FROM IRE­LAND TO ISIS

Alexandr Ruz­ma­tovich Bek­mirzaev had a wife, a child, jobs and busi­ness in­ter­ests in Dublin, but left for Syria in 2013. Two weeks ago he was cap­tured as an Is­lamic State fighter

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Colm Keena

‘Tell them to shoot him. There is no need to send him back here. Peo­ple like that, we don’t want them in this coun­try.” The speaker, a Mus­lim man who has lived in Ire­land for more than 20 years, is giv­ing his view on what should hap­pen to Ir­ish cit­i­zen Alexandr Ruz­ma­tovich Bek­mirzaev, who was cap­tured in Syria on De­cem­ber 30th fight­ing for Is­lamic State, also known as Isis.

Bek­mirzaev, who is be­ing held by the Kur­dish- led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), reg­is­tered a gro­cery shop on Tal­bot Street in 2011, close to where the Mus­lim man, who is from Bangladesh, stops to speak to The Ir­ish Times.

“I don’t think he [Bek­mirzaev] cre­ates a prob­lem for the im­age of Mus­lims in Dublin be­cause he is not a Mus­lim. He has no re­li­gion. No re­li­gion says to do what he does, to go and kill peo­ple.”

Asked if he be­lieves Bek­mirzaev should be repa­tri­ated to Ire­land, he re­sponds: “Who would want him here? Shoot him in Syria.”

Records in the Com­pa­nies Of­fice show that Bek­mirzaev, who it is be­lieved came to Ire­land from Be­larus about 20 years ago, was liv­ing in a flat on Seville Place, Dublin 1, close to the Five Lamps, in July 2011, when he reg­is­tered a busi­ness name, Mix Food Store, for a gro­cery shop on Tal­bot Street.

Long- term traders on the street who spoke to The Ir­ish Times re­mem­ber the gro­cery shop but have no mem­ory of ever see­ing its pro­pri­etor.

Lit­tle i s known pub­licly about the 45- year- old, who lived here for a num­ber of years at dif­fer­ent rented ad­dresses, had an Ir­ish-born child and is be­lieved to have left to fight for Isis in 2013.

His wife, who is not Ir­ish-born, and the child left the coun­try after Bek­mirzaev had gone. It is not known where they are now, ac­cord­ing to a Garda spokesman.

Ac­cord­ing to a spokesman for the Dublin Rus­sian Ortho­dox parish, nei­ther Bek­mirzaev’s fam­ily name, nor his fa­ther’s name as in­di­cated by his patronymic, Ruz­ma­tovich, is Rus­sian. They sug­gest that Bek­mirzaev’s fa­ther was from cen­tral Asia. Given his first name, it may be that his mother is Rus­sian, the spokesman said.

Arnotts link

Bek­mirzaev was not known among the small com­mu­nity of Belorus­sians liv­ing in Dublin and is not thought to have at­tended Ortho­dox re­li­gious ser­vices here.

He came to Ire­land un­der EU treaty rights pro­vi­sions, so had a link to some­one al­ready here with EU res­i­dency rights. He was nat­u­ralised as an Ir­ish cit­i­zen in 2010, on the ba­sis that he’d been here for more than eight years, and had not come to the at­ten­tion of the au­thor­i­ties for any neg­a­tive rea­sons.

Ac­cord­ing to the Garda spokesman, it was after Bek­mirzaev was nat­u­ralised that he first came to Garda no­tice as an Isis sym­pa­thiser. He was on a watch list, which means he was con­sid­ered wor­thy of the ef­fort that goes into such mon­i­tor­ing op­er­a­tions. Gar­daí say that he worked in re­tail and in se­cu­rity.

There is an en­try on LinkedIn that ap­pears to be Bek­mirzaev’s. Its owner comes from Be­larus, worked as a sales as­sis­tance for Dublin de­part­ment store Arnotts be­tween 2005 and 2007 and as a se­cu­rity guard for Pre­mier Team, a now-dis­solved se­cu­rity com­pany, in 2011 and 2012.

The owner of the se­cu­rity firm, who is Mus­lim, says he has no mem­ory of Bek­mirzaev, and Arnotts would not com­ment, cit­ing data pro­tec­tion rea­sons. The LinkedIn en­try has no de­tails after 2012.

There is a mosque on Tal­bot Street at­tended by mem­bers of the Sufi strain of Is­lam but the imam there, Jameel Mu­toola, who came to Ire­land just a few years ago, says no one he has spo­ken to knew or recog­nised Bek­mirzaev. There is no rea­son to bel i eve Bek­mirzaev wor­shipped at the mosque.

Of those Mus­lims on Tal­bot Street who agree to speak to The Ir­ish Times, the strong­est views were ex­pressed by a Turk­ish Kurd.

“What would I do with him? I would shoot him,” says the man. “What would you do? They come to towns and they cut up in­no­cent peo­ple. If I did not have fam­ily here of course I would go and fight them. They do what they do, for noth­ing. They are not hu­man.”

The man re­acted strongly when asked about the Ir­ish diplo­matic ser­vice try­ing to make con­tact with Bek­mirzaev in Syria so as to pro­vide him with con­sular as­sis­tance. “So now the Ir­ish govern­ment is sup­port­ing ter­ror­ists.”

‘Group of ter­ror­ists’

Bek­mirzaev was cap­tured along with two US cit­i­zens and two Pak­istani cit­i­zens. The SDF said the men were “a group of ter­ror­ists who had been pre­par­ing to at­tack the civil­ians who were try­ing to get out of” what i s one of the “l ast bas­tions” of Isis-held ter­ri­tory in Syria.

The Kur­dish man gives the two Pak­istani cit­i­zens, and Bek­mirzaev, a “2 per cent chance of stay­ing alive”.

None of the Mus­lim men who speak to The Ir­ish Times on Tal­bot Street ex­press any­thing other than con­tempt for Isis or what it stands for, and all have noth­ing but praise for their ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing as Mus­lims in Ire­land.

“He brings shame on Is­lam,” a Pak­istani friend of the Kur­dish man says of Bek­mirzaev. “He brings shame on Ire­land.”

The two friends say they are care­ful when dis­cussing the is­sue of Isis with Mus­lims who are not known to them.

An­other man, who came to Ire­land from Iraq more than 10 years ago, says or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Isis have more to do with pol­i­tics that re­li­gion. “No re­li­gion en­cour­ages peo­ple to kill each other. It is not the or­gan­i­sa­tions or the peo­ple in them, it is hid­den hands that en­cour­age peo­ple to kill.”

“I re­ally think you have to look up higher, at pow­er­ful gov­ern­ments like the US govern­ment. They re­ally con­trol ev­ery­thing. It’s all a big game.”

Sad­dam Hus­sein was a bad man, he says, but he ar­gues that life in Iraq was safe and se­cure be­fore t he coun­try was bombed by the US and the UK. The war and de­struc­tion put ter­ri­ble pres­sure on the pop­u­la­tion, he says. “They lost their minds and started to fol­low stupid peo­ple. All those things came after the war.”

Like mil­lions of oth­ers, this man lost his

‘He brings shame on Is­lam,’ a Pak­istani friend of the Kur­dish man says of Bek­mirzaev. ‘He brings shame on Ire­land’

No re­li­gion en­cour­ages peo­ple to kill each other. It is not the or­gan­i­sa­tions or the peo­ple in them, it is hid­den hands that en­cour­age peo­ple to kill

job and lost fam­ily mem­bers, and all for noth­ing. “Tony Blair has not apol­o­gised yet. Noth­ing was gained. And now you have Isis and al-Qaeda. Killing peo­ple the way they do is not usual. There is a rea­son be­hind it.”

Syria ‘mis­take’

Mo­hamed Ber­rid­j­dal, a Dublin Bus em­ployee from Al­ge­ria, who came to Ire­land more than 20 years ago, says he be­lieves it was a mis­take for the peo­ple in Syria to try to top­ple the regime of Bashar al-As­sad.

In Al­ge­ria “we had our share of trou­ble in the 1980s and ’ 90s but now we have peace”. Other coun­tries such as Libya and Syria are go­ing through the up­heaval and suf­fer­ing his coun­try went through. Bet­ter to live in peace, he says.

Is­lamic ter­ror­ists dam­age the name of Is­lam and have noth­ing to do with the true teach­ings of the re­li­gion, he says. Peo­ple like Bek­mirzaev “do not rep­re­sent me or Is­lam. Def­i­nitely not. Most Mus­lims here do not be­lieve in that.”

Syed Nasir, who came here three years ago from the UK and is orig­i­nally from Pak­istan, says ev­ery hu­man life mat­ters, ir­re­spec­tive of re­li­gion. A uni­ver­sity grad­u­ate, to him education is a key is­sue. “Why lis­ten to some­one who is an ass and is telling you some­thing that is wrong? It de­pends on your level of education.”

Gar­daí be­lieve Bek­mirzaev got in­volved with Isis and its vi­o­lent be­liefs after he came into con­tact with a man who was liv­ing in Ire­land for some years and was be­lieved by the Garda to be the main re­cruiter for Isis in the State.

This re­porter was in court when the be­lieved re­cruiter – an over­weight, mid­dle- aged man who the court or­dered should not be named by the me­dia – brought a case to the High Court in 2016, seek­ing to pre­vent his be­ing de­ported to Jor­dan.

Dur­ing the hear­ing the Ir­ish- born Isis fighter Ter­ence “Khalid” Kelly sat be­side the man re­sist­ing de­por­ta­tion.

Kelly, whose in­ter­est in Isis ap­pears to have started when he was jailed in Saudi Ara­bia for dis­till­ing al­co­hol, brought a plas­tic bag of snacks and Capri Sun orange drinks with him, and sat in the court­room eat­ing and drink­ing juice through a straw while bar­ris­ters for both sides ar­gued over whether the over­weight man should be de­ported – which he was.

Kelly is be­lieved to have died in Iraq later in 2016, when tak­ing part in an ap­par­ent sui­cide at­tack on forces that were fight­ing against Isis near Mo­sul.

Prof Maura Con­way, of Dublin City Uni­ver­sity, who has stud­ied how peo­ple be­come in­volved in rad­i­cal vi­o­lent or­gan­i­sa­tions, says the process is com­pli­cated, but has more to do with is­sues of iden­tity and the at­trac­tion of the idea of re­solv­ing personal is­sues by in­dulging in vi­o­lence, than it does about par­tic­u­lar ide­olo­gies or re­li­gious be­liefs.

Ex­trem­ist views

Stud­ies in­di­cate that real- world re­la­tion­ships play more of a role than on­line ex­po­sure to ex­trem­ist views. “For ex­am­ple, in North­ern Ire­land you might have fam­i­lies with a history of in­volve­ment with ex­trem­ist repub­li­can be­hav­iour. It’s the same with Isis. You have kin and friend­ship net­works.”

Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Cork crim­i­nol­o­gist Dr Orla Lynch, agrees. A study in Ger­many found there were clus­ters of Isis sup­port­ers in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions, formed by “face- to- face friend­ships, not the in­ter­net”.

“It doesn’t mat­ter if it is the IRA or the [Basque na­tion­al­ist] Eta, as long as there is ac­tion. The ide­ol­ogy is def­i­nitely sec­ondary.”

Peo­ple also travel to fight in places such as Syria for so­cial, hu­man­i­tar­ian and po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, such as the idea that Mus­lims are op­pressed by the West, and it is wrong to think all these peo­ple are vul­ner­a­ble types, says Lynch.

Over time, these peo­ple may find that the cru­elty they are faced with chal­lenges the rea­sons they joined, but usu­ally peo­ple are not im­me­di­ately con­fronted with the most grue­some as­pects of what is hap­pen­ing. “Not ev­ery­one does the up close killing. In the IRA you had the nut­ting squad. Not ev­ery­one can do that.”

When news of Bek­mirzaev’s cap­ture broke this week there were calls for him to be stripped of his Ir­ish cit­i­zen­ship. How­ever, strip­ping the cit­i­zen­ship of nat­u­ralised Ir­ish cit­i­zens who have gone to fight for for­eign ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions in prob­lem­atic, says Con­way.

Re­turn to Ire­land?

Groups such as the SDF have a very lim­ited ca­pac­ity to hold pris­on­ers for any length of time. “If they are stripped of cit­i­zen­ship, what hap­pens to them?”

The SDF has been ask­ing western gov­ern­ments to take back cit­i­zens who have been cap­tured fight­ing for Isis, but the re­sponse has been luke­warm, says Sea­mus Hughes of the Pro­gram on Ex­trem­ism, at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity in Wash­ing­ton DC.

For­eign fighters in Syria are hud­dling to­gether as Isis loses ground. There are an es­ti­mated 700 there, from 40 dif­fer­ent coun­tries.

Hughes, whose fa­ther is Ir­ish, has stud­ied cap­tured records kept by Isis of its fighters, and does not re­call to date hav­ing come across any be­long­ing to an Ir­ish cit­i­zen.

Some­one such as Bek­mirzaev would most likely have trav­elled to Turkey, and then to Syria, where he would have re­ceived three weeks of re­li­gious train­ing, fol­lowed by three weeks of mil­i­tary train­ing, says Hughes. “If you like shoot­ing guns you might end up at the front line.”

Records are kept and fighters are is­sued an al­lowance, in­clud­ing an ex­tra pay­ment for those who had a personal slave, he said.

Cap­tured for­eign fighters are treated dif­fer­ently ac­cord­ing to the role they played and the coun­try they came from. US cit­i­zens are treated bet­ter than Rus­sian cit­i­zens.

“I ex­pect the SDF will want to give [ Bek­mirzaev] back to Ire­land. Most western coun­tries haven’t been too for­ward about agree­ing to take their cit­i­zens back. So a lot of for­eign­ers are in limbo there. They are be­ing housed and fed, with no end in sight.”

Mustafa Bali, direc­tor of the me­dia cen­tre for the SDF, would not com­ment when asked what it planned to do with Bek­mirzaev. “We have no fur­ther com­ment at this time,” he told The Ir­ish Times.

Lit­tle is known about Alexandr Ruz­ma­tovich Bek­mirzaev: cap­tured in Syria on De­cem­ber 30th fight­ing for Is­lamic State, also known as Isis. The 45-year-old lived in Ire­land for a num­ber of years at dif­fer­ent rented ad­dresses, had an Ir­ish-born child and is be­lieved to have left to fight for Isis in 2013

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