Court hears of Lisa Smith's marriage to al Qaeda member in Syria

Tanya Joya said Ms Smith was "brainwashed into thinking if you became a martyr you get to go to paradise."
Court hears of Lisa Smith's marriage to al Qaeda member in Syria

Lisa Smith at the Special Criminal Court today. Tanya Joya met Ms Smith in Turkey in 2013, but crossed the border into Syria when they were unable to find housing due to an influx of refugees into the country. Photo: Collins Courts

Former Defence Forces soldier Lisa Smith married a member of al Qaeda and stayed in a “bombed-out” house where militia and rebels held meetings when she was in Syria, her trial has heard.

The Co. Louth woman, 39, has pleaded not guilty to charges of membership of the illegal organisation, the so-called Islamic State, and of providing funds to benefit the group.

Giving evidence on Thursday, Tanya Joya told the Special Criminal Court that she and her then-husband John Georgelas had met the accused through his Islamic Facebook group We Hear, We Obey.

Ms Joya, originally from London, was born a Muslim and said she had become “radicalised” after the September 11 terror attacks in 2001. She met Mr Georgealis, a US man who converted to Islam, online and the pair subsequently married, and travelled to numerous Muslim countries.

They met Smith in Turkey in 2013, but crossed the border into Syria when they were unable to find housing due to an influx of refugees into the country. Ms Joya told the court that Ms Smith was “excited” to be in Syria, and that she had told her she was planning to die there and become a martyr.

Lisa Smith at the Special Criminal Court today. The court heard that while Ms Joya was fearful about the war, her husband and Smith would “crack jokes about how close we were to Syria”. Photo: Collins Courts
Lisa Smith at the Special Criminal Court today. The court heard that while Ms Joya was fearful about the war, her husband and Smith would “crack jokes about how close we were to Syria”. Photo: Collins Courts

She told the court she was initially happy to meet Smith because she “seemed nice” and was able to help her with her four children. But she said that shortly after Smith arrived in Turkey “it got a bit ugly”.

She said: “She wanted to go to Syria. All Muslims felt an obligation to help the rebels, because they were being oppressed.

“They were brainwashed into thinking if you became a martyr you get to go to paradise.

“Who wouldn’t want that?” Ms Joya said they had respected Smith “because she had training in the army”, and “she wanted to help the rebels”.

She added: “Lisa Smith wanted to go to Syria. She was determined, it was her goal. I was opposed to it because I was afraid.

“I didn’t want to go into a warzone with my kids.” The court heard that while Ms Joya was fearful about the war, her husband and Smith would “crack jokes about how close we were to Syria”.

She said the trip “wasn’t planned”, but because they were unable to get housing in Turkey they had taken an overnight bus into Syria. “John promised it was only for a couple of weeks. We stayed in a building that was bombed out, it was owned by a Syrian general,” she said.

Ms Joya said the house had no electricity, the windows had been smashed, there were bullet holes in the walls and that it was “very dirty”.

She added: “It was where the militia, the rebels had meetings. People entering the country would stay there.” 

She said they had stayed there for one week, before they went to stay “with a really fanatical Syrian warman” at another location. 

Lisa Smith's marriage

It was here that Smith met a Tunisian man named Ahmed, a member of al Qaeda, who she wanted to marry.

Ms Joya told the court that she had advised Smith to marry for her own protection. However, she said she was opposed to her marrying Ahmed because they did not know each other or speak the same language.

“I didn’t like it that Lisa Marie wanted to marry Ahmed.

“I thought it was batsh*t crazy,” she said.

She said of Smith that “everyone loved her”, while Ahmed was “handsome and charming.” Asked why she thought Smith wanted to marry him, Ms Joya replied: “Because he was hot, that’s why.

“And he was a fighter. She didn’t know him, but he had a cute smile and he was very shy,” she added.

Ms Joya told the court the pair got married in Syria, but that she had refused to attend. “She knew I thought it was ridiculous. She didn’t care. To her I wasn’t a good Muslim, and I wasn’t. I didn’t want to be a Muslim,” she said.

Ms Joya told the court that around this time she got her hands on a “burner” mobile phone, called her husband’s mother and told her to report him to the FBI. She made plans to leave Syria and Smith asked her if she planned to tell the authorities about her.

“I said yes, I had to,” Ms Joya told the court.

“She just shrugged. She didn’t argue with me. “She knew I was going to do what I had to do.” 

She said Smith had blocked her on Facebook after that conversation. She said the accused stayed in Syria when she made her journey back to the UK, and then to the US.

“She (Smith) was not going to leave. It was never her intention to leave. I didn’t care. It was like, good riddance. I just wanted to look after my kids,” she said.

Ms Joya told told the court she believed Smith had been “indoctrinated”. “She was told what to think. She obeyed because she believed in God.

John Georgelas

Ms Joya was brought by human traffickers as far as Turkey and flew to Istanbul and eventually returned to the United States to live with Georgelas's parents in Texas. She said she contacted Georgelas from time to time on social media. She identified him in a number of photographs taken in 2014 near Aleppo after he had been injured.

Under cross-examination she told defence counsel Michael O'Higgins SC that when she first met Georgelas she found him charismatic and fun. He was intelligent, spoke many languages, and could dote on her when he wanted. He 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, she said, and could "sway them with how smart he was".

But she also described him as a "misogynist" who used the Koran to justify lying to her. She said he had "psychopathic tendencies"; he thought torturing people would be fun. She said Ms Smith was not not on Georgelas's level intellectually or in terms of communication skills. She agreed that she was open and receptive to his ideas and "looked up to him in a very big way".

A fake god

She described her own path into radicalisation in the UK and how in 2006 she had come to believe in the idea of the caliphate herself. She said she believed at that time that if you did not join the caliphate you would go to hell. But she was also conflicted during this time and would question what she was told and "blaspheme". 

When she read the words of Thomas Paine, "a cruel god makes a cruel man," she stopped believing in the radical version of Islam and began to move away from extremism. "He articulated the words I had been feeling for years," she said.

Up to that point, she said she had not heard a rational argument against what she was being taught. She said that when she questioned things, other Muslims would tell her she wasn't religious enough or was too materialistic or worldly. 

When Mr O'Higgins asked if the accused would have believed that she would go to hell if she did not take part in the caliphate, the witness said Ms Smith was "indoctrinated and told what to think and she obeyed what she thought because she believed in a fake god."

The case received widespread attention in 2019 when it emerged that Smith, a former Air Corps soldier who had worked on the Government jet, had been detained in Syria over alleged links to IS.

Smith was arrested at Dublin Airport in 2019 on suspicion of terrorist offences after returning from Turkey in November with her young daughter.

She had travelled to Syria a number of years ago after she converted to Islam.

Smith is charged under Section Six of the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005 which makes it an offence to join a foreign unlawful organisation.

It is alleged that between October 28, 2015, and December 1, 2019, at a location outside the State, she was a member of a terrorist group styling itself as the Islamic State.

She has also been accused of financing terrorism by sending €800 in assistance by Western Union money transfer to a named individual in 2015.

The trial will resume at 10.30am on Friday.

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