Saleh has been in Moroccan prisons for 19 years on terrorism charges, but hopes to be released soon thanks to a deradicalization program.
The former hard-line Islamist, now a bearded prisoner in his fifties, said he once had beliefs that justified violence.
“I believed Muslims had a duty to fight oppressive rulers who did not apply Islamic law and to attack states that fight Muslims,” he told AFP in the library of Kenitra prison near Rabat.
But these ideas were based on a literal reading of the Koran and statements by the Prophet Mohammed, “which I couldn’t understand,” he says.
Today, after going through the Moussalaha (“Reconciliation”) program of the North African Kingdom, he is hoping for a pardon.
The program, launched in 2015 and led by the Moroccan DGAPR prison service with several partner organizations, aims to help terrorist prisoners who are ready to question their beliefs.
Saleh said his journey into radical Islam began after immigrating to Italy in the 1990s, where he met an imam in a Turin mosque belonging to Jamaa Islamiya, the Egyptian jihadist group that assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
In 2001 he left the “land of the infidels” and moved with his family to Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban.
But the 9/11 attacks in the United States forced him to change his plans.
When the US threatened to invade and overthrow the Taliban, he fled to Morocco – and was promptly arrested.
He says he has no blood on his hands but has been in custody since then.
– ‘New beginning’ –
Morocco has had painful experiences of jihadism at home and abroad.
In 2003, in the economic metropolis of Casablanca, 33 people were killed in five suicide attacks and a further dozen were injured.
Fifteen years later, two Scandinavian tourists were murdered by militants affiliated with ISIS while hiking in the High Atlas.
According to official figures released in February, the security services have dismantled more than 2,000 extremist cells and made over 3,500 terrorism-related arrests since 2002.
Many cells destroyed in recent years have been linked to the Islamic State group that occupied an area in Syria and Iraq and declared a “caliphate” there in 2014.
More than 1,500 Moroccan fighters have traveled to the region in the past ten years, a security source said.
But in 2015 the Moroccan authorities launched Moussalaha as part of a “new approach” for detainees, said DGAPR official Moulay Idriss Agoulmam.
The program “includes monitoring participants and providing assistance to those who express need for advice,” he said.
It also includes a degree in law and economics as well as three-month psychological support.
So far 207 prisoners have been reached, including eight women. About 116 have received royal pardons and have been released, while 15 have their terms of detention reduced.
– ignorance of Islam –
Mohamed Damir, another ex-inmate who was sentenced to death in 2003 on terrorist charges, said many radicalized people “only realize that they have to abandon their extremist ideas when they are alone in a prison cell”.
The 47-year-old said he reached that point after seven years in prison. This began a long process to convince the authorities to help inmates in a similar situation.
In 2011, his sentence was commuted to 30 years in prison.
He was then fired in 2017 after participating in the first round of Moussalaha.
Part of his re-education included reading the works of the philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, whose ideas “are not far from the spirit of Islam”.
“I discovered the concept of the social contract that allows everyone to live in peace as we are obviously all different,” he said.
After his release from prison, Damir joined an Islamic scholars’ association in the city of Mohammadia that oversees the religious aspect of Moussalaha.
Today he helps the inmates guide them through the program.
“It’s not always easy,” he said.
“Most don’t know much about the Islamic religion,” he said, adding that he used religious texts to change their minds.
“I am trying to convince them that by following the path (of violence) they do not deserve God’s favor.”
© 2021 AFP