Oual in Casablanca — Hatem Ben Salem, a former Tunisian education minister and ambassador, is a much-sought speaker at security conferences in the region.
Magharebia met with the government official turned security analyst on the sidelines of a recent Tangier forum to learn more about Maghreb jihadists, what they are doing in Syria and Libya, and what to expect when they come back home.
Magharebia: What is the Maghreb up against in its fight against armed extremists?
Hatem Ben Salem: The entire Maghreb is victim today of a new project of destabilisation by unstructured forces, by virtue of the security vacuum created by the events of 2011. Jihadism is unfortunately not an epiphenomenon but a social fact rooted in our societies through Wahhabi salafist thought and proselytising.
Violence advocated by this false religion has found a breeding ground, first in Iraq and Syria, and now throughout the Sahel-Sahara region. In fact, our strategic rear base - a potential area for development - became, thanks to terrorist groups, a crisis zone directly impacting the security of Maghreb populations.
Due to the unnatural alliance of jihadists with organised crime and drug traffickers, European countries bordering the Mediterranean will also suffer the consequences...
Never in the modern history of the region have so many weapons circulated. So it is with great concern that I assess the security situation in North Africa and the Mediterranean.
Magharebia: Can you profile the typical jihadist or recruiter?
Ben Salem: I do not consider the work of terrorists as jihad, far from it. Islam is totally alien to the inhuman and barbaric behaviour of those who slay their fellow under false religious pretences.
The essence of real jihad is to fight against all kinds of abuses, be they spiritual or physical. These individuals were mainly deceived by the preachers of hatred and the merchants of death. If thousands of these terrorists are young, it follows that there is a real problem in terms of public policies to meet the needs of this fragile segment of the social fabric.
The ideal profile for terrorist recruiters are those with approximate knowledge of religion who cannot find, in the societies where they live, the educational and religious guidance to keep them away from radicalisation.
Add to that a social malaise as a result of unemployment and marginalisation, and you have all the ingredients that make the apprentice jihadist.
As for terrorist organisations, they are now better equipped, better trained, and have considerable financial means...
Magharebia: Where do they get their money?
Ben Salem: ... Their funding comes from different sources. First, zakat from gullible Muslims, especially in the Gulf countries, who believe that their coins go to charitable associations but are fact used to pay the salaries of jihadists... The second source of funding is the illicit trafficking in the south of the Sahara, primarily counterfeit goods, drugs, but also human trafficking linked to migration.
The third source is probably that of some states who believed, at some point in connection with the Syrian crisis, that they could manipulate these groups...
Magharebia: What does all this mean for the future of the region?
Ben Salem: Insecurity is the very negation of the future of the Maghreb states. We notice, for example, that where state power is weak or in trouble, chaos sets in and "jihadists" become key players of destruction.
Libya is currently in a suspended state. Tunisia sees its future mortgaged because it cannot continue its development efforts in an environment under a terrorist threat.
Insecurity is a major impediment to economic development and without domestic and foreign investments, there will be no possibility to fight poverty by creating jobs and spurring growth.
Magharebia: What happens when jihadists come home?
Ben Salem: We know now that hundreds of jihadists, having experienced the hell of war in Syria and convinced that there was no hope of beating the regular troops on the ground, began to return home.
There are no statistics on the number, but they are already in Europe, North Africa or joined terrorist groups in Libya and south of the Sahara. Wherever they are, they are a major threat...
Maghreb and European states should co-operate to adopt a common policy to manage this phenomenon in the most suitable manner. In other words, they must make every effort to integrate them back into their social fabric if they have no blood on their hands.
This is an extremely difficult task and requires Euro-Mediterranean co-operation without prejudice. To do this, the positions of the states should not differ...
Magharebia: What is the outlook for these young returnees?
Ben Salem: ... The trauma suffered by these kids has left many with indelible scars. Atrocities in Syria mark for life these young people led astray by lawless and faithless criminals who used the noble Islamic religion for ignoble purposes.
The mission of de-radicalising young people takes a long time and may not give the desired results.
It will therefore, in my opinion, be very difficult to [quickly] integrate these young people... especially since the brainwashing they suffered is related to religious dogma with multiple and highly controversial interpretations.