From Ireland to Isis: The life of Alexandr Ruzmatovich Bekmirzaev

He had a wife, a child and jobs in Dublin. How did he become an Islamic State fighter?

Isis fighter: Alexandr Ruzmatovich Bekmirzaev, who was captured in Syria with Irish passport

Isis fighter: Alexandr Ruzmatovich Bekmirzaev, who was captured in Syria with Irish passport

 

“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 Alexandr Ruzmatovich Bekmirzaev, the Irish citizen who was captured on December 30th in Syria, where he had been fighting for Islamic State, or Isis.

Bekmirzaev, who is being held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or 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.

He is not a Muslim. He has no religion. No religion says to do what he does, to go and kill people

“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.”

Should Bekmirzaev be repatriated to Ireland? “Who would want him here? Shoot him in Syria.”

Companies Office records show that Bekmirzaev, who is believed to have come to Ireland from Belarus about 20 years ago, was living in a flat on Seville Place, close to the Five Lamps in Dublin 1, 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 speak to The Irish Times remember the grocery shop but have no memory of seeing its proprietor.

Little is 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 was also not born in Ireland, 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 says.

A man of the same name from Belarus worked at Arnotts between 2005 and 2007, and as a security guard in 2011 and 2012

Bekmirzaev was not known among the small community of Belorussians living in Dublin and is not thought to have attended Orthodox 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 had 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 for a man of the same name who comes from Belarus and worked as a sales assistant at the 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. The LinkedIn entry has no details after 2012.

Not recognised

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 believe Bekmirzaev worshipped at the mosque.

Of those Muslims on Talbot Street who agree to speak to The Irish Times, the strongest views are 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 reacts strongly when asked about the Irish diplomatic service trying to contact Bekmirzaev in Syria, to provide consular assistance. “So now the Irish government is supporting terrorists.”

The Syrian Democratic Forces says the terrorists had been preparing to attack civilians trying to get out of one of the last bastions of Isis-held territory

Bekmirzaev was captured along with two US and two Pakistani citizens. The SDF says the men were “a group of terrorists who had been preparing to attack the civilians who were trying to get out of” one of the “last 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 than with 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 the 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 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.”

Why listen to someone who is an ass and is telling you something that is wrong?

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 1990s, 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, he regards education as 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.”

Terence 'Khalid' Kelly

Gardaí believe Bekmirzaev got involved with Isis and its violent beliefs after he met a man who had been living in Ireland for some years and who the Garda believed was 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 the media not to name – brought a case to the High Court in 2016, seeking to prevent his deportation 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 orange drinks with him, and sat in the courtroom eating and drinking juice through a straw while barristers for both sides argued about whether the overweight man should be deported – which he was.

Khalid Kelly – born Terence Kelly Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/THE IRISH TIMES
Khalid Kelly – born Terence Kelly Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

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 with particular ideologies or religious beliefs.

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.”

The 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 who have gone to fight for foreign terrorist organisations is problematic, says Conway.

‘If you like shooting guns you might end up at the front line’

Groups such as 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 it has been receiving a lukewarm response, 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. An estimated 700 are there, from 40 countries.

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

Someone such as Bekmirzaev would most likely have travelled first 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.

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, for example.

“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, will not say what it plans to do with Bekmirzaev. “We have no further comment at this time,” he tells The Irish Times.

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