Friday 23 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'The Taoiseach needs to stop dithering and make a decision over Lisa Smith'

Bringing Islamic State admirer Lisa Smith back from Syria won't be the popular thing to do, but she's Ireland's problem, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Lisa Smith. Photo: Norma Costello
Lisa Smith. Photo: Norma Costello

Eilis O'Hanlon

It's easy to rattle off a list of reasons why Lisa Smith should not be brought home.

The former Defence Forces member went to live under Islamic State of her own free will. She backed the wrong horse. Rather than the Muslim paradise she expected, the 37-year-old ended up in a war zone, on the losing side. Even then, she held out to the bitter end in the last sliver of territory held by the extremists. She's made her bed and should lie in it. National security must always come first.

Having banged the populist drum, the argument still comes back to this - she's an Irish citizen, who has so far not been charged with a single crime, and has the same right to come back to Ireland as any other national.

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Even if she did go to live under Islamic State in full knowledge of its evil nature - which, she, implausibly, denies - she should be let back. Even if she did train young children in the use of weapons - as claimed by other members of the camp, though the allegation is denied by her - she should be brought back to Ireland.

The reason why she should be brought back has nothing to do with her feelings, which are frankly irrelevant, or her right to the privileges of Irish citizenship, which under the Constitution come with responsibilities as well as entitlements; but because Ireland has international obligations, one of which is to take responsibility for its citizens, and not palm them off on countries with more than enough problems of their own.

There are currently thousands of prisoners being held in camps in Syria because other nations, including military superpowers such as France and Britain, have refused to take back their own citizens, placing an unacceptable burden on areas now under Kurdish rule.

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, ascribed such events to what he called "SEP fields", with the acronym standing for Somebody Else's Problem. There's a natural tendency to duck awkward decisions in the hope that someone else will sort things out in the meantime. That's been the deplorable attitude adopted by many countries.

President Trump has called repeatedly on EU member states, in particular, to step up to the plate and take back custody of their own citizens, but France, Britain and Germany keep stalling for time.

When she was German defence minister, the response of the woman who is now president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was that Germany would only do so if "prosecution is possible" and that would be difficult without witness statements, which could not be obtained whilst Syria remained under its current government. France, whose citizens make up the largest foreign contingent in the camps, has point blank refused to take any of them.

This could be one instance where EU-wide cooperation could lead to a solution, but that's not even a speck on the horizon. Meanwhile, the area where jihadis are held is at risk of attack at any time should violence flare up again, raising the possibility that fighters, along with their wives and children, might all escape.

It's absurd that a country such as Kosovo, one of the poorest regions of Europe, has a policy of return and rehabilitation of its foreign fighters, bringing back 106 women and children earlier this year alone, while larger states refuse to get a handle of the situation.

Whether Lisa Smith still poses a security threat is for authorities to decide, but she should be treated as one for as long as it takes to be satisfied otherwise. On return, she needs to be debriefed and deradicalised. That she doesn't accept she has become radicalised at all makes it even more essential that she is put through the wringer. After that, she will need to be under surveillance for years to come, which will, of course, be a drain on resources.

If that means keeping her under house arrest for as long as it takes, so be it. But the absolute worst solution is to do nothing.

As one Kosovan businessman who works to get these people home, says: "If you leave the young in these camps for years then you are creating people who get desperate and angry, and they can be exploited by extremists to create another generation of fighters."

The Government could have dealt with this issue in quick order if it was motivated to do so. Instead, months after Lisa Smith's case first came to attention, they're still talking about "engaging with international actors" to bring her home, or issuing periodic stories about plans being drawn up by the Defence Forces. It's hard not to wonder if this is just a stalling tactic, and that the Government doesn't want to bring her home, they just don't want to say it.

The Taoiseach was asked this question directly on Sean O'Rourke's radio show this week: "Do you not want her to come back?"

His brief hesitation before answering, the cogs whirring in his head as he sought the right answer, was telling. He settled on saying: "I definitely want her child to be able to come home, and I would never separate a child from their mother, so yes, I do want her to come home." In a way, it's admirable that Varadkar is prepared to say it.

Judged by mainstream and social media reaction, the Irish public is not the slightest bit sympathetic to Lisa Smith. Scrolling through hundreds of comments online, it's a struggle to find a single one supportive of bringing her home. The Taoiseach could easily have taken the same bullish stance as British Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who withdrew UK citizenship from schoolgirl Shamima Begum when she expressed a desire to return to London after being seduced by Islamic State as a 15-year-old.

Begum's case arguably deserves more delicate consideration, as she was so young when she ran away to become a jihadi bride; Lisa Smith was a grown woman, with experience of the world, and quite the tough cookie, if this week's Prime Time interview was anything to go by. She didn't come across at all well, being alternately defensive and Jesuitical, and not at all remorseful, any more than when, asked by the BBC recently about jihadist atrocities, she hid behind moral equivalence: "I have to see the sides of the two stories." There's something creepily glib about her.

Varadkar could have played the hard man with this simultaneously wily and obtuse woman, sat back and watched his personal popularity rise. He didn't. Nor, though, has he actually done anything to bring this matter to a close.

To Sean O'Rourke, he played up the logistical difficulties and risks of getting Smith out, but no one is suggesting a Guns Of Navarone-style raid on the camp where she's held. US and Kurdish authorities, who oversee the area, must be more than willing to get her off their hands. A transfer arrangement shouldn't be that hard to organise. It's just one woman and child. Ireland is fortunate in having so few cases to deal with. Devotees of terror here generally look closer to home for inspiration.

It's as if the Taoiseach is caught between two impulses. He doesn't want to put himself out for Smith, but he doesn't want to appear cold-hearted, so he wrings his hands, and keeps talking about the compassionate thing to do.

Appealing to the heart rather than the head doesn't cut it.

That was one of the problems with the Prime Time interview. Asking "how do you feel?" makes it seem as if Lisa Smith's feelings matter a damn at this stage. The Taoiseach just needs to make a decision commensurate with his pay grade and own the consequences.

Sunday Independent

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