The arrest by Kurdish forces in Syria of an Irish citizen suspected of being an Isil fighter is a timely reminder that we can never become complacent about the links between Ireland and Islamist terrorism.
Little is known publicly about Belarussian Alexandr Ruzmatovich Bekmirzaev (45) except that he came to Ireland in or around 2000 and is understood to have become a naturalised citizen in 2010.
Since news broke of his arrest by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), we have learned that he worked in a fast food shop, married an Eastern European woman and the couple had a son.
After being granted citizenship it appears, according to security sources, that he became radicalised before leaving to fight in Syria. It has also been revealed he was being monitored by gardaí until his departure in 2013.
According to senior security sources, he was on a Garda watch-list of suspected extremists and classified as a “major player”, particularly in the provision of logistical support to Isil.
It is understood that Bekmirzaev and his comrades were attempting to make their way out of the Syria/Iraq warzone, where Isil has effectively been defeated, and may have been trying to make their way back to the West. One of the main worries for security services has been the return of Isil fighters to the countries where they hold citizenship.
Gardaí have consistently stated, based on their own and intelligence from international agencies, that they believe that “no more than” 30 radicalised extremists left Ireland to join the fighting in Syria.
But Garda security chiefs say that most of them have been killed, with the survivors moving on to other theatres of war in North Africa and the Philippines.
The officer in charge of the State’s counter-terrorism units has said that at any one time up to 30 suspected Islamist extremist are being monitored by gardaí. “That depends on their activity and their interest to us and the level of threat they pose to the security of the State … holding extremist views on their own does not mean that one poses a threat to the security of the State,” said Chief Superintendent Michael O’Sullivan in a documentary broadcast on Virgin Media One last year.
He was responding to claims by an Irish woman who had been radicalised in London that there are up to 150 people with extremist Islamist beliefs in Ireland.
The first time a direct link was established between Ireland and a terror attack in Europe was in the wake of the London Bridge attack on June 3, 2017. During that atrocity, three terrorists killed eight people and left another 48 seriously injured. The link lay with one of the attackers, Rachid Redouane, who had been living here since 2012 and received residency status after marrying an EU citizen.
The problem for the Irish security forces is similar to that being faced everywhere in the western world these days: they must be constantly vigilant, which means a massive reliance on intelligence.
Over the past few years the Garda’s intelligence-gathering ability has been dramatically upgraded and this year Ireland will be signed up to the Schengen Information System which carries out over four billion checks annually. The introduction of more armed Garda units has also greatly improved the response times to a so-called lone wolf attack.
However the problem facing the security forces is existential. To paraphrase a warning once issued by the Provos: the security forces have to be lucky all the time, the terrorists only have to be lucky once.
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