How I resisted jihadist temptation - French ex-Guantanamo prisoner speaks
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Mourad Benchellali spent 30 months in the US army’s Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Since 2006 he’s been telling the story of how he avoided radicalisation, mainly in Switzerland and Belgium. But since January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, the French are listening too.
“You should go to Afghanistan, I have friends there, they’ll help you. It’ll do you good, a couple of months’ holiday...”
In his autobiography Voyage vers l’enfer (A Trip to Hell) Mourad Benchellali recounts how his older brother, who would later be jailed for planning to bomb the Russian embassy in Paris, persuaded him to go to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001.
It was just before the 9/11 attacks on the US and he was 19 years old at the time, living in Vénissieux, a poor suburb of Lyon.
The holiday turned out to be in an al-Qaida training camp.
“It could appear naïve,” he says, “but Al-Qaeda as we know it didn’t exist then”.
He says he wanted to see something new and admits that "the idea of coming back to Vénissieux and saying I’d been to Afghanistan was quite exciting.
In an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times in July 2006 Benchellali described being “trapped in the middle of the desert by fear and my own stupidity”.
That stupidity landed him in Guantanamo.
After 9/11 the American army considered him an “enemy combatant”. He met several men there who would go on to be terrorists, including the man who became n°2 in Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
On his return to France in 2004 he was tried again and convicted of "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise”. He spent two years in Europe’s largest prison, Fleury-Mérogis, near Paris.
“I’ve always said I made a mistake, I regret going to Afghanistan, but I never took up arms,” he says, “I didn’t deserve Guantanamo or prison in France.”
His experience, coupled with a strong sense of injustice, could have turned him into a jihadi. So how come it didn’t?
“I still ask myself that question, perhaps it is a miracle,” he says, allowing a slight smile to break out before his look darkens once more. “I had to fight not to become radicalised, it’s been hard. But I’ve always tried to take a certain distance from what I was going through."
In Guantanamo he talked to the guards “about the trauma of the 9/11 attacks and how they’d joined the army to defend their country”. They’d been told that the world’s worst terrorists were locked up in Guantanamo. “But when they arrived they realised things were more complicated than that, that it wasn’t necessarily the truth.”
Even if Benchellali was tortured there, such conversations helped stop him hating the US army.
“Some of them told me that when they returned home they’d tell people about the injustices they’d witnessed in Guantanamo. They made an effort to understand us and I felt like making an effort to understand them, too.”
Benchellali spent a lot of time reading the Koran in Guantanamo. It would help him keep jihadi recruiters at bay during the two and a half years he then spent in Fleury-Mérogis prison near Paris.
“I had a good grounding in Islam, I had the tools to be able to weigh up the arguments I was given, to see what was false and what was true,” he says.
What also helped was “being able to go to school, to do sport, to talk to other prisoners from different backgrounds. It allowed me to breathe."
So he’s not altogether convinced by the French government's plans to isolate the most radical Islamists from other prisoners in the country's jails.
“I saw isolation in its most extreme form in Guantanamo,” he says. “You can’t take any distance from religion if you’re with people who’re radicalised. You close down psychologically. Isolation closes the door to deradicalisation.”
But he acknowledges a policy of separation “could possibly work” if it were combined with some kind of rehabilitation programme, psychological support and more input from
He remains convinced that deradicalisation is possible.
“The radical discourse is just ideas, it’s not a contagious disease you catch by being in contact with contaminated people. You can go back, reflect on what you’ve done. But you need help to do that.”
Unlike many young men who leave prison, Benchellali says he got crucial support from individuals who reached out and, above all, didn’t judge him.
A doctor helped him overcome the trauma of Guantanamo and his lawyer Jacques Debray, who fought to get his release, helped him find accommodation.
Without that kind of support, he says it’s very difficult to overcome the stigma of being seen as a terrorist.
“The way people look at you makes deradicalisation all the more difficult,” Benchellali believes.
When, in 2006, he began wanting to share his story, so that young people in particular might learn from his mistakes, he began outside France.
“In Switzerland and Belgium I was considered more a victim of circumstance than someone who was sympathetic to terrorism. They saw me more as a former Guantanamo prisoner who had learned lessons from his experience.”
Despite always claiming he was innocent of any terrorist activity, he says the French always looked at him differently.
“They thought there couldn’t be smoke without fire, that if I’d been in Afghanistan it was because I was planning attacks in France.”
Attitudes in France were also hardened he says because he’d been behind bars here. And yet he sees this as profoundly unjust.
“Of all the Europeans who’ve come back from Guantanamo, we the French, are the only ones who got sentenced back home. That certainly influenced public opinion, we were necessarily guilty in their eyes.”
But with more and more people leaving for Syria, and since January’s terrorist attacks in Paris, attitudes towards Benchellali are beginning to change.
The Senate auditioned him about jihadist networks last November. And he’s now giving conferences, particularly in towns from which jihadis have left for Syria.
Last week the Greens and the Communist Party invited him to speak in Toulouse, the south-western town where Mohammed Merah shot dead five people in 2012.
“What’s happened has forced the authorities, public opinion and the media to reflect on the phenomenon more deeply,” he says. “It’s pushed them to go beyond their preconceived ideas and see that everything’s more complicated. If people leave [for jihad] it’s also because there was fertile ground for that radicalisation.”
Benchellali insists he doesn’t preach anti-jihad and rejects the role of convert which some French media have given him.
“I just tell my story, no lessons, no moral judgment. I explain the consequences of my leaving for Afghanistan: Guantanamo, torture, prison in France.”
Above all he’s telling people things are not always what they seem.
“The Taliban abandoned us as soon as the Americans started bombing, they ran off. So I saw their true colours. Perhaps people who idealise leaving for Syria will understand that the reality can be completely different.”
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