Ireland Faces Conundrum of Jihadist Returnees

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 8

Lisa Smith, who wishes to return home to Ireland after joining the Islamic State (source:

During the past few months, the mainly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured several jihadists of Irish nationality, forcing Ireland to confront the fact that up to several dozen of its citizens have joined the Islamic State (IS) in recent years. These include both native-born converts and more recent immigrants. The developments have come as a shock to Ireland, which has typically viewed itself as more successful at integrating immigrants than other European states, including the United Kingdom. Ireland has also prided itself on its detachment from foreign conflicts and global geopolitics on account of its long-standing neutrality. The IS detentions have therefore ignited significant debate in Ireland about both the extent of domestic radicalization and how the country should deal with such individuals. Ireland’s police estimated in 2018 that around 30 people from Ireland had joined IS (Independent, May 16, 2018). One of the best-known militants, Khalid Kelly, formerly a prominent member of radical Salafist groups in London and Ireland, died while conducting a suicide attack near Mosul in 2016 (Irish Times, November 6, 2016).

Public coverage of the IS detainees has focused heavily on Lisa Smith, a former member of the Irish Defence Forces, who left the military in 2011, converted to Islam and married a Muslim man. Following the collapse of this marriage, she traveled to Syria in 2015 (The Journal, April 7). During her time in the group, she married a British IS militant, Sajid Aslam. He was part of a group of British radicals who had traveled to Syria in 2014—he was reportedly killed fighting for the group in late 2018 (BBC, February 24, 2016). Later, in early 2019, Smith was detained by Kurdish fighters when leaving Baghouz, IS’ last territorial holding in northern Syria. In her first media interview, she said that she had joined IS because she wanted to live in a “Muslim country and environment” and had predicted that IS “wasn’t over yet” (Irish Times, March 10). However, in subsequent interviews, she dialed down her support for the group, saying she only joined the organization because she “just ran with the crowd”, saying she would “never join” a similar group again, and adding her daughter by Aslam—who was born in IS-held territory—is her “number one priority” (RTE, April 7).

Other Irish citizens involved in IS include Alexandr Ruzmatovich Bekmirzaev, a Belarusian living in Ireland who had converted to Islam at some point in Dublin before traveling to Syria in around 2013 (Irish Times, January 12). He was also captured in December by Kurdish forces in Syria, alongside two U.S. and two Pakistan IS members seeking to flee the group’s remaining territory. His story is more obscure, but he appears to have been part of an obscure radical Salafist network in Ireland in the early 2010s, which was centered around a Jordanian extremist who was deported to Jordan in 2016. This potentially involved Khalid Kelly, who was prominent in such circles in the early 2010s, and who may have helped radicalize Bekmirzaev and inspire him to travel to Syria. In an interview after his capture, Bekmirzaev said that he was motivated to travel to Syria in response to the actions of President Assad, however, he soon found himself in IS-held territory, although he said that he was “just a driver” (The Independent, February 10). This suggests that like many former IS members, he now aims to downplay his role in the group in order to avoid punishment.

The Irish Government’s response to the revelations that a number of its citizens had not only been active in IS, but had been captured and, like Lisa Smith, now expect to come “home” has been hesitant and largely ad-hoc. Following the detention of Smith, whose case, as an Irish-born woman and former soldier, has attracted the most attention, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that allowing her to return to Ireland would be the “compassionate” thing to do. However, he also said that an assessment of her risk to others would be carried out on her return and that prosecution for any crimes committed abroad was possible. At the same time, he rejected suggestions that he should strip Irish citizenship from IS members, saying that “is the case with all Irish citizens, they will be permitted to re-enter the State should they try to do so” (The Journal, March 11). This relatively soft approach to IS members largely reflects that there is little public evidence linking these radicals to specific crimes, unlike the various UK and French radicals who were filmed conducting various atrocities. The lack of attacks to date in Ireland means that public opinion is still somewhat receptive to arguments that IS members were merely misguided, a sentiment fueled by the tone of Smith and Bekmirzaev’s recent statements.

Meanwhile, in the next few years, Ireland may face the return of one of the most famous of all international jihadists, John Walker Lindh, a U.S. national. Lindh was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment for supporting the Taliban in 2002, following his capture while a member of the group in Kunduz, Afghanistan in 2001. Since then, Lindh, who obtained Irish citizenship in 2013, has reportedly remained highly radical in prison, for instance translating high profile jihadist texts, as well as calling himself “Sulayman al-Irlandi”, in reference to his Irish heritage (, June 26, 2016). Lindh is due to be released in 2021, and there has been speculation that he may then seek to travel to Ireland. If this is the case, as Varadkar’s comments above indicate, Ireland seems likely to allow him entry.

The above developments will put pressure on Ireland’s institutional capacity to counter jihadist militancy, as well as to contain more subtle forms of pro-jihadist radicalization. The Irish authorities enjoy close relations with the UK secret services, although for obvious political-historical reasons these are rarely publicized, which is likely to help contain most foreign-originated plots against the country. However, much of the country’s counter-terrorism force is focused on issues such as pro-Republican Irish militancy, and expertise in jihadism is still limited. The country, due to its small number of jihadists and Islamist extremists, also lacks both counter-radicalization and de-radicalization programs. At present, it seems unlikely that jihadists will target Ireland directly, as its neutral foreign policy means it is relatively unappealing compared to other countries such as the UK. Indeed, two of those involved in the 2017 London Bridge attack, one of whom was married to a radicalized Irish woman, had two years previously examined possible targets in Dublin, before deciding instead to focus on the UK (The Independent, September 24, 2017). That said, Ireland’s increasing social liberalism, as illustrated by Varadkar being openly gay and having a same-sex partner, could mean that domestic jihadists nonetheless are tempted to stage an attack in the country which would resonate with Muslim conservatives. If Smith, Bekmirzaev and, perhaps, even Lindh himself, succeed in returning to live freely in Ireland it is possible that they could form the nucleus for small groups of pro-jihadist admirers, just as in previous jihadist generations, returnees from Bosnia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan helped, wittingly or unwittingly, to inspire new generations of militants.