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Opinion: 'Stripping Isis fighter of Irish citizenship over sham marriage presents us with uncomfortable questions'

There is a sad irony in how wealthy western states have farmed out a security and immigration problem to the Kurds, writes Norma Costello.

Norma Costello Freelance Journalist

NATURALISED CITIZEN ALEXANDR Bekmirzaev is a jihadist who fought for Isis.

He now sits in a desert prison in North Eastern Syria surrounded by hundreds of international fighters captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces early last year.

The aging Belarussian is self-pitying, unrepentant and pinning his last hopes on the country of his second citizenship, Ireland. Recent news that the Department of Justice had stripped him of this citizenship is no surprise and is sure to be received well by the Irish public.

It is, however, unprecedented and presents a series of uncomfortable questions. 

In January 2019, Bekmirzeav was captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which alleged he was part of a cell attempting to kill civilians as they tried to escape Isis territory.

Bekmirzaev, who I interviewed twice last year in Syria, claims he had a “seizure”  linked to a “djinn” or genie that sometimes controls him. A less than plausible defence.

Bekmirzaev was well known to Irish authorities before he left for Syria. A disciple of a now-deported Jordanian recruiter, he was closely monitored by Gardaí prior to his departure.

The Gardaí, like their international counterparts, were presumably relieved to have crossed another potential threat off their list until he and other Irish citizens re-emerged in Kurdish custody.

I was told early last year of the State’s plan to revoke Bekmirzaev’s citizenship.

I wondered at the time how they would inform him. Under Irish legislation, the State is obliged to inform a naturalised citizen of its intention to revoke their citizenship. This ideally should be done in person or by registered post. On receipt, people have the right to request an inquiry.

To date, the government has yet to reach Bekmirzaev, despite now knowing his location.

Kurdish sources say the Irish government has yet to establish contact with the North Eastern Syrian administration. The Department of Justice sent the notice of revocation to his wife’s parents’ house in Belarus. A place Bekmirzaev has never visited, according to his wife.

The notice was sent after his wife had supplied her parents’ address to the Department of Foreign Affairs in order to get a new passport for her Irish-born child. The Department of Justice obtained this address through a questionable information request. 

In one broad stroke, the Minister decided to ignore Bekmirzaev’s right to notice and inquiry in order to quiet a problem, while simultaneously trying to strip the Irish-born son of his right to an Irish passport.

Ireland is not revoking Bekmirzaev’s citizenship for his role in Isis. The government planned to revoke it for a sham marriage – an accusation which he denies. He has now been outside the State for over seven years without contacting a diplomatic mission. It would be hard for him to do so from a Syrian prison.

Ireland has decent laws on terrorism. Unfortunately,the Bekmirzaev case has highlighted that gathering admissible evidence from overseas war zones is no mean feat and if the State has other mechanisms at its disposal, it will surely use them – even if it means ignoring their own due processes.

The “sham marriage” excuse is also ignoring the very reason for revoking his citizenship in the first place – Alexandr Bekmirzaev travelled overseas to fight for a terrorist organisation in a foreign civil war. 

An Isis fighter will not elicit much sympathy. But as I type this, there are a myriad of  naturalised Irish citizens fighting in wars around the world.

Some like Syrian Eyaad Shaar were even commanders. A founding member of the group Ahrar Al Sham, Shaar lived in Tallaght for many years. Will the State also revoke his citizenship? How will they decide which to revoke? Many Irish fought in Libya, including people connected to Al Qaeda. Many of them are back in Ireland -some have successful white-collar careers. 

The State will have a hard time claiming they have all been in sham marriages.  

While making an example of Bekmirzaev is convenient, it should be noted that he is one of many and that the phenomenon of the foreign fighter isn’t going away.

Leaving Bekmirzaev in Syria applies the same principle EU countries followed when their security forces willingly let would-be terrorists travel to the region. Out of sight, out of mind. But we live in a polarised, violent and ideological era. Simply putting aside uncomfortable topics doesn’t resolve them or make them disappear.

Speaking at the Republican National convention, Nikki Haley credited Trump with defeating Isis. An incredible statement given American withdrawal from North Eastern Syria is setting the scene for a resurgence.

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The statement is more worrying because it reiterates that many people see Isis purely as a territorial entity and not a radical political and religious ideology. Lisa Smith was raised without Islam, as was Lorna Moore and Samantha Lewthwaite. All these women lived less than 90km from each other and all joined up with – or attempted to join – radical Islamic movements.

It is not just naturalised citizens who turn up in foreign conflicts, as we saw in the case of Smith and Lewthwaite – the latter is still missing and was last sighted in Kenya. 

We have already shown through this decision we do not view naturalised citizens as equals no matter how many times the Department of Justice and Equality tweets “cead mile failte”.

We have also shown we do not have sufficient laws to deal with our citizens who travel to engage in wars overseas.  

Many of the European fighters in prison in Syria could end up stateless, and there is a sad irony in how wealthy western states have farmed out a security and immigration problem to the Kurds, a group of people with no state, who have lost their youth in wars and are now struggling to maintain security in a pandemic.

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About the author:

Norma Costello  / Freelance Journalist

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