What's to become of the ISIS brides including Lisa Smith, from Dundalk, who was a member of the Irish Defence Forces.
For the past couple of weeks, the Irish papers have been following the story of British ISIS bride Shamima Begum and whether she should be allowed to return to the U.K. from a camp in Syria. Opinion has been divided here, as it has in the British media, and the death of her newborn baby last week made the debate even more conflicted.
But now the problem of the jihadi brides has come directly home since we have our very own Irish ISIS bride to worry about, something that makes the issues involved much more immediate for us. Having said that, the two cases are very different.
Begum, now 19, was just 15 when she and two of her school friends left London and went to join ISIS in Syria. Since she was a young teenager at the time it is legitimate to argue that she was naive and did not understand what she was getting into.
In spite of that, the British home secretary has revoked her citizenship, a move made easier by her failure to show clear regret for her actions and telling the journalist who found her in a camp a few weeks ago that seeing beheaded heads in a bin had not fazed her.
The problem is that at 19 she is now a mature young woman, and it is far from certain that she has completely disavowed the murderous ISIS ideology rather than just feeling sorry for herself and the miserable situation she is in. Even so, there are some grounds for allowing her to return to the U.K.
The Irish ISIS bride, 37-year-old Lisa Smith from Dundalk (a town near the border), is a very different case, with a back story that is extraordinary given where she ended up. She was in her late twenties when she became a Muslim in 2010.
She had spent a decade in the Irish Defence Forces at that stage, including five years in the Army and five years in the Air Corps working as flight attendant on the government jet where she served ministers and then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
They remember her as a bright and bubbly young woman, but underneath she was unhappy. We know this because when she became a Muslim she was still in the Defence Forces and was interviewed by one of the papers here as part of a piece on the kinds of Irish people who were joining the religion.
In the interview, she described how she had been searching for meaning in her life, something that neither her Catholicism nor her lifestyle was giving her. She had met some Muslim women in Dundalk and felt that their religion and lifestyle offered her what she was looking for.
She said she read the Koran, became a Muslim and gave up smoking, partying and drinking. She left the Air Corps early in 2011 when her term of duty ended.
From then on, we don't know exactly what happened or how she was radicalized,
something the small Muslim community in Dundalk say they know nothing about. She dropped out of sight in the following year or two, although she was on a garda watch list because she had been seen with known ISIS supporters here.
lt is believed that she left for Syria around this time (2014/2015), and it is worth remembering that this coincided with the period when ISIS were doing well, expanding the so-called Caliphate with extreme brutality.
When she surfaced a week ago in one of the camps for captured ISIS fighters, wives and children, she had a two-year-old child and told a TV reporter that she was British and had been married to a British ISIS fighter who had been killed a few months ago. Her accent in the TV interview was recognized as Irish, however, and she was soon identified by security here and people in Dundalk as the missing Lisa Smith.
What she had to say in that interview was similar in tone to Begum, with little contrition and a degree of regret that ISIS had failed to live up to the ideals of the pure Muslim society they had promised to establish. Chillingly, the interview finished with her declaring that this was not over yet, although one can interpret that in different ways.
Several points are worth noting. Firstly, she was still with ISIS up to a few weeks ago as the remaining fighters were reduced to a small area around the town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, from where she fled before being picked up by the American-backed Kurdish forces. So she had stayed with ISIS until the bitter end.
Secondly, it is worth remembering that she was in her early thirties when she arrived in Syria to be part of ISIS. She was not 15, like Shamima Begum. Any suggestion that she was young and naive and therefore should be forgiven and reintegrated here without any fuss is hard to justify.
Thirdly, her time with ISIS included the beheading period when they were cutting the heads off western captives for the cameras, throwing gays off high buildings, turning countless Yazidi girls and women into sex slaves, and ruling with a general brutality that was medieval in its cruelty. By marrying an ISIS fighter she was a willing enabler in this horror and had to be aware of what was going on.
Which raises the obvious question: Why should we have her back? There will be many people here who will feel that she made her bed as an ISIS bride and she should be left to lie in it.
The more charitable view is that, despite her age, she is impressionable and foolish and, since everyone deserves a second chance, we should take her back. That appears to be the view of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who said last weekend that she and her child will be allowed to return because it is the “compassionate thing” to do. However, he added that a full security assessment will take place before she is allowed back into the country.
The taoiseach said that it is not the policy of the Irish government to revoke citizenship, a comment he also made a couple of weeks ago in relation to the Begum case. He made it clear that if and when Smith gets back here she will be investigated and could face prosecution. And before that, she may be investigated by the Syrian authorities to see if she was directly involved in any crimes over there.
The fact that she is a former member of the Irish Army puts her in a very different category to a schoolgirl like Begum and most of the ISIS brides. "But it’s very possible that she wasn’t a combatant,” Varadkar said.
Smith, of course, is not the only Irish ISIS case. Security authorities believe that up to 30 people from here may have gone to Syria to be part of what was going on, including native Irish and naturalized Irish citizens.
One case we do know about is Alexandr Bekmirzaev, a native of Belarus who lived here for years and got Irish citizenship. He denies he was an ISIS fighter but he was captured by the Kurds in an ISIS-controlled area.
He now also wants to be allowed back here, based on his rights as an Irish citizen. Whether he gets equal treatment to Smith will be interesting to see, not least because he was already a senior figure on the garda list of suspected ISIS supporters in Ireland before he left.
Going forward, it might well make sense to make a distinction between native-born Irish and naturalized Irish citizens. Although it may present some legal difficulty, it's hard to see why the citizenship granted to Bekmirzaev should not be revoked.
As for Smith, it will be interesting to see how public opinion on her case develops. Before we decide anything we need to know much more about what she was involved in over there.