In 2001, encouraged by a member of their social circle, two young men from the Minguettes neighbourhood of Vénissieux, near Lyon, joined an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.
Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September, they were captured by the US Army and deported to its naval base in Guantanamo. Mourad Benchellali and Nizar Sassi spent thirty months there before being sent to prison in France. They were released in 2009.
Since leaving jail, Benchellali has been giving talks at associations, schools and prisons about the trap of radicalisation and the counter-truths expounded by the so-called Islamic State (IS). He is the author of Journey to Hell, the story of an “error of youth” with international ramifications. Sassi, in reaction to the Paris attacks of 13 November, has also engaged in the field of prevention. He is the author of Prisoner 325, Delta Camp: from Vénissieux to Guantanamo.
Faced with the state of emergency in France, the two men are insisting on the need for dialogue, and caution against the effects of simplistic declarations in the fight against violent radicalism.
At what point did you decide to speak out?
Mourad Benchellali: I wrote a book in 2006 and I came into contact with a lot of young people as part of the book promotion. I realised that they identified with my story and, above all, that it gave them a measure of understanding about the realities of jihad. I have always thought it was important and that I needed to be careful about the way I recounted my experience.
Nizar Sassi: I also wrote a book at more or less the same time as Mourad. But at the same time, on top of the fact that our judicial process was still underway, I was thinking that we would always be reduced to that, and what we had to say would not make any difference. We would be forever guilty.
The real defining moment for me was the 13 November attacks. I felt compelled to speak out, to speak about what we had lived through. To make people understand, for a start, that the Islam these people lay claim to is just their own brand of Islam. And that of the Islamophobes. Ninety-nine per cent of Muslims do not identify with it. And then the young people tempted to leave had to be told: “It’s not virtual, and we are going to talk to you about the realities.” From the moment they decide to go there, life will never be the same again, neither for them nor their families, nor for any of the ideals they may want to defend.
What makes your approach to prevention effective?
MB: I have several concrete examples. Quite recently, a young man told me that IS had approached him through Facebook. He told me: “What convinced me not to go was the discussion I’d had with you. When you told your story, it made me think.” That strengthened my determination to carry on. I also spoke at a school and I asked the kids to tell me what they thought. After our discussion, they said to me, “We’ve understood. We see things differently.” It’s really something, because it means that up until then they weren’t sufficiently equipped. It’s said that these young people know, but that shows they don’t actually have any idea.
What are your views on the government’s response to the 13 November attacks?
MB: I think the current government is doing the same as all the other governments have done, that is, sweeping the dirt under the carpet. In other words, a short-term approach is taken to resolving the problems; they take the kind of security measures that enable them to say they are doing something, but that won’t change anything in the long run.
But it makes no difference, because in two, three years another government will come along and will inherit an even more serious problem. And that’s how the government has been operating for thirty years.
Because the phenomenon of young people taking part in jihad or even in attacks on French soil is nothing new. We already saw that in the 1990s, and the causes underlying those attacks are the same today. The problems are even worse, which shows that there is no work on the foundations.
Rather than working on the causes of radicalism, we’re still working on the consequences. Is it, ultimately, too complicated? Because it means tackling social issues, unemployment, political problems. There is so much to tackle that the government ends up taking the easy option.
NS: There are international reasons and national problems that have been known for thirty years, social problems, unemployment, points of reference in society, young people who can’t find their place. When you can’t find your place and you are pushed forward within these groups, when you’re told that you are unique and that you are going to have responsibilities, that you will go from being insignificant to being a person with authority and even power over people’s life or death, it can be disastrous for young people whose development process is not yet even complete.
Several mosques and prayer rooms have been closed since November, on the orders of the authorities in Vénissieux and the region. How are such measures perceived?
MB: Closing mosques, it’s always the same at the end of the day. Mosques are closed and the first problem it creates is that it puts people on the streets. People who practise their faith are put out onto the street and driven underground. For some young people, who are far removed from radicalisation, the argument that “we have been driven out of our mosque because we are Muslims” can tip the balance.
So it creates fertile ground for radicalisation, as if it were done on purpose. Resources need to be dedicated to the human dimension, rather than always prioritising security, the police and intelligence. There needs to be people on the ground, for a start, to tell young people what jihad means.
NS: In our day, radicalisation took place in certain mosques, but it doesn’t work like that anymore. The mosques have been taken over by the authorities and they know what’s going on in there.
Now, it’s even worse. It’s happening on the Net and that means that it reaches everyone’s home. And so sometimes there are people that radicalise on their own, who make contact with these groups by themselves. And then it’s very easy to get to Turkey. All you have to do is take a plane or a bus and then you are taken under the wing of the networks that get you to the front. You find yourself there within about twelve hours. It wasn’t the same in our day. That’s maybe what saved us. But things are different now and it’s something, I think, that goes too fast for the services to keep up with.
MB: The government can say “we’ve done so many raids, made so many house arrests, we’ve put so many people on probation”, but the problem is that these figures include a lot of innocent people. So in terms of the fight against terrorism, it doesn’t solve the problem. But in terms of communication it works, because it reassures people. When we hear these figures, people tell themselves the government is strong and is able to respond, but it is not the right response. They are working on the short term, but in the long run it is likely to make the problem worse.
How did people in the neighbourhood react to the attacks and the declaration of the state of emergency?
MB: Everyone agrees that these attacks are abominable, but at the same time there is a distrust of the media that is stronger than ever before. Young people no longer trust what they hear and have more confidence in the Internet. It’s a real problem, because a young blogger who is not a journalist at all has the same credibility as a top reporter from the New York Times. And that’s how conspiracy theories are fuelled.
The media has put the spotlight on the neighbourhoods and their problems, but have never covered them from a positive angle. That has created a great deal of defiance here, with people saying you speak of us but only badly. That’s why many young people no longer listen to the media. It’s the same with certain politicians and public figures who use their platform to add fuel to the fire and sow confusion between rigorous religious practice and violent extremism. They always speak of Islam in very stigmatising terms; they talk of the veil, of halal, of street prayers, as if it’s impossible to be a good Muslim and a good French citizen at the same time. I think that has contributed a great deal to radicalisation.
NS: In France, there are many people who talk about Islam, who talk about Muslims, but the Muslims who live with Islam and who live in France as French people are rarely given a chance to speak. I don’t think these problems are going to be solved by seeing the Muslim community as the enemy. The people in the community cannot understand why each time there is a problem with a degenerate, the whole community ends up being berated. If Muslims were all terrorists I don’t think there would be anyone left on the planet (laughs). One-point-six-billion people... But the bigger it is the more it happens. Those who feel comforted by what they say are the extremists on both sides: “We told you, we need to hit even harder.” But if violence and bombs solved anything, we’d know about it. There are other ways. There are other channels to be used.
This article has been translated from French.