[Magharebia/Jemal Omar] Mohamed Ould Sid Ahmed was recruited into a terrorist group at 17. His movie “Maze” is a warning to other young people.
Interview conducted by Jemal Oumar in Nouakchott for Magharebia.
A young terror recruit makes a movie recounting his indoctrination by radical Islamists, experience with jihadists, imprisonment, and ultimate renunciation of the takfirist path.
Like many 17-year-olds, Mohamed Ould Sid Ahmed spent his free time online. But he opened up a door to the world of extremist recruiters and soon became known among jihadists as Mohamed Atta Chinguiti.
He eventually landed in prison, where his convictions changed. He returned to school after his release, took a bride, and thought about how he could help prevent other young men from choosing his dangerous road.
Now 32, he found his chance with the Maison des Cineastes (House of Filmmakers), which helped him direct a movie, “Maze”, about his teen years with the takfirists.
Magharebia met with Ould Sid Ahmed in the Mauritanian capital to learn more about his astonishing story.
Magharebia: Your film, “Maze”, addresses the recruitment of young people by jihadi groups. Is this your life story?
Mohamed Ould Sid Ahmed: The story of the film is about my own personal experience, which I lived between the end of 1999 and beginning of 2004. In it, I talk about my childhood friends, the exploitation of youth and the mazes they get into at the hands of groups that exploit their inclination towards jihadist ideology…
I presented my experience as a young man who was crazy about the internet and who was thrown by fate into a crossroad: poverty, suffering, and marginalisation…
Magharebia: How did radical Islamic groups recruit you via the internet?
Ould Sid Ahmed: …It was through someone going by an alias, al-Battar al-Suri, who was active in some internet forums…I used to personally write for those websites and forums on topics such as jihad. This made me discover that I have an analysis skill. Through communication with al-Battar al-Suri, I started to communicate with some others, only to discover later that they had relations with some jihadist groups.
Magharebia: What drew you to these forums at the very beginning?
Ould Sid Ahmed: At first, I joined these forums as a hobby. I was then so much impressed by the internet that I started to live virtual reality as if it were actual reality. I found myself in those websites and I just felt psychologically relaxed with those people.
However, I was living tough economic and psychological conditions. I found myself bearing the responsibility of supporting my family when I was younger than 17 years old because my father abandoned me at an early age and left me vulnerable to poverty and emotional, material, and psychological deprivation. This is a complex that still haunts me.
Magharebia: Did recruiters seek you out or did you look for them?
Ould Sid Ahmed: …I received a message from someone who seemed to have found a great catch in me and who took advantage of my religious emotions.
I later found out that I had actually been deceived, something that made me lose trust in people. It also made me quit that dangerous direction; my mother had suffered enough, and therefore, I decided not to make her suffer anymore because of me…
Magharebia: How did al-Suri recruit you?
Ould Sid Ahmed: He used to play with my religious feelings and to use certain phrases to ignite my enthusiasm, such as God is great, God is great. He would talk to me about Islam and global jihad, and post videos of bombings carried out by jihadist groups and ask me to comment on them. He would also post sermons…
I was like all other activists in those forums, reacting very enthusiastically because I didn’t understand the meaning of those issues.
I didn’t know that I was a terrorist project.
Magharebia: What was your role?
Ould Sid Ahmed: …My activities were restricted to the internet, designing some websites and posting jihadist contents on them, until I was arrested… In 2004, I was transferred to Nouakchott, where I was imprisoned for several months…
Thanks to that arrest, I understood the danger of the course I was taking and I realised that I was the victim of groups that deceive young people. When I matured, I started to discern between right and wrong. Before that, I was going through very tough conditions and I was suffering from ignorance, because I quit school when I was 12 years old. I was engaged in some simple types of work to provide a living for my mother.
Later, I returned to school and dedicated my time to personal development and changed my ideas. I was no longer that former person who lived in several mazes.
Magharebia: When you were arrested, did anyone help you?
Ould Sid Ahmed: As soon as I was arrested, all those who were trying to recruit me just disappeared. None tried to help me, either by hiring a lawyer to defend me or by sympathising with me. None was there to support me. From that, I saw that I was moving in a real maze.
Magharebia: Describe yourself at 17.
Ould Sid Ahmed: …At that time, I was living in real isolation and I was feeling lonely. The picture of the world was bleak, and I felt all doors were closed. I didn’t find myself in society; I knocked on all doors, but none opened. I was telling myself that there was no hope about a decent life.
Magharebia: And who are you now?
Ould Sid Ahmed: Today, I’m just a Muslim man; I have many responsibilities and I plan for my own future, which is more important to me than ideologies…
Magharebia: What would you say to the 17-year-old Mohamed, or to other young men like yourself?
Ould Sid Ahmed: It’s better to ask questions to imams and scholars instead of looking for interpretations in online forums or listening to what is said by extremists who have their own agenda.
I tell simple people like myself not to walk in any course that will lead you to death, as happened to me. Whoever chooses the path of Islam must walk in the right direction, and from my personal experience, I say to many young people that there are so many bumps that one must avoid because one will fall victim to some who want to deceive him.
I advise youths to ask the question about why these groups want to recruit them. They have to ask questions before they accept whatever is said to them without thinking.
If jihadist groups say that the Qur’an urges them to kill infidels, young people must consult moderate scholars … instead of acting on what those takfirist groups say.
Magharebia: Do you believe that unemployment leads young people to militancy?
Ould Sid Ahmed: Certainly. For example, I’m a married young man and I live on the assistance of some relatives, because I don’t have any work. I’m still a university student and there are many like me.
Such cases have potentials that shouldn’t be forgotten, neglected or left for exploitation in negative things. Although they’re the fuel that could be used to defend the nation, but no one pays attention to them.
Magharebia: Why are some youths drawn to groups such as Daesh or al-Qaeda?
Ould Sid Ahmed: … When young people have suitable conditions and correct guidance, none will be able to influence their minds or control them. However, as long as poor young people can’t secure their daily living and see others live in good conditions, this may push them to do something.
I think there is no justification for joining jihadist groups. Young people must wake up and work hard to change their reality.
They have to complete their education and join civil society, and perhaps develop an interest in politics. In this way, we can change our reality – not through involvement with terrorist groups.