Wednesday 13 November 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'It was a mistake to send the Army Rangers to help Lisa Smith - but we are bound to allow her return'

Safe house: Lisa Smith is being held on the Turkish/Syrian border. Photo: Tom Conachy
Safe house: Lisa Smith is being held on the Turkish/Syrian border. Photo: Tom Conachy
Smith pictured during her days in the Defence Forces
Dundalk native Lisa Smith in a BBC interview
Lisa Smith
Former Irish soldier Lisa Smith
'With the greatest of respect to Mr Coveney, whether speculation is ‘helpful’ or not is none of his business' (stock photo)
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

She's the story that won't go away and, from the Government's perspective, she's a story that just keeps getting worse.

When former member of the Irish Defence Forces Lisa Smith (38) first appeared last March in an ITV news programme broadcast from a camp holding so-called 'Isil brides' in northern Syria, the reaction in her native country was one of rare unanimity - the overwhelming majority of Irish people were quick to express their revulsion for the organisation she had chosen to join.

The public mood was not open to entertaining her return to Ireland.

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The Government, on the other hand, is obliged to be more circumspect in its approach and while several senior Irish politicians have privately expressed their agreement with the general public attitude towards her, there was the not inconsiderable weight of international law to take into account.

Unlike the other famous Isil bride, Shamima Begum, Ms Smith didn't hold dual nationality with any other country and refusing her right to return would, therefore, leave her stateless - that would be considered an illegal act by the Government.

The Varadkar regime was placed between a rock and a hard place on this issue - an uncomfortable perch which it also happens to share with numerous other EU countries who are also struggling to find the best ways to repatriate their citizens who joined Isil.

Information emerging from that region is invariably incomplete or simply wrong and while Ms Smith seemed almost determined to erase any potential support with a series of interviews which could be most politely described as 'ill advised', the Irish authorities were stuck in limbo - nobody knew if the Kurds still wanted to question her, and nobody knew precisely what role she had played in the barbaric 'caliphate' she so eagerly joined.

Donald Trump's disastrous decision to allow the Turks a free hand against the Kurds meant numerous detention camps for former Isil fighters and their brides were emptied of guards who had to go to the border to stave off the expected advances of the Turkish army and militias.

It was that catastrophic mistake which placed the Dundalk woman back on the national radar, as she was one of an estimated 750 women who managed to escape the detention camp when her captors vanished before she was ultimately detained by a group aligned with Turkey.

That sudden change of regional balance upended the apple cart and has added renewed chaos to an already febrile environment.

But the news that members of the Army Ranger Wing have been deployed to the badlands between Syria and Turkey to help bring her back has enraged many people. When this strange tale began to unfold in March, we were told that whatever happened, Irish forces would not be placed in danger with a rescue mission. Numerous security analysts familiar with the region agreed that she should be allowed back into this country, but many of them also argued that she had made her own way there, and it was up to her to find her way to the nearest Irish consulate.

Now it has been reported that the Department of Foreign Affairs has issued emergency travel documents for Ms Smith and her child and while this has led to a widespread misconception that she could be back within the next few days, Simon Coveney was quick to pour cold water on that idea, stressing yesterday that: "We are not likely to see a breakthrough in the coming days, but I am hopeful that within a few weeks we will be able to make progress on this case."

That's fair enough, but the Tánaiste will have angered many people with his comments that: "It is not helpful to speculate in relation to this case, this is a sensitive and complex case."

With the greatest of respect to Mr Coveney, whether speculation is 'helpful' or not is none of his business. The reason there has been such fevered conjecture about Ms Smith and her right to return is because so many Irish people were understandably appalled at her actions and they simply don't believe a word she is saying.

After all, pictures of her firing a gun emerged shortly after her assertion that she had never fired a weapon while in the Middle East. Her credulity-stretching claims that she was a mere housewife who 'liked to go for coffee' has been vigorously denied by witnesses who claim she was a member of the dreaded all-female morality police. Also, for good measure, she has been forced to deny claims that she trained young women in firearms.

While Louth TDs have expressed support for her repatriation (Fianna Fáil's Declan Breathnach suggested during the summer that she deserved '...compassion and a second chance'), other observers with a broader perspective have been less idealistic. The Government came under fire yesterday from the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council. The head of the organisation, Shaykh Dr Umar Al-Qadri, told 'Morning Ireland' that he was 'shocked' by the effort the Government is expending to bring a self-confessed member of Isil back into the country. While he said he understands the need to provide consular assistance if it was requested, he stressed that: "I find it quite shocking that our Government is putting so much effort to bring back that particular individual. It was extraordinary to include the Defence Forces."

On that point, it is impossible to argue with the Imam.

But if the Government made a mistake by involving members of the Ranger wing to aid her return, the bigger question is just what should be done with her when she returns to the country she abandoned? Certainly, she can be investigated and prosecuted under the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act of 2005. But more importantly, security services - and not just the Irish ones - will want to squeeze as much information out of her as they can.

There has also been talk of getting her to engage in a 'deradicalisation' programme, but as efforts with other returnees across Europe have shown, they are often an exercise in futility.

One could certainly argue that using soldiers to help return their former comrade was a step too far. But the simple reality is that we have no choice, legally, but to allow her back. We are similarly compelled, this time morally, to help ease the burden on those local forces who have been left to guard thousands of foreign fighters.

Ms Smith is the architect of her own misfortune and accepting that she must be allowed return isn't a gesture of 'compassion' - it is a rational recognition of the realities of international law. But if the authorities thought Ms Smith was a problem when she was in Syria, they should brace themselves for when she returns.

This story isn't finished. But whatever the outcome, a happy ending is unlikely.

Irish Independent

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