The woman who appeared at the mosque in Dundalk had a very specific request. She wanted to convert to Islam, she explained. Moreover, her interest wasn’t a passing phase. She wanted to be all in, fully transformed, as quickly as possible.
“The advice given to her was to take it in stages,” a member of Dundalk mosque told the Irish Independent.
“It’s the same for everyone who wants to convert, but especially the Irish. They are told this is what it is, this is what you believe in, but these are the practicalities of it - the diet changes, lifestyle changes. Lisa wouldn’t listen. She wanted the scarf, the niqab, the big dress. She wanted the full transformation and she wanted it to be instantaneous.”
It was 2010 and Lisa Smith, 28, a serving member in the Irish Defence Forces, had recently been dumped by her first Muslim lover, an Algerian.
The relationship was over, to him a meaningless fling but, to her, something more. Her subsequent arrival at Dundalk Mosque and apparent rush to become Muslim was seen by many as a desperate (and failed) attempt to rekindle the relationship. In any case, it was the beginning of a journey that would ultimately take her from Dundalk to the de-facto ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria.
Lisa Marie Smith was born in Dundalk, Co Louth in 1982. She was the second of four children born to Caroline and Geordie Smith, a working-class family who lived in Aghameen Park, Muirhevnamor, in Dundalk.
She attended the local Catholic primary school, where she received the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation. In later years she went on to secondary school and at the age of 19 enrolled in the Defence Fforces, serving as a private with the 27th Battallion at Aiken Barracks in Dundalk.
She then transferred to the Air Corps where she worked for a time as an attendant on the government jet and served government ministers, former President Mary McAleese and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Colleagues in Baldonnel recalled her as “someone who was always up for a party” who enjoyed the busy social life that came hand in hand with working on the government jet.
“Lisa was a lively character,” said one.
“She enjoyed the social side of the job, the nights out, letting the hair down. It was a great job to have, especially if you are young with no responsibilities outside work.”
Indeed, by her own admission, Smith was a party girl. In an interview with journalist Margaret Carragher, published in the Irish Independent 11 years ago, she talked about pulling back from her old lifestyle and turning to Islam to find more meaning in life.
“The pressure of life got to me,” she said. “There was so much pressure to look good… and there were no morals, nothing solid. I was all airy-fairy on the outside, but inside I knew there was something wrong.”
After the doomed relationship with her first Muslim lover, the Algerian, she focused her efforts on converting.
She studied the Quran “nearly 24 hours a day” for several months, and formally converted in April 2011.
“When she first became Muslim she came to mosque two or three times,” said one of the women who attends Dundalk community mosque.
“But the women didn’t take to her at all. It was how she was acting and what she was saying. The women were interested in how she came to Islam and she was telling really outrageous stories. One of the stories was that she was at home reading the Quran and it flew out of her hands and across the room. That kind of stuff. It was grandiose bulls**t. After only a few weeks in, she was very judgemental and pass-remarkable. She was passing comment on other women, saying ‘Oh look at this one, she’s wearing this, she is not dressing like a Muslim.’ At this stage she was still taking off the Hijab to go to work.”
At the time Smith was still working in the Defence Forces, at this stage driving trucks. Former colleagues say she was already taken in by online conspiracy theories, warning co-workers they were being poisoned by the government.
She had been living in a flat in Dundalk but later moved in with Karimah Duffy, a Muslim convert from Dundalk, to learn the rules of the faith. Meanwhile, the women at the mosque advised her to attend Halaqa (a religious gathering or meeting for the study of Islam and the Quran) once a week.
“She wanted to be all in straight away,” said a former friend.
“She came and she had a scarf and a dress on. She started doing classes and then she didn’t want to go to them.”
After three months living with Duffy, watching her cooking and cleaning, Smith decided she wanted to become a housewife.
She wanted to learn how to cook Muslim dishes, what the cleaning routine of a typical Muslim wife was and how to manage a home.
Most of all, she wanted to find a Muslim husband. Through a friend, she came in contact with Samir Slimani and decided on him. The couple’s union was blessed at Dundalk community mosque in 2011.
“The marriage lasted three months,” said a member of the mosque.
“The day after the wedding ceremony in the mosque she wasn’t happy. They moved into a flat together in Drogheda and she was still in the Defence Forces. He would drive her to work and she wore the hijab. When she would go to work she would take it off to go in. She tried to make out that he was angry she wasn’t wearing hijab to work. He didn’t care, he was angry that she had it on and then off. He told her to just leave it off. She said ‘he is not strong enough in Islam, I don’t want him’. She left him.”
The marriage was never formalised legally and Smith was given “Talaq” (divorce in Islam). After the split she moved back in with Duffy and was looking for a flat.
When her contract expired in 2011, Smith elected to leave her job in the Air Corps. By now she saw her role as a Muslim woman was to be a housewife, or to get a job working with other women.
Her current job, working alongside men, was no longer compatible with her religious lifestyle.
Smith had embraced the ultra-conservative Salafi version of Islam, the rigid, reactionary version of Islam employed by ISIS, but also non-violently exercised by many Muslims around the world.
Dissatisfied with the brand of Islam being offered to her by her hosts, she turned to the internet, where she posted on jihadist messaging boards and communicated with hard-line Islamists all over the world.
Smith was enthralled by the online Islamic world. Here she learned that Chechens were the toughest fighters, and shahids (martyrs) were revered. She became fascinated by the Taliban and jihad in Afghanistan. Alone with her laptop, she spent hours poring over literature on Islamic law and viewing videos made by propagandists.
“She was listening to all this from people online,” said a former friend.
“You never saw her reading a book. Always online talking to people on forums. She was listening to other people. We are the heroes of Islam. All these stupid forums.”
She was also fascinated by the allure of women’s Muslim dress, spending time taking selfies of herself in various headwear and sending them to men she was talking to online.
“She was hypersexualised,” said one Muslim woman.
“She found women wearing the Niqab very attractive. She would sit in her car taking pictures of herself in the niqab, totally obsessed.”
During Smith’s trial, her friend, Muslim convert Karimah Duffy said that after 2011 Smith became “more argumentative” about Islam and “about things that we as Muslims do”.
Ms Duffy said at one stage, Smith “was getting offensive” about the religion.
She said her views had damaged their friendship, and Smith had become “dismissive of the things myself and my husband practiced”.
Smith had also been speaking to a married American Muslim man online, which Ms Duffy did not believe was appropriate.
The man was American John Georgelas – a Muslim convert who became one of the most powerful militants of the ISIS group.
“It was always about a man,” said one friend.
“She was just one of these women who didn’t think she was anyone without a man. With Lisa it was a case of the more powerful the man the better.”
LISA Smith was living in a flat in the Jocelyn Street area of Dundalk and was no longer attending the local mosque. Instead, she was travelling by bus to Dublin and going between Clonskeagh mosque and South Circular Road wearing a niqab.
“There were stories about her coming back to Dundalk Mosque,” said a member of the Mosque.
“They were saying, This Lisa Smith one, is she alright? She was going on about what she was planning to do, pushing man for jihad and if you have a husband and he is not willing to die for the cause of Allah what’s the point? Everyone was saying to her, we need him, he is providing for the family.”
In Dublin Smith “fell in” with a Muslim woman from Uzbekistan, who married a man from Iraq.
In early 2012, Smith decided to marry the man’s friend, a mechanic, also from Iraq and the couple travelled to Turkey honeymoon. Like her first-husband Samir, he also failed to live up to her expectations and they soon divorced.
The second marriage, according to sources familiar with events, was not announced in Muslim circles.
“There was a blessing, but we don’t know who did it,” That’s why we say it was an Orfi marriage which means hidden marriage. They are Haram (not allowed) in Islam.
The union, which only lasted two weeks, perplexed those who knew her. Others point to the political climate at the time, and the fact that there was already “movement into Syria from Turkey” and talk of a caliphate.
“Al Baghdadi came in 2014 but there was talk of someone before him,” said one of Smith’s former associates.
“We heard about it, but no one was being drawn into it.”
By now, Smith was in regular contact with Georgelas, a man she came to view as her mentor.
An American convert who was considered an authority and scholar on Islam, Smith hung on his every word. From his base in Egypt where he lived with his wife Tania Joya, he gave Smith the certainties she so longed for.
His desire for an Islamic caliphate governed by sharia enthralled her. He was charismatic and had such knowledge of the Quran that he could use it to contextualise any situation.
He was intelligent, spoke Arabic better than many Arabs, had published poetry in that language and was hired by the state of Qatar to translate Islamic laws. People, including scholars, looked up to him and he knew how to draw people to him.
But he was also a “misogynist” who Tania Joya would later say used the Quran to justify lying to her. She said he had “psychopathic tendencies”; he thought torturing people would be fun.
She said Smith was not on Georgelas’ level intellectually or in terms of communication skill. But Smith was open and receptive to his ideas and “looked up to him in a very big way”.
They spoke regularly online, where Smith expressed her disgust for western values and life with the kafir (non-believers). Georgelas was interested in Smith’s military background and told her she could be of use in a future caliphate.
An excited Smith told friends that Georgelas wanted her as his second wife. She was later deflated when a pregnant Tania said she was against the idea.
In December 2012, Smith told a friend in Dundalk that she was going to Tunisia. By then she had befriended another Muslim woman at Clonskeagh Mosque who was married to a Tunisian.
“She went to Tunisia with her,” said the friend.
“She was supposed to marry a man over there but it didn’t work out.”
Pictures of Smith, taken in Tunisia at the time and seen by the Irish Independent, show her wearing a long black abaya and niqab. Others, of a middle-eastern man on a beach, show Smith in the background, relaxing on the sand.
There are several pictures of the Dundalk woman, taken in the evenings when, clad in black, she posed for photographs with rifles, entitling one picture “Mujahida”.
On her return to Ireland, Smith’s growing confidence in her faith and the particular interpretation she had adopted, saw her becoming increasingly radical in her views. She encouraged Muslim women to get two passports, one with and one without hijab, to let them travel undetected by security services.
Meanwhile, Georgelas decided to leave Egypt for Turkey, and invited Smith to travel with him and his wife. Packing her bags in Dundalk, Smith said she could act as a guide as she had visited Istanbul on honeymoon with her Iraqi ex-husband the previous year.
From Turkey, in September 2013, Smith and the couple moved to Syria, aided by traffickers.
Smith was excited by the chance to be a mujahidat in a new caliphate. Tania was pregnant and depressed at the prospect of giving birth in a war zone.
Inside Syria, Smith and the Georgelas family were met by fighters from a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda who drove them to a safe house.
Before long, a handsome Al Qaeda fighter from Tunisia, named Ahmed, soon caught Smith’s eye. She thought he was “hot” and liked the idea that he owned a Kalashnikov (assault rifle) and was a fighter.
In his early 20s, he spoke no English but, despite the language barrier, wanted to marry Smith because she was white.
After two weeks, they married in the living room of the apartment they shared with the Georgelases. Joya refused to attend the wedding ceremony, later describing it as “ridiculous.”
A local judge officiated in what is believed to have been Smith’s third Islamic marriage in just over a year.
Tania Joya, on the other hand, was having doubts about her adherence to radical Islam and its culture, as she perceived it, of violence, hatred and misogyny. After four weeks, she decided to leave her husband and get out of Syria.
However, Tania wasn’t alone in questioning the merits of a life in the war-torn region.
Despite his own terrorist links and experience of danger zones, Smith’s Tunisian husband announced he wanted to go home. In Ireland she had dreamed of marrying a shahid but, despite his Al-Qaeda links, he was another disappointment.
Unknown to the Irish security services Smith travelled back to Ireland in 2014. She left Ahmed and resumed working with Georgelas, this time contacting local jihadists. Five years after converting, Smith had become one of the country’s most radicalised Muslims. She did not stay in Ireland long, returning to Syria in October 2015 to join Georgelas, with whom she lived for several months in the ISIS terror capital Raqqa.
Soon after returning to Syria, Smith met British Jihadist Sajid Aslam, whose first wife, Lorna Moore, was from Tyrone. In June 2016, he became her fourth husband. The couple spent their first months together in Raqqa but, due to the offensive against ISIS, they moved to Mayadin in 2017 where their daughter was born on June 21 of that year.
Smith and the girl, now aged five, first came to public attention when they were filmed by freelance news crew in a Syrian refugee camp in 2019. Smith spoke Arabic and English but had a Western accent and identified herself as British. Because of this claim, footage of the six-minute interview made its way to ITV’s London studios where producers recognised her accent as Irish. She was later identified as Lisa Smith, a former army cadet who had converted to Islam and answered the call to join the caliphate in Syria. Her husband, Sajid Aslam, she claimed, was killed in fighting.
Almost a decade after arriving at the gates of Dundalk Mosque, Lisa Smith had finally found a true jihadi. In death he had bestowed on her the greatest of honours – a life as a martyr’s widow.