Jihadism takes root in Spain’s African outposts

Radical Islamic messages have hit home in two marginalised cities

Kamal Mohamed's house is in Ceuta's most impoverished neighbourhood but its rooftop terrace has an extraordinary view: of two continents. Across the multicoloured shantytown buildings, the mosques and the TV aerials of the El Príncipe district is the border with Morocco, with the mountains of Africa visible beyond. And yet just a few miles to the north, across the sparkling Mediterranean, is mainland Spain.

Ceuta is a cultural and geographical oddity. It sits, like its sister city Melilla, on the north African coast, yet both are technically European, for they belong to Spain. About half of Ceuta's population of 80,000 is Muslim of Moroccan descent. But here in El Príncipe, the community is almost entirely Muslim and Mohamed says the Spanish state has forgotten about them.

“Here, it’s as if we’re living in no man’s land,” he says. Mohamed is a youthful-looking 38, but he says his duties as president of the local neighbourhood association are exhausting. “We’ve got houses that don’t even have drinking water or electricity,” he says.

For many years, El Príncipe’s reputation as one of Spain’s most dangerous barrios has been due to its association with violent crime and a jobless rate of 80 per cent.


More recently, this neighbourhood and Ceuta as a whole have come under scrutiny due to their status as hubs of jihadist activity.

In 2014, five alleged terrorist cells were dismantled in Spain's two north African cities and last month the trial began of 11 men arrested in Ceuta accused of recruiting and indoctrinating for Islamic State (IS). Of the estimated 80 or so Spanish residents who have gone to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad, around a quarter were living in Ceuta.

The Spanish high court's chief prosecutor Javier Zaragoza recently warned that Ceuta and Melilla have become "a real breeding ground for indoctrination and recruitment".

Logical problem

An echo of that extremist threat can be seen on the wall of the only church in El Príncipe, where the words “Islamic State” were painted shortly after the

Charlie Hebdo

killings in Paris in January; they have still not been painted over.

Mohamed believes extremism is a logical problem in an area like El Príncipe.

“Young people feel abandoned, without any future prospects, so they fall into these traps, the same way they can fall into others,” he says. “I compare it to crime in general. Here we have endless shootouts, robberies, youngsters who fall into the world of crime – the same way that they can fall into the [jihadist] world.”

Ceuta's senior Muslim leader, Laarbi Maateis, says the city's 32 registered mosques are under tight control and that its imams, all of whom are Moroccan, have been rigorously vetted. But while he says the city's Muslim districts have long suffered from underfunding, he is adamant social conditions are not the main cause of jihadism in Ceuta or elsewhere.

“There’s not a profile that allows us to say ‘the marginalised are the ones who go [to Syria and Iraq] or the ones who have problems with their wives are those who go, or the ones who have problems with their husbands’,” he says.

Instead, Maateis insists, radicalisation thrives on the internet. “Every day kids can see new videos, of some mujahideen talking or of another killing or a case of torture in a prison of a woman being raped in Iraq or Syria and they watch it and get the idea in their heads that they have to go and fight,” he says.

But Félix Arteaga, a security researcher at Spain’s Elcano Royal Institute, believes Ceuta’s unique conditions, particularly in poorer areas such as El Príncipe, make its inhabitants more susceptible to radicalisation than those of many other cities with a large Muslim population.

Sense of confusion

He points to a high population density, which puts a strain on public services. He also highlights how many of Ceuta’s Muslims are children of immigrants from Morocco, whose dreams of social integration and professional success are being thwarted.

“The problem is what they feel,” he says. “If they perceive they have no future, they will transform that uncertainty, that feeling, into action. And that’s the problem.”

This frustration and a growing sense of confusion among Ceuta’s Muslim youth over whether or not they belong to western culture, makes them more receptive to the radical Islamic messages coming from abroad, often via social networks, says Arteaga.

In the heart of El Príncipe, social workers at the EU-funded Equal Centre have long been trying to combat the marginalisation that hinders so many locals. Here, young people take part in courses aimed at making them more employable and less susceptible to crime, as well as individual counselling sessions.

In one class, a dozen students discuss the storyline of the rags-to-riches Will Smith film The Pursuit of Happyness. Many of them have an Arabic-inflected Spanish accent, a reminder of their Moroccan roots, despite the fact they were born and bred in Spanish territory.

The economic crisis has made the Muslim population more isolated from the Christian community, says María Antonia Escobar, a co-ordinator of the centre.

“It’s an economic question,” she says. “Because when you don’t have the means to participate in the economy, integration is more challenging.” In addition, Ceuta’s multicultural tradition is being unbalanced by changing demographics, with the poorer Muslim community growing much faster than the wealthier Christian community.

Escobar, like many Ceuta locals, bridles at what she believes is the media's unfair portrayal of her city as a hotbed of jihadism and drug-trafficking. A recent TV series, called El Príncipe, reinforced that image with plots based on terrorism, drugs and corrupt cops.

And yet, back on his rooftop, looking out across what has become one of Spain's most notorious neighbourhoods, Mohamed suggests it's not entirely unfair. "I am Spanish, my life is here, my family is here," he says. "We feel Spanish and European, but Europe has forgotten about us."