Number of arrests related to Islamist extremism in Ireland has grown in recent years

There have been 30 arrests of suspected jihadis by gardaí in the last five years, compared with just one in the previous five years

The case of Lisa Smith, a former Defence Forces member who converted to Islam and joined the Islamic State is highly unusual, as noted by the Special Criminal Court on Friday.

But she is not the only Islamic extremist to come to Garda attention in recent years with arrests relating to jihadi activity becoming more common.

In the five-year period between 2017 and 2021 there were 30 arrests of people in relation to Islamic extremism. In five years before that there had been just one.

According to the Garda, the majority of these arrests related to investigations of terrorist financing. Cases included suspects making personnel donations to terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria as well as trying to raise money from others.

Many of these investigations do not result in charges due to the difficulty in proving a donation was for the purposes of supporting terrorism.

This was illustrated during Lisa Smith’s trial when she was acquitted of terrorism financing. The court held it could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a €800 donation Smith made to Isis fighter and propagandist John Georgelas was for the purposes of terrorism. Mr Justice Tony Hunt said the court could not exclude the possibility that she was motivated by charitable or humanitarian considerations.

Some cases do get to court however, such as that of Hassan Bal who was jailed for two and a half years in Waterford Circuit Criminal Court in 2018 for fundraising for the Islamic State.

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The arrest figures only tell half the story. A number of suspect Islamic extremists are under regular Garda surveillance.

Some of these have returned from fighting in Syria or Iraq while orders are under suspicion based on information supplied to the Garda from other countries’ intelligence agencies. Smith herself can expect to be under Garda surveillance for a period after her release.

Although 30 arrests in five years may seem like a high figure, it pales in comparison to jihadi arrests in some other European countries. Last year, EU police forces arrested 260 suspects jihadis of which only four were in Ireland.

These small numbers mean Ireland’s mechanism for dealing with Islamic extremists, or extremists of any kind, is underdeveloped.

The Irish Prison Service (IPS) has no dedicated deradicalisation or counter-extremism programme but offenders are examined by psychologists who conduct specialised violent extremism risk assessments. “Psychological intervention is provided on an individual basis following assessment,” an IPS spokesman said.

A spokesman for the Probation Service said it does not have a specific programme due to a lack of demand. He said the agency is developing its knowledge in the area and liaising with its European counterparts.

Former head of the Probation Service Vivian Guerin told The Irish Times he dealt with several Islamic extremists over the years and that the most important part of the response is good inter-agency co-operation.

He questioned whether deradicalisation programmes which are offered in the UK and EU countries are the right approach to extremism. Mr Guerin said the focus should be on changing an offenders’ behaviour rather than trying to change their belief system.

“It’s very, very difficult to change what someone believes,” he said.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times