Mauritania's growing internet connectivity brings a new danger: easy access to extremist websites. From parents to muftis, Mauritanians are fighting back against the online threat.
Text and photos by Jemal Oumar for Magharebia in Nouakchott
With internet cafes springing up all over the Nouakchott, extremist Salafist ideology is just a click away.
Since the As-Sahab Foundation, al-Jahafel, al-Andalus Media and other websites linked to al-Qaeda organisations are now readily accessible throughout the capital city, parents have begun monitoring their children's activities and online friendships.
"I noticed a change in my son," Alnina Mint Al-Nahi, tells Magharebia about 16-year-old Al-Saalek. "Especially in his daily addiction to watching religious channels, to the point of becoming furious when we wanted to watch news or entertainment programmes. He even accused us as being misguided," the 52-year-old says.
"Facing my son's hard-line behaviour, I decided to remove the television from the house once and for all, and that led him to replace it with an addiction to internet cafes," she continues. "This is causing me to fear his falling into the hands of extremist groups."
In the Arafat neighbourhood of Nouakchott, many young people endure idleness and poverty. And this makes them particularly susceptible to online recruiters.
"I have a 15-year-old son, and it is in my best interest to integrate into the world of new technology and modern media," says Mohamed Salem. "But at the same time, I am careful to guide and educate him in what serves his mind, and also caution him about some websites that extremist groups are behind."
Ibrahim Ould Mohamed Vall runs an internet cafe in the Arafat district. He sees boys like Al-Saalek and Salem every day. "Adolescents aged 16 and 17 represent most of the patrons of this cafe, which opened less than a year ago," he tells Magharebia. "And since I'm just trying to make a profit, it's not my responsibility to prevent children from coming here."
"That's up to their parents."
"I only prevent them from browsing pornography sites," the Arafat cafe owner adds.
Abdullah Malek, owner of the oldest cafe in the centre of the capital, is more vigilant about what his young patrons are doing online. "We do not allow young teenagers to surf the web unless we confirmed their identities and their objectives," he explains.
"If they are looking for information related to their schoolwork, we provide them with assistance, and if their objective is not clear so far as we're concerned, we stop them from accessing the internet," Malek tells Magharebia.
Still, he has seen his fair share of problems. "Many hard-line youth frequented the cafe in past years. Some are currently in prison on charges of belonging to terrorist groups," he says.
"From our side, as cafe operators, it is not easy to monitor sites that cafe patrons are browsing them from our side. All we can do is have suspicions about a person who frequents the cafe at special times and is characterised by extreme guardedness," Malek adds.
Extremist web forums and blogs have what it takes to reel in their intended audience, according to journalist Zineddine. "The success of the Salafis in designing attractive websites with various internet-related technologies, such as audio and images, enabled them to attract many young people," he tells Magharebia.
"The internet is the medium we are least able to monitor and control, and it is a gateway for spreading extremist ideology without the knowledge of the state and the parents of adolescents," he says.
The internet has indeed proven useful to extremist groups, terrorism analyst Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Abu Elmaali points out. "The electronic media, such as al-Qaeda forums and websites, only helped, because al-Qaeda had people involved in direct enlistment and they used them as part of the propaganda."
"Websites feed the intellectual side with tapes, CDs and links to lectures by Bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam and Droukdel, and they were in fact used in mobilisation and supporting enlistment operations," he notes.
First there is exposure to the extremists' web forum, he says. "Then comes the direct communication with them." The story of convicted Mauritanian terrorist Marouf Ould Haiba confirms parents' greatest fears.
Currently imprisoned for participating in armed confrontations with Mauritanian security officers, he was once just like their sons.
He started out by communicating with al-Qaeda via the web. In 2006, he took off for al-Qaeda training camps. During the pronouncement of his death sentence by the criminal court judge in Nouakchott in October, 2010, Ould Haiba said: "I acquired a computer and downloaded a lot of jihadist books and movies on it... and studied them well."
Dr Side Ould Ellalam, a specialist in crimes of children and adolescents, says that while such behaviour is usually attributed to "informational media, such as magazines, booklets, the web and some religious-oriented channels", the main factor that makes young people susceptible to radical ideologies is "the great void" in which they live.
"Added to that, teenagers always seek self-expression and adventure, and think about creating themselves. It is thus easy for them to latch onto certain media."
Ould Ellalam continues, "There is another type pushing some categories of Mauritanian youth toward delinquency and adoption of radical Islamic ideology, and that is a sense of being deprived of some social benefits."
"If their outlook is pessimistic toward society, if they consider it a source of their hardship and marginalisation, they therefore want to get rid of the society that caused them injustice, through alliance with any orientation or particular ideology that can help them achieve that goal - especially if it is based on religious thought," he says.
Sociology researcher Dr Sidi Mohamed Ould Ajid agrees that society has a role in turning a teenager into a jihadi: "Poor conditions cause young people to experience a contradiction between what they see in reality and what is being said, and this creates confusion."
Some of them, he adds, turn to jihadist thought.
"Sure, the media and communications media in general, and electronic media in particular, have a huge impact on the recipient, whatever his age, and with its use of audio, images and effects of various sorts and levels to convey its message, it will be more influential," he tells Magharebia.
"These websites utilise methods of presentation and dissemination by experts in the field of psychology and others, so that the effect is captivating, controlling and convincing" he says.
These groups specifically target youth and adolescents, Ould Ajid notes. And for many impressionable teenagers, the "conditions of Muslim communities make them amenable to receiving religious discourse".
At the end of the day, he says, young people are just "looking for a port to lay down anchor".
What can parents do to subvert the online assault? Religious scholar and cleric Mohamed Abdullah Ould Elmustaf says: "Parents must attend to guardianship in protecting their children, whether in terms of their bodies, their property or their minds, and raise them with good morals and fill their thoughts with religion of moderation, to guarantee security against today's ideas."
Parents also need to "monitor all websites and channels that broadcast extremist ideology or which are a mouthpiece for those who do not have a good understanding of the true religion", the mufti adds.
"With children, if the mind is not occupied with what is right, it is occupied with what is wrong. Therefore, these thieves of ideas – of minds – are more dangerous than any others," he says.
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