From Dublin to Daesh: Irish Isis suspect says he was trapped in the caliphate, others call him a terrorist
In northern Syria, Richard Hall speaks to an Irish citizen who claims to have ended up in Isis territory by mistake
Alexandr Bekmirzaev has just finished recounting the story of the past five and half years of his life, a time he spent living in the midst of the most brutal terror group of modern times.
The 45-year-old Irish citizen, originally from Belarus, tells a tale of misfortune and mistakes that led him from his home in Dublin to an isolated corner of eastern Syria, where he was captured leaving the last small area held by Isis. He insists that he never wanted anything to do with the group.
But many have told a similar story after their capture, when they have every reason not to tell the truth. Does he expect people to believe him?
“I have this story and that’s it. This is my life,” he says, with exasperation in his voice. “You wake me up at three in the morning and I will tell you the same.”
Bekmirzaev is one of hundreds of foreigners who have been detained while leaving the caliphate over the past month, on suspicion of being a member of Isis. His case is typical of the challenge facing authorities here in Syria, and back in their countries of origin – it is nearly impossible to prove that anyone who lived under Isis was an active member, or carried out crimes on its behalf.
The suspicion is high enough that few governments want to take them back, fearing they would pose a security risk, so they remain stuck in limbo here, in the custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The future for the thousands of foreign Isis suspects and their families is as unclear as their past.
Bekmirzaev’s current predicament is a far cry from his former life in Dublin, Ireland. He emigrated from Belarus in 1999, and eventually gained Irish citizenship in 2010. Before he left for Syria he worked as a bouncer at a club called Lillie’s Bordello.
“Life in Ireland was simple. I liked it,” he says, in an interview with The Independent at a military facility in northern Syria. “I tried a few things, but I ended up in security. The money was good, the hours were good.”
He describes himself at that time as “a bad Muslim”, someone who “strongly believed, but badly practised”.
The broad outlines of this part of his life are not in question. But what happened next is the subject of intense scrutiny, both by the Kurdish authorities who hold him today, and the Irish police back home.
Bekmirzaev doesn’t remember the precise moment he decided to go to Syria, but he remembers consuming a steady drip of news from the country, of airstrikes and civilians being killed.
“On TV it was presented as a massacre. [Bashar al-Assad] just ruthlessly killed many people,” he says. “He was a real evil-doing person.”
“I started thinking maybe I would come to help. But I had no military experience and I didn’t plan to fight, so I thought to myself I could do something in the medical field.”
In September 2013, Bekmirzaev bought a plane ticket to Istanbul and made his way to the southern Turkish town of Reyhanli, and from there across the border. He says he didn’t have any contacts in Syria, but asked around for a hospital where he could work. He ended up in a town called Haritan, in Aleppo province.
“Some people brought me there, and showed me the hospital. There were some Russian doctors there,” he says. “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.”
In those first months of Bekmirzaev’s time in Syria, Isis had not yet emerged as a dominant force. In the country’s rebel-held north, it was engaged in a power struggle with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Both groups espoused an extreme jihadi ideology, and both counted hundreds of foreign fighters in their ranks. Bekmirzaev says he had no intention of seeking out Isis, and wasn’t familiar with them when he left Ireland.
He says he was motivated by a desire to help Muslims in Syria. But rather than seek a job with a charity working in the country, he chose to go to an area that was controlled by a known extremist group, which would later evolve into Isis. Shortly after arriving, he sent for his wife and his nine-month-old son to join him, which they did in January 2014.
“I don’t want to really talk about this,” he says. “I made a stupid mistake. I asked them to come and join me. I said we can spend a couple of months here and we go back home. But once they arrived, the problems started, the war started seriously.”
One week after his family arrived, the town of Haritan was surrounded by the Free Syrian Army, the mainstream opposition to Assad. From this moment on, Bekmirzaev says he was forced to go wherever Isis went. His family fled to Raqqa, along with masses of Isis fighters, and he followed them shortly after.
“Later I found out that it was a Dawla-controlled area,” he says, using a respectful term for Isis, meaning “state”.
After finding his family, they moved to a nearby town. He says he had come to know an Isis emir, and he asked him for permission to leave.
“He said OK, but the next day they came and took my passport. Then I understood I wasn’t going anywhere,” he says.
“For six months I did nothing. Then he came to me and said, ‘You have to work’. I said that I wasn’t going to fight, so they told me that I have to be a driver for the foreigners who live in the area.”
In August 2014, he started his job, ferrying foreign Isis members – mostly Russian – to and from this small town near Raqqa.
“I didn’t have a gun. I was just a driver. If I travelled to a far destination, they would always put someone with me, some fighter,” he adds.
He did this work for a year, until mental health issues he says he had suffered from before he came to Syria worsened.
“I have depression, and I have changes in my character, exhaustion, anxiety,” he says. In other interviews, Bekmirzaev has said he suffers from schizophrenia.
“They released me from work, and I was prohibited to do any job because of the problem I have,” he says. “I would go once a week to the hospital and they would recite the Quran to me. Every week I would go to get papers from them to prove I was doing something, otherwise you might end up in prison.”
Bekmirzaev says he lived like this for a while, until Raqqa and the surrounding area was captured by the SDF, and Isis was forced to flee further south.
“As the Dawla get smaller, we keep moving, keep moving,” he says.
By early 2018, the once mighty caliphate was reduced to a string of towns and villages along the Euphrates river, in Deir ez-Zor. He describes the last months there as a constant battle to stay alive.
“The human is an amazing creature. I can get adapted to everything. You go to the shop, if the shop is still there, maybe 200 metres a missile landed, it becomes normal.
“Yeah you’re afraid, but it’s part of your life. You wake up, next building to you doesn’t exist anymore, the children that your son played with or your neighbours, they aren’t there anymore. They are in pieces,” he says.
By December last year, the caliphate was in a state of chaos. People were starting to make their way across the front lines out of Isis territory. Thousands of women and children have since fled, many of them suspected of being the families of Isis members.
“You wake up every morning and you see five or six houses are gone,” he says. “At this point I know it’s time to leave.”
With the help of a local, he and his family left with around 40-50 others. They made their way to the SDF lines, at which point he was arrested. Among the group that left with him were two US citizens and two Pakistanis — also suspected Isis members.
“When they realised I was a foreigner, they started to shout, loaded their guns. They sat us on the ground, me and my family, screamin ‘Daesh, Daesh, Daesh’,” he says.
The SDF said in a statement that the group were “terrorists who had been preparing to attack the civilians who were trying to get out of the war zone”.
Bekmirzaev’s story of his time in the caliphate attempts to distance him from the crimes carried out from the group. But questions remain about what he knew about it before he came, his motivations for coming to Syria, and what he did while he was here.
He says he had no knowledge of Isis until he got to the country, but Irish police say differently. Based on his activities before he left Dublin, they describe him as a “serious player” in jihadi circles. According to the Irish Independent, police considered him a “person of interest” and “a lot more than a sympathiser”.
One officer told the newspaper that Bekmirzaev had been “hanging around 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”, and possibly providing logistical support to the group.
A report in The Irish Times said police believed Bekmirzaev was radicalised by a man believed to be an Isis recruiter working in Ireland, who was eventually deported to Jordan.
“Yeah I was friends with him, and I was very often staying in his house,” he says of the man who was deported.
“And if they are saying I was supporting financially, yes I was supporting him. Because what Special Branch did to him, they cancelled his social welfare payment. He was a sick person, he has a heart problem and a knee problem and they didn’t operate on him.”
The Irish police’s characterisation of Bekmirzaev undermines his claim that he came to Syria as a humanitarian, or that he knew little about what he was getting himself into. But after spending five years living in the caliphate, what does he think of Isis now?
“If you look at the ordinary muhajireen (foreigners who came to live in the caliphate), you see they are sincere people,” he says. “They don’t think politics, they want to build an Islamic State, and they tried their best, they gave their lives, they were really good people.”
Were these not the same people who were carrying out atrocities against civilians across Iraq and Syria? Did he not hear about the genocide and enslavement of the Yazidi people? A long silence follows these questions.
“Of course I heard. As much as I tried not to be involved in anything, you hear these things,” he says. “About six months ago I heard a story about one of the women [Yazidi] and I thought – what a scumbag.”
But this cannot be put down to a few bad apples. The enslavement and massacres of all those who oppose them was Isis policy. Through collective responsibility, was not every member even indirectly culpable for these crimes?
“I’m not talking about the people in the field, the fighters, I think most of them were sincere, good people. I don’t think they did that. Most of these things happened were by local people,” he says.
Asked why he didn’t leave when he became aware of the brutality of Isis, Bekmirzaev says “he didn’t have a chance”.
“Do you know how many foreigners ended up in secret police prisons? If the coalition killed about 60 per cent of foreign fighters, about 30 per cent [Isis] killed. Every day you hear about someone get pulled from the street and they killed,” he says.
The story Bekmirzaev wants the world to believe is this: he came to Syria to help Muslims, brought his family to join him for a short time, but was swept along with the caliphate all the way to its last holdout in a far corner of eastern Syria.
He was forced to work for the group, but did not believe in the violence it perpetrated against others – violence he said was the work of locals, and a corrupt leadership.
“I didn’t come to caliphate, I came to Syria,” as he says.
The Kurdish intelligence officials holding Bekmirzaev say they have heard the same story from every foreigner leaving Isis territory. Most, they say, were signed up members of the organisation. But proving this is near impossible.
Bekmirzaev says he wants to return to Ireland and deal with authorities there. The SDF did not respond to a request for comment on Bekmirzaev’s case.
“If they want to put me on trial that is their right. Ireland is my home, and I want to go back. This is my right,” he says. “If I am a bad son of this country, this is still my home. If you think I’m a bad person, it doesn’t mean you have to throw me in the sea.”
“I have no other home and this is my story,” he says. “I came here to help Muslim people, but I made mistakes and ended up in this situation. I already paid my price.”