Dublin to Daesh: Irish Isil suspect claims he was 'trapped' in caliphate 'by mistake'
In northern Syria, Richard Hall speaks to Irish citizen Alexandr Bekmirzaev who claims to have ended up in Isil territory ‘by mistake’near
Alexandr Bekmirzaev has just finished recounting the story of the last five and a 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 Isil. He insists that he never wanted anything to do with the group.
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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 Isil.
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 Isil suspects is as unclear as their past.
Bekmirzaev's current predicament is a far cry from his former life in Dublin. He emigrated from Belarus in 1999, and eventually gained Irish citizenship in 2010.
Before he left for Syria he says he worked as a bouncer at Lillie's Bordello nightclub.
"Life in Ireland was simple. I liked it," he says, in an interview 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 authorities back home.
Bekmirzaev doesn't remember the precise moment he decided to go to Syria, but he remembers consuming a steady drip of news 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.
Bekmirzaev 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 Isil.
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 Isil went. His family fled to Raqqa, along with masses of Isil 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 Isil, meaning "state".
After finding his family, they moved to a nearby town. He says he had come to know an Isil 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.
"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," he says.
In August 2014, he started his job, ferrying foreign Isil 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 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.
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 Isil 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, screaming 'Daesh, Daesh, Daesh,'" he says. Daesh is a pejorative name for Isil. 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 by the group. But questions remain about what he knew about it before he came, his motivations for going to Syria, and what he did while he was there.
He says he had no knowledge of Isil until he got to the country, but the Garda say otherwise.
Based on his activities before he left Dublin, they describe him as a "serious player" in jihadist circles.
Authorities considered him a "person of interest" and "a lot more than a sympathiser".
One officer told the Irish Independent that Bekmirzaev had been "hanging around with a number of people who we regarded as the main [Isil] players in this country and who had been top of our monitoring list", and possibly providing logistical support to the group.
Other reports said gardaí believed Bekmirzaev was radicalised by a man believed to be an Isil 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 Garda characterisation of Bekmirzaev undermines his claim that he came to Syria as a humanitarian. But after spending five years living in the caliphate, what does he think of Isil 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 the enslavement and massacres of all those who opposed them was Isil 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.
The Kurdish intelligence officials holding Bekmirzaev say they have heard the same story from every foreigner leaving Isil 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 here.
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."