Lisa Smith sentenced to 15 months for membership of Islamic State

Dundalk woman convicted in May of travelling to Syria to join group after converting to Islam

Former Irish soldier Lisa Smith has been jailed for 15 months for Islamic State membership by the Special Criminal Court.

The Dundalk woman is the first person to be convicted in an Irish court of an Islamic terrorist offence committed abroad. She travelled to Syria to join Islamic State, also known as Isis, in 2014.

Smith, dressed in a hijab, turned her back on the body of the court and could be seen wiping away tears when the sentence was revealed. Mr Justice Tony Hunt also refused to release her on bail. Her lawyers had asked for her to be released as they prepare an appeal against her conviction.

During a previous hearing they had asked the court not to send Smith to jail and to consider a wholly suspended sentence.

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Mr Justice Hunt did not suspend any portion of the sentence and noted that although Smith was a low risk for reoffending, she was persistent and determined in her efforts to travel to Syria and join Isis and had shown no remorse for her actions.

The maximum sentence for membership of a terrorist group is eight years in prison. Mr Justice Hunt said the court had to give Smith the benefit of the doubt and said there was no evidence she had done more than ally herself with Isis. He set her offence at the lower end of the scale but noted that “it is nonetheless serious” for an Irish citizen to take up allegiance with a terrorist organisation and persist with it.

He said there was evidence that she followed rather than led but she also knew the nature of the terrorist organisation and considered its objectives.

He added that “she may have been easily led by circumstances and other people” but she had also shown resilience and determination to join and remain with Isis “to the bitter end”. She had rejected her family and one of her husbands, who refused to swear allegiance to Isis, and had aligned herself with terrorists such as John Georgelas, an American Isis fighter and propagandist who was killed during fighting in Syria.

Having set the headline sentence at 2½ years, Mr Justice Hunt took on board mitigating factors include her previous good character and her positive contribution to society through her military service. He said she had a difficult time in Syria before being brought back to Ireland in December 2019 but added that this was a “foreseeable consequence of her choice to attach herself to Isis”.

Mr Justice Hunt also noted that she suffered domestic violence from the man she married while in Syria in 2015, and that the birth of her daughter had created a significant change in her personal circumstances. He said she had been of good behaviour since returning to Ireland and there was no suggestion she was a source of present or future danger. He added: “In future her focus will be her daughter; therefore the likelihood of reoffending is low.” Her time in Syria was “arduous”, he said, and he noted that her lawyers had argued that she should be given credit for the time she spent in refugee camps and for the time she had spent under curfew in Ireland since she was released on bail in early 2020.

But the judge found that her crime warranted a prison term to underline the seriousness of the offence and to deter others from offering concrete support to dangerous organisations. Considering all factors, he reduced the headline sentence by 50 per cent, to 15 months. Her sentence was backdated by one month to take into account time she spent in custody following her arrest in December 2019. Michael O’Higgins SC, for Smith, asked the court to release his client on bail pending an appeal but Mr Justice Hunt said there was no basis for a bail application and the matter was now in the hands of the Court of Appeal.

Smith (40) from Dundalk, Co Louth had pleaded not guilty to membership of an unlawful terrorist group, Islamic State, between October 28th, 2015, and December 1st, 2019.

She was convicted by the three-judge, non-jury court of membership of Isis following a trial earlier this year. She accepted that she travelled to Isis-controlled Syria in 2014 but denied that she had ever joined Isis or any other group. She said she believed she had a religious obligation to live inside the Islamic State created by terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Mr Justice Hunt, delivering the court’s verdict, said that she went to Syria with her “eyes wide open” having watched videos of Isis atrocities and having taken part in online discussions about Isis with jihadis from Germany, Australia, the US and parts of the Middle East.

He said her journey to Syria was in itself an act of allegiance and pointed to evidence that she swore an oath of allegiance to al-Baghdadi and that she urged her former husband to do the same and divorced him when he refused.

Smith’s conviction came about as a result of an investigation involving seven international police agencies, Garda Headquarters said following the sentencing on Friday.

A Garda spokesman said the investigation involved co-operation with the FBI in the United States, the Australian Federal Police, UK Counter-terrorism Command, the PSNI, Europol and Interpol.

The Garda thanked the agencies for their assistance and said the case “case demonstrates the determination” of the Garda “to investigate terrorist offences in accordance with Irish legislation wherever they are committed”.

The Garda also thanked “the many members of the Irish Muslim community” who assisted the investigation.

On starting her sentence, Smith will be assessed by a prison psychologist who will determine her risk-level of engaging in further jihadi activities.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times