding onto a tree beside the river saying, “please save me”. My husband was just standing there looking at me like I’m crazy. He was not afraid, but many people got hit.”
They got across but were still trapped by the Syrian forces. They lived in a school for a couple of months but had to leave when snipers started firing at them. They made their way to Hajin where they spent seven or eight months in a house. It was “stable” there, she said, a place where they could “live a little” without any shooting or bombings.
Then one morning there was a knock at the door and they were told the Syrian army was about to attack. Smith’s husband put her on a truck telling her: “If you don’t want to die, get on that truck.” She began to cry as she recalled her husband leaving her to return to the fight. She said: “Sorry, it’s a very hard moment. I never thought I wouldn’t see him again. I cry every time I tell the story. He gave me a big hug and said he will stay behind and I thought I would see him in two or three days. I had nothing with me, no bags, money or food. I got on the truck and left, my daughter with me.”
In the days that followed she heard reports that everyone in Hajin had been killed. She added: “They wanted to stay and defend Hajin. My husband knew he couldn’t; he just wanted to die.”
Smith told gardaí she had hoped to live in peace inside the Islamic State, in a place without “Islamophobia” where she could raise children as Muslims away from temptation. There would be no alcohol, no prostitution and no homosexuals, she told gardaí, and that was what she wanted for her family.
But the reality was very different. She described her experience inside the Islamic State as one of falling into a trap. It was a police state and she could not escape because of the likelihood of falling into the hands of Syrian soldiers who would rape, torture and kill her.
As they fled Hajin, the bombs continued to fall until Smith found herself in Baghuz, which was to be the final Isis stronghold. She stayed for a time in a house that had been damaged by a bomb but was forced to leave and live in a shed with fourteen women and children “all squashed together”. She said: “People were coming with horse meat and trying to give people some food and there was no food and everyone was suffering and anyone with food, it was incredibly expensive.” After that they lived in a field where they dug a hole and put blankets around it. She said: “I saw people, women, getting shot by snipers, just dropping, nothing you can do, you just go thank god that wasn’t me, that wasn’t my child. You just care about yourself at that stage. People are going hungry and no one cares. You’re just looking after yourself.”
Finally, Smith was taken by the Turkish authorities and transferred to the Al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria. She described deplorable conditions, a place where people were killed for minor infractions such as possessing a mobile phone by having their tents set on fire while they remained inside. From there she was taken to Ain Issa, where conditions were still awful but slightly better than Al-Hawl.
She occasionally managed to get her hands on a mobile phone and sent messages to her family, who were anxiously awaiting news. She complained of having no money and described the camp as “tough and dangerous”. She was hoping she would be deported back to Ireland but was waiting for months and still had no news.
On December 1, 2019 she was finally deported to Ireland and landed at Dublin Airport where she was immediately arrested and detained for questioning for several days before being charged with offences under the Criminal Law (Terrorism Offences) Act for membership of a terrorist organisation and for funding terrorism. It was through interviews she gave gardaí that she put forward her version of events. She would tell gardaí all she wanted was a normal life among Muslims and added: “There are probably kids out there thinking Islamic State is great and I’m thinking to myself, if only they knew, because someone is going to do something stupid like the Paris attack.” She said she didn’t support terrorist attacks and feels sorry for herself and others who were “led astray, having to come through all that and then come home and go to prison because people think we joined a group; we didn’t join a group.”
Before travelling to Syria, she said she saw videos showing people in the Islamic State having a great time and was convinced by Georgelas and others she would be able to live a happy, Muslim life there. She recalled one occasion when Georgelas told her he was eating pistachio ice cream and she thought to herself, how bad can it be if they have pistachio ice cream?
She said she has since learned it is not obligatory for Muslims to make hijrah and if another caliphate were announced she would not travel. “I talked to more people and found out more information … we made our mistakes, so what can you do?”
Her lawyers likened her role in Syria to that of a housewife on the Falls Road in Belfast during the Troubles. If Smith’s role was nothing more than to be a dutiful housewife, how, they asked, could she be accused of membership of a terrorist organisation?
The FBI became interested in Smith when they heard a former Irish soldier was being held in a refugee camp in Syria. Five agents involved in international counter terrorism were called by the prosecution. Most of what they had to say was ruled inadmissible by the Special Criminal Court but during legal argument one of them said it was “beyond suspicion” that Smith was a member of Isis while in Syria.
Agent M told the trial the FBI became interested in Smith because they believed she could have been recruited to train members of the Khatibah - an all-female Isis battalion operating in Syria. No evidence was brought forward suggesting Smith was involved in any fighting or military training and she denied repeatedly to gardaí that she ever held a gun or had any military involvement.
Her lawyers likened her role in Syria to that of a housewife on the Falls Road in Belfast during the Troubles. If Smith’s role was nothing more than to be a dutiful housewife, how, they asked, could she be accused of membership of a terrorist organisation? Would such an approach not criminalise the spouse of every member of the IRA?
The prosecution’s case was not that Smith took part in the fighting, but that by responding to al-Baghdadi’s call and by making hijrah to the Islamic State, she became a member of the terrorist organisation Isis. They pointed out she had encouraged her husband to give bay’a, a pledge to the terrorist leader, and said this suggested that she herself had pledged loyalty. Sean Gillane, in his closing speech, told the court Smith chose to travel to an area controlled by a “demonic” organisation and ruled by al-Baghdadi whose “bigoted interpretation of Islam” had divided the world into two groups; there were those within the Isis fold and those without, against whom violence was justified.
He added: “The prosecution says this was the context and background through which Smith’s decision to travel and join the Islamic State is to be assessed.” He said Smith was not being prosecuted for believing in Islam or the caliphate but for joining a terrorist group. The self-declared caliphate was not a country or nation state but a proto-state created by an illegal organisation.
There was, counsel said, no good Islamic State that she could have been travelling to in 2015 and this was not an otherwise “lawful and wholesome journey” or “innocent act of travel near a place at an unfortunate point in time”. He said Smith may have felt “buyer’s remorse” after the fact but that is not a defence. “ Smith specifically addressed, assessed and analysed and ultimately answered the call to migrate to this place controlled by Isis,” he added.
Her hijrah to Syria, counsel said, was the “ultimate act of allegiance”. Such acts were vital to the survival of Isis as they were the “life blood of the group”. Those making hijrah to Isis territory provided not just fighters but also “sustenance and vitality” to help the group achieve its aims. Dr Gaub, in her evidence, said that making hijrah was an act of membership. She said those who travelled provided propaganda for the organisation and helped to create and stabilise the state. Even women who worked only as housewives were providing for their husbands and therefore providing assistance to the terrorist organisation in its state-building efforts. In return, foreigners were given preferential treatment by the Islamic State, including better food, better housing and internet access.
Gillane said it “can’t be ignored that she travelled thousands of miles to this place at that time and in the light of what she undoubtedly knew about the prevailing circumstances.”
The text exchanges with her sister, he said, showed that once in Syria Smith did not want to leave. She sent a message to her sister saying: “We are in war and I won’t be back.” In a later message she said she was “well looked after” and on Feb 2, 2016 said “heaven doesn’t come cheap”. Such statements, Gillane said, were “consistent with the philosophy of martyrdom”.
Responding, Smith’s senior counsel Michael O’Higgins said one of his principal objections to the prosecution case was the “endless speculation”. He added: “In terms of hard evidence, it’s not there but the prosecution doesn’t have the good grace to concede that and instead makes grand statements.” He said he was going to focus on the evidence and asked the court to do the same.
He said that at the time Smith converted to Islam she was depressed, suicidal and searching for meaning. She tried Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, fortune tellers and “fairies” and when she found Islam, it “turned her life on its head”.
She fell in, counsel said, with a “pure and strict” sect of Islam in a mosque in Dundalk where she was told “everything is forbidden”. She found out making hijrah to get away from non-believers was a religious obligation for all Muslims and believed she would burn in hell for eternity if she failed to do so. A belief in hell, O’Higgins said, was once a norm for people in Ireland and such a belief would not be surprising to any Irish person aged over 40.
He said her social media exchanges before she left for Syria showed she had already accepted there was to be no fighting role for her. They also showed, he said, that rather than supporting barbarity, she could not understand how people being drowned in cages or fired on by rockets could be justified in Islam. He compared the justification she was presented with to Christians talking about “an eye for an eye” and asked how evangelicals would react if a soldier were captured who had dropped bombs on their community.
Within the Islamic State, O’Higgins said women were of little value other than as homemakers. The only service Smith supplied, counsel said, was to do washing, laundry, cooking and cleaning for her husband. He said the prosecution tried to assert that by maintaining her husband in that way she became a member of Isis or, as Dr Gaub said, that by having children she was providing soldiers for some future battlefield.
He pointed out she is not accused of supporting or providing assistance but of actual membership because she supported her husband. O’Higgins asked the court to imagine the wife of a member of a criminal gang being charged in Ireland on the grounds that she was “cooking, cleaning and maintaining a good house for her husband”.
O’Higgins also questioned the expertise of Dr Gaub, who counsel said did not go to Syria during the conflict and never met anyone who was there. She relied entirely on second and third hand information, he said, and her claims that westerners were given preferential treatment by Isis were not backed up by the sources she herself had quoted. He questioned her assertion that joining the Islamic State and joining Isis were the same thing by comparing membership of Sinn Féin to membership of the IRA. He also questioned if her expertise could not be trusted given that in one report she did not even mention religion as a motivating factor for people travelling to the Islamic State. In her evidence, Dr Gaub said religion is a less significant factor than the camaraderie and adventure promised by joining the Islamic State.
On Monday Smith (39) was found guilty of membership of the terrorist organisation Isis by the Special Criminal Court.
Justice Tony Hunt revealed the verdict of the three-judge, non-jury court in a detailed judgment. Having first said the court found her not guilty of funding terrorism, he then went through the evidence relating to membership and said the prosecution had established beyond reasonable doubt that Smith travelled to Syria “with her eyes open” and pledged allegiance to the organisation led by terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In relation to the funding charge, he said it is reasonably possible Smith intended the money to be used for humanitarian reasons rather than for the benefit of the terrorist organisation.
Smith cried in court after the membership verdict was revealed. She will be sentenced in July.
She had pleaded not guilty to membership of an unlawful terrorist group, Islamic State, between October 28th, 2015 and December 1st, 2019. She also pleaded not guilty to financing terrorism by sending €800 in assistance, via a Western Union money transfer, to a named man on May 6th, 2015.
For her part, Smith has said she just wants to be left alone. She told gardaí during her 2019 interviews she wants to spend time with her daughter and to have the time and space to pray. During her trial she occasionally became emotional, particularly when references were made to her daughter or to the husband she married while inside the Islamic State. She broke down when a part of her interviews was read in which she described how her husband became angry when their daughter refused to eat a banana. When his back was turned, Smith ate the banana herself and pretended the child had finished it. He didn’t believe her and beat Smith viciously.
Throughout her trial Lisa Smith was on bail. Garda James Kilgannon told the court she had complied with all her bail conditions and was “polite and easy to deal with” any time he spoke to her. Wearing the full hijab, she has become well known in Dundalk, he said, and is regularly seen out and about. There were initial concerns for her safety because of comments made on-line when she returned to the town but she reintegrated well, he said and is accepted by the community. Her family, Gda Kilgannon said, have shown the natural concern any family would for someone in her position.