Report: "when people get involved in ISIS, a lot of the time we're looking at identity"

Lisa Smith is the Irish woman who travelled to Syria three years ago to join the so-called Islamic State group. The  former member of the Defence Forces and her two year old daughter are believed to be among a number of Europeans due to be deported from Turkey in the coming days. Orla Lynch is Head of Criminology at UCC and she joined the Marian Finucane show on RTÉ Radio 1 to talk about the Dundalk woman and analyse how she was radicalised. 

"It's estimated that 10 to 14% of all the individuals who travelled from Europe to fight with or support ISIS were women so she's not on her own", explained Lynch. "What we know about her own journey from Norma Costello's reporting and others is that she was quite deliberate in wanting to join ISIS. By all accounts, she was quite active out there in that world."

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Norma Costello reports on interviewing Irishwoman Lisa Smith in northern Syria

Knowing why someone joined an organisation like ISIS is almost impossible to know, says Lynch. "Her conversion to Islam was quite normal and many people undergo that process. The focus is on meaning-making and a search for identity. When we think about how and why people get involved in ISIS. a lot of the time we're looking at identity - personal identity, social identity, a shift in how you see the in group and out group - and also action-orientated individuals. If you think about what ISIS offers. it offers individuals the opportunity to enact what they think. It's the doing of their radicalism that's the appeal of ISIS.

"An individual might seek out clarity driven by feelings of social exclusion or discrimination at home. But other parts of it are to do with being part of something bigger, something divine and seeking that belonging out there. Often, it's running away from situations they're not happy with in their home environments. We saw a lot of individuals from Europe leaving because of conflicts with parents, issues in school and unemployment. People are going for excitement, people are going because their friends went. There's no one way of knowing why individuals went."

From RTÉ Prime Time Explained series, a June 2019 explainer on the war in Syria by Colm O Mongain and RTÉ Brainstorm contributor Moign Khawaja

Lynch points out that many who are radicalised never engage in violence. "You can support ISIS and be out there and never do any violence", she says. "There's a huge leap between holding extreme ideas and doing violent behaviour. That's not to say Smith hasn't done it - just as we don't know about anyone who has been out there - but we do have to bear in mind that it's quite an unlikely scenario that as a woman in ISIS, she was involved in violence. All women who were out there had limited opportunities for violence compared to men.

"Somebody who travels to a war zone to engage potentially in political violence will say they didn't partake in any illegal activity. Any of the individuals who return and do interviews tend to say they weren't involved in violence and were involved in a support capacity so that's not very useful."

From RTÉ 1's Six One News, report on Lisa Smith's expected return to Ireland

In the case of Smith, a return to Ireland appears to be the only option. "The alternative is to leave her and her child in Syria. People have been transported to Iraq for prosecution and we know there are massive process violations in those trials. There's a real risk of torture under Iraqi counter-terrorism laws or the death penalty or life imprisonment. There are very few alternatives for her and we do have obligations under international law. This individual has not been charged or prosecuted with any crime so that's the other side of it. 

"The recidivism rate for people involved in political violence is very, very low. For ordinary crime and offences, the repeat offending rate is 50 to 70%. It's under 10% for political violence and terrorism. That's not to dismiss the threat, but we have to be rational in thinking about it."

READ: The dilemmas around Islamic State's foreign fighters going home

READ: What motivates people to join a terrorist organisation?

Lynch explained that other countries have programmes and processes to deal with returning ISIS fighters and supporters. "When we think about radicalisation, we think about somebody being brainwashed and having lack of control of their thoughts and behaviours. When these people return, the UK and Australia have a very comprehensive model. The UK have a "Prevent" strategy aimed at stopping it happening before it occurs. There's also a voluntary system called "Channel" for people who one might suspect are at risk of radicalisation. Teachers, community members, family members and others can refer individuals to channel. The problem is that 70% of those referred never get any interventions so there's very much a false positive going on

"For those who come back, there is a desistance and disengagement programme which covers people who come back from Iraq and people they don't have the evidence to prosecute. They offer personalised interventions, tailored support and things like housing, education and identity therapy."


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ