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Tuesday 22 October 2019

Isil bride Lisa Smith: From flying the world with Taoiseach to war and misery in Syria

The mysterious appearance in Syria of Lisa Smith leaves her family and friends with many questions, writes Maeve Sheehan

Lisa Smith (37), seen third from the right, who served in the Irish Air Corps pictured with the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern whom she served while working on the Government jet. Picture: Collins
Lisa Smith (37), seen third from the right, who served in the Irish Air Corps pictured with the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern whom she served while working on the Government jet. Picture: Collins
Lisa gives an interview from a camp in Syria claiming to be a British woman
Lisa Smith pictured living in Dundalk in 2011. Photo: Tom Conachy/Independent.ie
Lisa Smith
Lisa Smith
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Lisa Smith first approached the Muslim community in Dundalk in 2010 hoping to convert. She was a woman in her late 20s from a traditional Catholic family with a decade's service in the Defence Forces. She served for five years in the army and five more with the Air Corps working on the government jet, serving Taoisigh and government ministers.

A Muslim friend recalled that she was "a nice girl, she is a generous, nice, sweet girl and she is genuinely funny", a girl in search of meaning. Nine years later she is stranded in a squalid camp in northern Syria with a two-year-old son and a few belongings, under guard from Kurdish opposition forces, warning the world via ITV news that Isil is "not over."

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What happened? According to her friends and to gardai, she was radicalised within a short time of her conversion, both online and through individuals in Louth whom gardai suspected were Isil sympathisers.

"I believe she was brainwashed, something has happened to Lisa because that's not her," she said. "That is not the family she came from. She has a decent family, and a good upbringing. I don't know that person at all, I don't know her."

Lisa explained her own reasons for becoming a Muslim in an interview with the journalist Margaret Carragher that was published in the Irish Independent in May 2011.

She was still working in the Defence Forces at the time.

Lisa gives an interview from a camp in Syria claiming to be a British woman
Lisa gives an interview from a camp in Syria claiming to be a British woman

She said she had lived it up, drinking, smoking, trying drugs, but she wanted more and went in search of answers. "…why we were here, what was our purpose in life. I just knew we couldn't be on this Earth for no reason," she said.

"I went through the whole spirituality phase, Buddhism and stuff, and nothing was registering. Fairies, angels, reiki, the works - and then I was thinking that there was no god, just a god consciousness."

She said she met women in the Muslim community through friends in Dundalk and Facebook. "They seemed so peaceful and content and they never worried about stuff. So I asked one of them for the loan of their Koran. I read it and knew straight away it was for me."

She converted in April 2011, a month before that interview, and was preparing to give up her job in the Defence Forces because "working with men is not a good thing for a Muslim woman".

Lisa Smith
Lisa Smith
Videograb captured by an ITV cameraman of a woman believed to be Lisa Smith giving water to a young child in a camp in Syria

This weekend, Lisa's Muslim friend recalled how she spent a year-and-a-half helping her to convert to Islam.

She said that when they first met, Lisa was talking and thinking about the "normal things" that any young woman would think about, getting married, her work, her future. Lisa left the Defence Forces later in 2011 when her contract ended, and she talked about re-training.

"But after a while there was an undercut of things that she was questioning, that you knew were coming from a rhetoric," said her Muslim friend.

"Lisa was a very determined girl, she's clever. When she's into something, she throws her whole heart and soul into it. She was doing this for herself, for her life and I think she was taken advantage of. I think someone locked into her vulnerability and took advantage of her good-natured soul."

Lisa Smith
Lisa Smith
Convert: Lisa Smith pictured while living in Dundalk in 2011. Photo: Tom Conachy/Independent.ie

As to who was taking advantage of her, she did not know. "I knew Lisa for a while after she became a Muslim. Lisa worked. There was no opportunity for Lisa to be going and meeting people. When she did stop working, she did make new friends and she would go and meet her new friends. That's when things started to change more. You wouldn't see her as much. It was a very, very slow process. She was around all the time and then she wasn't."

Her friend said: "I am only guessing here because I don't know, but I would say a lot of it was online. I know a lot of people who would have got a little on the extreme side, and it's all through Facebook, people sending you things, getting you to read things, and then it leads to instant messaging and that kind of thing. If I was to hazard a guess, I would say that's how it worked."

Lisa's Muslim friend said they fell out and after a couple of years, she lost contact with her. By then, Lisa Smith was already on the Garda radar. A security source told the Sunday Independent that they had suspicions about her since her newspaper interview in 2011 in which this serving Irish solider declared her conversion to Islam.

A security source said detectives monitored her in the company of people on their Isil sympathiser watch list in the busy border town. "There are people who would have similar views in the area," said one source. But they believed she had been radicalised online.

In the years after Lisa became a Muslim, Isil was on a bloody path of proclaiming a worldwide caliphate, and claiming authority over all Muslims worldwide.

Innocent: Lisa Smith making her First Communion. Picture: Independent.ie
Innocent: Lisa Smith making her First Communion. Picture: Independent.ie

As she would later tell the ITV reporter from the detention camp in Syria, she was sucked in by the propaganda.

She was not the only one. At that time, several networks of Isil sympathisers were operating in Ireland. A Jordanian "facilitator", who has since been deported, was suspected of recruiting the Irish convert, Terence Khalid Kelly, who died in a suicide attack in Iraq. A reported Isil defector claimed in an interview that 40 Irish or "Irlandi" were fighting in Syria and Iraq.

In 2015, Lisa Smith went off the Garda radar. "When she disappeared, we believed that she had travelled," said one security source. Garda conducted a search at a house linked to her, according to sources. They strongly suspected she had travelled to Syria but had no hard information.

Lisa's Muslim friend said she heard on the grapevine that she had travelled.

"I never believed it," she said. "People were talking but people talk all the time. How did she get there? How did people not know? How did she travel there on her Irish passport? That's why I 100 per cent believe she was coerced into something."

It now seems that Lisa Smith did "get there".

In late February, an ITV film crew visited a camp in northern Syria. They were hoping to interview some of the foreign fighters from countries across the world who had travelled to fight for Isil.

Among the wives and families of the so-called fighters at the camp was a woman whom gardai now suspect is Lisa Smith.

She told the reporter she was British. But it was later noted that she spoke with an Irish accent.

She spoke both Arabic and English. She said she had converted to Islam seven years ago. She claimed she travelled to Syria alone, where she met and married her husband, a British man.

"You come, you see the propaganda, you want Islam, you want to come and live in Muslim country and environment. No music, no smoking, no fighting, no drinking, no prostitution... you want a clean life like this, that is what you want, but sometimes it is not like this."

She said her husband died two months ago. She told the reporter she had just left Baghouz, the final patch of land held by Isil, with just a few bags and her son.

"How are the people in Baghouz now, that's left behind, they're tired. Morale is low I suppose. Some are strong, it's like any rollercoaster of people. Some want to leave, some don't. Some are hungry, some are not hungry. Some are tired, not tired."

Is Isil over now, she replied: "Not over yet. Not over yet."

The interview, broadcast on March 3, sparked off a litany of calls and contacts that culminated last Friday with the security services, Department of Foreign Affairs and the Defence Forces liaising on what steps they should take next.

As opposition forces closed in on Isil, the thousands of foreign fighters and sympathisers who answered the call and travelled to Syria are now languishing in detention camps under the control of US backed opposition forces. Their governments are in a quandary as to what to do wtih them.

The British Jihadi bride, Shamina Begum, is to lose her citizenship , making her stateless.

Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, indicated earlier this month that he didn't agree with that approach.

Another Irish citizen, Alexandr Ruzmatovich Bekmirzaev, who was captured on December 30 in Syria, by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, has indicated in an interview that he wants to come home.

Lisa Smith's family are desperately trying to get her home. Her Muslim friend said this weekend that while she recognised the woman she saw on television reports, she didn't "know" her.

"There is definitely some sort of brain washing on a level that we don't know here," she said.

"One thing I can 100pc be sure of is that there is no way in hell that Lisa Smith has been doing anything with regards to using guns, or fighting, I don't think that's the case at all."

She said that whatever Lisa learned, she did not pick it up from her Muslim brethren in Louth.

"Nothing that she has learned did she learn from any of us in the Mosque. She was not affiliated with any mosque, not in Dublin and not here," she said.

Either way a camp in Syria is "no place for her," she said. "It is no place for her child. I can only imagine what is going on in the mind of her parents at the moment."

Sunday Independent

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