Isis accused | 

Lisa Smith's former friend tells of Jihadi radicalisation and life in war-torn Syria

Former friend Tania Joya says ex-soldier embraced radicalisation and wanted to die a martyr

Lisa Smith at the Special Criminal Court

Ali Bracken

The London woman giving evidence against her former friend Lisa Smith could not have appeared more outwardly different to the former Irish solider. But Ms Smith and Londoner Tania Joya were once friends, bonded by their commitment to radical Islam.

Dressed smartly in modern clothing and make-up, Ms Joya presented at the Special Criminal Court last week as the polar opposite to the former member of the Defence Forces, dressed in a b urka.

But it wasn’t just their appearance that marked them apart . The English mother-of-three described how she had eventually rejected radicalisation, while Smith embraced it. This signalled the end of their brief friendship.

In clear and concise testimony , the former wife of an American jihadist described how she became radicalised as a teenager in London in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Throughout Ms Joya’s evidence, Ms Smith appeared impassive. Though only her eyes were visible in her b urka, both women displayed an air of confidence, evident through Ms Smith’s dealings with her legal team.

Called as a witness for the prosecution, Ms Joya described how her life was defined by her radicalisation at age 17, before she eventually rejected a Jihadi life more than a decade later and fled Syria.

“After 9/11…I was made ashamed of my identity…I read the Koran and took it word for word. Barking [in east London] was a hub for terrorism. I was an idealistic teen, taking out all my anger, it fuelled my rage. I got carried away.”

Having been radicalised by extended family and friends, she then met an American convert and scholar of Islam online, John Georgelas . Soon, they agreed to marry, not knowing one another, and he travelled to the UK so the pair could be wed.

“I met John Georgelas online. He was rebelling against his father, who was in the military. Four months later, we got hitched. We were silly teenagers,” she said. “We were both 19, he was two weeks younger than me. I didn’t really like him. He wanted me to cover my face. Women had to be submissive and obedient.”

The couple relocated to her husband’s native Texas, where Georgelas was later jailed for three years after he was accused of hacking into the website of a pro-Israeli lobbying group.

By this stage, the couple had a young son. While her husband was imprisoned, the couple grew apart. Ms Joya became “less religious” while her husband became “more angry”, she said. Upon his release from prison, the couple went on to have another son, followed by a third boy. But the marriage was not a good one, she told the court.

Ms Joya outlined how she and her husband began talking to Ms Smith online when the family relocated to Egypt from the US, before travelling with the Dundalk, Co Louth, woman to Syria in 2013. Georgelas  had set up an Facebook group called ‘We Hear, We Obey’ in 2011.

Ms Joya said Ms Smith “reached out” to her husband. She said the accused was “very receptive”, was “indoctrinated” and was like a student to Georgelas. He gave her a job on his website. “It was an administrative role, nothing significant… I liked talking to her.”

Tania Joya leaving court after giving evidence at the trial of Lisa Smith. Photo: Collins Courts

The witness accepted her husband was charismatic and that Ms Smith, along with others, donated money to him.

She told the court Georgelas was “like a politician” with fundraising and recalled the accused sending him £50.

Ms Joya explained Ms Smith met them in Turkey in late August 2013 before they travelled across the Syrian border with the Irish woman, who was “excited” and “happy”. She said the former soldier was respected for her military training and that she planned to “die a martyr” during the country’s civil war.

Ms Smith (39) is on trial charged with membership of an unlawful terrorist group, the Islamic State (IS), between October 28, 2015, and December 1, 2019.

She is also accused of trying to finance terrorism by attempting to provide €800 in assistance, via a Western Union money transfer, to a named man on May 6, 2015, for the benefit of the same terror organisation.

The defendant has pleaded not guilty to both charges. It is the prosecution’s case that she provided sustenance and vitality to IS in an act of allegiance to the terror group.

The witness said in Syria, Ms Smith made it clear she wanted to “help the rebels”, and that she “was planning to die there to be a martyr”. In contrast Ms Joya did not want to be in the “war zone” and feared for her children’s safety.

The court heard there was a civil war ongoing and that the caliphate, the Islamic State, had not yet been established. Ms Joya said after arriving in Syria, they stayed in an apartment that had no electricity, smashed windows, and was riddled with bullet holes. W hile there she claimed Ms Smith expressed an interest in marrying a Tunisian fighter called Ahmed, a member of al Qae da.

Ms Joya advised Ms Smith to marry for her own protection, but 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 wanted to marry Ahmed. I thought it was bats**t crazy,” she said.

Asked why she thought Ms Smith wanted to marry him, Ms Joya replied: “Because he was hot, that’s why. And he was a fighter.”

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.

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 told the court. She made plans to leave Syria and Ms Smith asked her if she planned to tell the authorities about her.

“I said yes, I had to,” according to Ms Joya’s testimony. “She just shrugged. She didn’t argue with me. She knew I was going to do what I had to do.”

She said Ms Smith had blocked her on Facebook after that conversation. T he accused stayed in Syria when Ms Joya 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 .” This signalled the end of the women’s friendship.

On the opening day of her trial last Tuesday, prosecution counsel Sean Gillane said IS needed fighters and others who could give “sustenance and vitality” to the group in achieving its aims.

Ms Smith had “addressed, assessed and answered the call to emigrate”. In answering the call, Mr Gillane said she had “self-identified as a member” of IS.

In June 2017, Ms Smith’s daughter was born. At this stage she had moved to Raqqa . A little over a year later, Raqqa fell to allied forces and Ms Smith moved to Baghouz which was I S ’s last remaining stronghold until it fell in March 2019.

Following the fall of Baghouz, Ms Smith spoke to the FBI about her time in Syria and gave an interview to a journalist. She was later returned to Ireland where she was arrested and interviewed 11 times.

Lawyers in the trial, which is expected to last 12 weeks, have already pointed to Ms Smith’s state of mind and her statements, when assessing the IS membership charge.

Lisa Smith during her time in Syria

On the trial’s opening day, the court heard Ms Smith was a vulnerable, isolated person who “wanted to belong”. Una McCartney gave evidence that she had known Ms Smith for 20 years, having also grown up in Dundalk. She said they discussed religion and recalled Ms Smith expressing a wish to go somewhere where people held the same Muslim faith. But she said she had no idea her friend wanted to go to Syria.

She did not know Ms Smith was leaving the country until her daughter spotted her getting on a bus with two suitcases, she told the court.

Ms McCartney said Ms Smith’s home life was not great and that her father was an alcoholic who could “probably” be a bit violent. In her youth, the accused enjoyed drinking, partying and “probably” a bit of hash, the witness agreed.

She added Ms Smith “would not be great on drink”. Ms Smith would “go hell for leather on things” which would then fizzle out, Ms McCartney said. She said she assumed this would also occur with her conversion to Islam in 2011.

The trial continues before the Special Criminal Court.

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