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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 February 2019

Irish ISIS suspect ended up in Syria 'by mistake'

The former nightclub security guard says he went to Syria to help civilians. Irish police think differently.

Dublin, Ireland, is where Mr Bekmirzaev emigrated to in 1999 from Belarus. Reuters
Dublin, Ireland, is where Mr Bekmirzaev emigrated to in 1999 from Belarus. Reuters

Almost 3,200 miles stretch between Damascus and Dublin. It’s a route taken by Alexandr Bekmirzaev five and a half years ago, when he left his home in Ireland’s capital for war-torn Syria.

Once upon a time he manned the doors of Dublin’s rowdy clubs as a security guard. Now the Irish citizen is suspected as a member of ISIS by authorities. Mr Bekmirzaev claims differently, calling he has been “trapped in the caliphate” that swept by rebels in Syria’s civil war.

“Life in Ireland was simple. I liked it”, he said in an interview with the Independent in northern Syria.

Mr Bekmirzaev emigrated from Belarus in 1999 and became a permanent Irish citizen in 2010.

He is currently held by Kurdish authorities while Irish police suspect him of knowing top ISIS recruits in Ireland.

The former nightclub bouncer says he was consumed by the news coverage of air strikes in Syria and civilian deaths.

“On TV it was presented as a massacre. Bashar al-Assad just ruthlessly killed many people,” he said.

Mr Bekmirzaev had no military experience, and claims he decided to help Syrians by providing medical assistance in Aleppo.

“I have no medical education; I was a helper. I learned a few things, changing bandages. Whatever they tell me to do. At the beginning it was more construction, because you have to build the hospital.”

He maintains that he had no understanding about ISIS until he got to Syria.

Irish police think differently. One officer told the Irish Independent that Bekmirzaev had been seen with “a number of people who we regarded as the main Isis players in this country and who had been top of our monitoring list”. He was put on the watchlist after being granted citizenship in 2010.

A leading figure in the community, Sheikh Umar al-Qadri, chair of the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council, has said the behaviour “should not be tolerated” and called for a review of his citizenship.

Bekmirzaev is adamant about one thing: that he arrived in Syria to help civilians, but ended up being swept by Isis fighters to the last stronghold in eastern Syria.

He says he was forced to work for Isis, but did not support the violence extremists carried out on others.

Kurdish officials say similar stories are repeated by other foreigners wanting to leave Isis controlled areas.

For now, the Irishman is more concerned about returning home. But that in itself could raise more suspicions than answers.

An unnamed friend told the Irish Times newspaper Bekmirzaev was radicalised at campsites in the mountains south of Dublin. “It was an opportunity to walk in an open space where you could talk about anything and no one was listening,” the friend said. The man said four of the associates met in August, 2010 while a bigger group of 10 held a similar session a few months later.

He also showed the newspaper an alleged WhatsApp conversation with Bekmirzaev in which the Isis member said he was near Al Qaim on the Iraq/Syria border during heavy shelling.

Updated: February 12, 2019 07:53 PM

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