Paris (CNSNews.com) – A French former Guantanamo Bay detainee says he has dedicated his life to help counter radicalization and Islamic terrorism, with a particular focus on Muslim youth.
Mourad Benchellali last year launched an organization called Action Resilience and has been invited since then to talk across the country about how to combat the scourge successfully.
The 36-year-old, who was incarcerated at the U.S. military detention camp in Cuba in 2002-2004, was invited by French senator Nathalie Goulet to be a key speaker at a weekend conference on the dangers of radicalization and terrorism.
He focused on the threat of Muslims in western Africa becoming radicalized and then coming to Europe.
Benchellali, of Algerian descent, said the situation today is quite different from the past, when few people were aware of the threat of radicalization and Islamism terrorism.
Still, the danger remains high, he said.
Despite the serious setbacks faced by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the group’s propaganda remains “very active, and it still can attract a lot of people.”
He said terrorists have adapted to the new situations in the Middle East, as well as in Africa and Europe, using the Internet to organize and call for attacks.
It is more difficult to fight them now than it was to act against terrorists gathered together in locations in the Middle East, he said.
Benchellali launched Action Resilience along with Nicolas Hénin, a French reporter who was held as a hostage by ISIS in Syria from June 2013 to April 2014, and three others experts in terrorism and Islam. (Hénin was freed with three others following negotiations between his captors and the French government, which denied paying a ransom.)
Action Resilience advises and provides training for various sectors in France, including the judiciary and penitentiary administration, on how to fight radicalization and terrorism. It also organizes workshops and other events, working with people who are interested in the prevention of radicalization, both in France and other European countries, including Belgium and Germany.
“We were all saying the same thing about how to fight radicalization and Islamic terrorism,” Benchellali said in an interview. “Furthermore we wanted to use our different experiences in Islamic terrorism. Hénin's story as a prisoner of ISIS in Syria in 2013 touched me a lot. Therefore we decided to testify to the world about these experiences.”
Benchellali said his work includes a strong focus on young people, including minor offenders.
“We meet a lot of students and secondary schools pupils to speak with them about Islam and terror,” he said. “Of course, we also speak and work with teachers on the same topics and on how to try to detect potential problems among their students.”
According to extracts from a book published in 2006, Benchellali’s foray into jihadism began when he traveled to Afghanistan, following his older brother, in the spring of 2001, aged 19.
“I thought it was a dream vacation, but at the time I had never traveled outside France where I was born,” he wrote, adding that he was misled by jihadist propaganda and misinformation about the purpose of the trip.
His friends, he said, told him that they would take care of him there.
“That's what they did – sending me unwittingly to what turned out to be an al-Qaeda camp. I was trapped in the desert, trapped in my fear and stupidity.”
After leaving the camp he went to Pakistan where he heard about the 9/11 terror attacks, he said. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested in a mosque by Pakistani police and handed over to American officials.
He was detained in Guantanamo jail from January 2002 to July 2004 before being transferred to French custody.
(According to confidential Guantanamo documents released by WikiLeaks in 2011, Benchellali had family ties to terrorism – it described his brother as a “known Algerian and al-Qaeda terrorist” – confessed being at an al-Qaeda training camp, and was considered to be “a high risk.”)
Upon return to France he was convicted of criminal association with a terrorist group, later had the conviction overturned, only to be retried and the judgment upheld in 2014. His legal battles continue, and he says his lawyers plan to submit an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
“One of the paradoxes of my experience at Guantanamo is that this camp was my school,” he said. “I learned Arabic, English, the Qur’an and prayer there.”
To the surprise of many people, he said, the Qur’an was the only book that wasn’t removed from the detainees.