The jihadist fighters sent from Ceuta

Rachid Wahbi joined the Syrian resistance, following in the footsteps of men from the enclave who have spent a decade fighting for their Muslim brothers

José María Irujo
The El Príncipe neighbourhood in Ceuta.
The El Príncipe neighbourhood in Ceuta.FIDEL RASO (EL PAÍS)

Sanaa is aged 24, tall and slim, and is dressed from head to toe in white. Her hair is covered with a veil, which surrounds her fine features. She is wearing sandals, which are also white. Two weeks ago, she was told by a friend that her husband, Rachid Wahbi, had been killed while fighting with the rebels in Syria against the forces of Bashar al-Assad. Since then she has been in mourning.

"Mustafá called me on the phone and said to me, 'Rachid has died.' He didn't give me any details to avoid hurting me more. He said Rachid had been buried according to Muslim rites. A burial like the ones they do there, under those circumstances," she explains, sitting on a sofa in her in-laws' house in the Príncipe Felipe neighborhood of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, in Morocco.

The house is built into the side of a hill, and from its windows the frontier post of El Tarajal is visible. Beyond there lies Morocco. Rachid, who was 33; his friend Mustafá Mohamed Layachi, known as "Piti," 30, and Mustafá Mohamed, "Tafo," aged 24, all traveled in April to the Middle East to volunteer with the Syrian resistance, and to fight in a civil war that has already left more than 14,000 people dead.

They left behind their families and the battered Mercedes taxi and Piaggio van that they ran to earn a living. Tafo's wife is pregnant. They gave few explanations about why they were going, and it wasn't the first time that they had suddenly disappeared. Their families say that at first they suspected nothing. Another five young Moroccan men from nearby villages have also gone, and are reported to have died in the Syrian jihad.

Rachid's widow and two sisters are sitting in his parents' living room. There are no religious symbols on show here, and the room is light and cheerful. Sanaa clasps her hands and says quietly but firmly that her husband died shortly after he crossed over into Syria.

"He died on June 1," Sanaa explains. "His friend Mustafá called a mutual friend to tell him. Then he called me. I was paralyzed. He had only been in Syria a few days, probably not even a week. During the trip, which lasted six weeks, we used to talk via Messenger. They were in Turkey for some time it seems, and were unable to get to Damascus. When they got to Syria, they called us by phone, but they wouldn't tell us anything about what was going on. He wouldn't talk about himself; he just asked about the kids. I told him to come home, that it was dangerous where he was."

Rachid and his friends all went to volunteer with the Syrian resistance

The police believe that the three friends travelled to Syria via Málaga, and then to Madrid. From there they are thought to have taken a flight to Turkey, where they made contact with jihadists, who helped them get into Syria and meet up with the resistance groups. They would most likely have been given a brief note telling them what to do, similar to this one the police discovered in 2003: "When you get to Damascus, take a taxi and tell the driver to take you to Al-Mayra. The trip will cost 10 euros. There are several hotels with different prices. Take the most adequate, and get in touch with the Mohamed Chabo brothers on this number: Damascus 554 1744."

The Spanish intelligence services believe that Moroccan members of the shadowy jihadist group Takfir Wal Hijra (Anathema and Exile) helped coordinate the trip. In the 1990s, the jihad in support of the "Muslim brothers" was directed at Bosnia and Chechnya; then Afghanistan and Iraq. Now the battle is being waged in Syria.

"Why did Rachid travel to Syria?"

"When he heard about what was going on there on the television, he was very affected by it. 'Isn't anybody going to help our Muslim brothers?' he would ask. I too have thought about it. It's normal to want to do something. But what can we really do? He was angry; he felt impotent. When you saw that children were being tortured by Assad's forces it made you want to cry. It had all really affected him. He was very sensitive. But I never imagined that he would actually go there. He would sometimes go to the mainland on business, once or twice to look for parts for his car," says Sanaa.

"Is it true that he committed suicide in the process of killing several soldiers? Did Mustafá tell you that your husband died a martyr?"

"He didn't commit suicide," she says. "It isn't true that he committed suicide. When they called us from Syria, they said they were coming back. I don't know how he died, or where. His friend gave me no details. He wouldn't commit suicide in front of his friends."

I told him to come home, that it was dangerous where he was"

As Sanaa finishes her sentence, a small girl leans round the door frame into the room. She is wearing a dress with blue flowers and runs into her mother's arms. She is aged three. Neither her nor her five-year-old brother yet know that their father has died, and that he has been thrown into an unmarked grave along with other men he never knew.

Sanaa continues to talk about her husband in the present tense in front of her children, but when they leave the room she returns to using the past. They were married six years ago, in a Muslim civil wedding ceremony.

"My husband was an exemplary man, and I am proud of him. We were happy. I don't care if people know that he died fighting. He never had a bad word to say about anybody. He was a happy man, lively, and always smiling. He was neither violent nor radical. He was even smiling in the photo on his identity card."

She opens her handbag and pulls out a crumpled photocopy of Rachid's ID card. He and his two friends traveled to Syria using their passports and Spanish national identity cards. "He never fell out with anybody. He had no criminal record. You will not find a single person in the whole of Ceuta with a bad word to say about him."

"And his friend Mustafá, the young man who called you?"

"Mustafá worked with him in the taxi business," she says. "They are childhood friends. They played soccer together, they prayed together. They even lived together when they were kids. He has two kids who are the same age as ours.

When you saw that Assad's forces were torturing children it made you cry"

"He has been reported wounded. Shot in the legs several times."

"His wife is my friend," Sanaa replies. "Mustafá has called her several times to say that he is okay. The last time was a couple of days ago."

Sanaa says that her husband was a moral man, that he didn't smoke, didn't drink and never took drugs. He loved fishing. "He never bought fish - he loved to go to the beach and fish in his diving suit." She says that he prayed several times at the Las Caracolas mosque in Ceuta, taking his son with him. "He liked to read religious books, above all the Koran. He wasn't interested in what was going on around him much. At night he would get together with Mustafá and other friends and play five-a-side soccer outdoors."

The police want to know whether he traveled to the border to attend meetings with radicals from Morocco. "They were very small groups. They would watch videos about the jihad. There were three groups," says a Muslim community leader who asks not to be identified.

El Príncipe, where Rachid and his friends grew up, is a tough area, and is home to around 12,000 people who live in illegally built houses on hilly wasteland running up to the border with Morocco. The area is also home to drug traffickers, who have resisted the efforts of the authorities to control their trade. The police rarely venture in. When European Commissioner Pawel Samecki visited the area in 2009 he was shocked by what he saw, and couldn't help asking the Popular Party-controlled administration in Ceuta how they had allowed so many houses to be built illegally.

Ceuta, with a population of 80,000 people, has the highest youth-unemployment rate in Europe, at 60 percent. It also has the highest drop-out rate: almost 40 percent of children do not have a high school diploma. And in Príncipe, the figures are even higher, all of which has made it the ideal recruiting ground for radical Muslim groups, according to Spain's National Intelligence Service.

My husband was an exemplary man, and I am proud of him," says Sanaa

"We knew that this was going to happen. This has surprised nobody. Young men from Ceuta have been traveling to Afghanistan and Iraq to fight, so why wouldn't they be going to Syria now? The problem here is not just about crime - it's about not belonging to the society in which they live," says a senior official in the intelligence services.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, troops found lists of volunteers who had been trained in Taliban camps there. Among the 25,000 volunteers were 500 Moroccans. Dozens of them are reported to have joined the Syrian resistance, according to Morocco's security services.

Since then, a new generation of young men - like Rachid, Mustafá, and Tafo - have joined the cause.

The police say they want to know what happened to Rachid's white Mercedes. They are looking into whether he sold it before going to Syria. They believe that he may have given the money to his wife, knowing that he would not be coming back - something that she denies.

A taxi license in Ceuta, where around 100 cabs operate, costs more than 200,000 euros. Rachid tended to work nights, although several of his friends say that he had long since stopped driving and rented the vehicle out to his friend Mustafá and another young man. They gave him 60 percent of the takings. Last week the car was being driven by Ahmed, aged 25.

"I was given an opportunity and couldn't turn it down. I make around 25 euros a day. I don't know why Rachid went to Syria. Nobody had any idea he would do something like that. But then have you seen the videos of what has been going on in Syria, of children being shot in the chin, of a man buried up to his head in sand, and then being buried alive? There's your answer," says the driver, as he parks the car in front of a small café on the seafront.

Men from Ceuta went to Iraq to fight, so why wouldn't they go to Syria now?"

The dusty, potholed streets that run through the Príncipe Felipe district tend to empty in the afternoon. The temperature is around 30ºC, and most houses have their shutters down. Some children are playing soccer in the street, or leaning on cars, chatting. Carmen, one of the few non-Muslims in the area, runs a corner shop. From her counter she looks out through the open door across the street to the house where Rachid's parents live. "I have been here for 50 years, and everybody knows me. I have known this kid since he was a baby. He was a good lad; I can't explain what has happened," she says. A young girl comes into buy an ice cream.

"Did you know Rachid?"

"No, but Tafo, one of the other boys who went, is my cousin," she says. "My uncles have no idea where he is. They don't even know if he is dead or alive. He is married, and his wife is pregnant."

As it gets dark, the Las Caracolas mosque begins the call to prayer and groups of young men walk slowly up the hill toward it. In front of the minaret, which is lit up at night with green lights, the sea is calm, and away in the distance is Morocco. Tarek, Rachid's brother-in-law, speaks Arabic and Spanish. "Look, he was not a terrorist. He went to help his Muslim brothers. He is a person like you or me. Do you have children? He did, and he still went. He is worth a hundred of them."

"What about his wife? And his children? They are aged just five and three." Sufian, a friend of Rachid's hears the question, and answers.

"The Koran says that he will go to heaven because he is a martyr. He will take his children with him. At least they will be with him. In Syria, they are killing children. He went there to help. Rachid always helped people in need here. He would give people money when they needed it. He believed in practicing his religion, and sharing with those around him. If anybody has spoken badly of Rachid, it is because they are a police stooge. Do you understand?

The Koran says that he will go to heaven because he is a martyr"

Abdelaziz, in his early forties, and a resident of the neighborhood, goes further. "Not everybody would leave their family like he did. I would go, but I don't have the courage."

The Las Caracolas mosque is run by UCIDE, the Spanish Union of Islamic Communities. Laarbi Mateeis is in charge of the mosque. He has been urging the community to pray for Rachid. Thirty of the 32 mosques in Ceuta are controlled by the Jamaat Tablighl, a hardline group that preaches peace, but from which terrorists have emerged, such as Mohammed Atta, who led the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

All the mosques in Ceuta have Moroccan imams, the majority of whom are paid by the Moroccan Ministry of Religious Affairs. Mateeis, who works as a civil servant in Ceuta City Hall, criticizes Rachid and his friends.

"These boys do not understand the Koran. The Koran does not allow somebody to join a jihad, except in self-defense. No woman should allow her husband to go to war like that, regardless of the terrible things that are going on in Syria. I believe that they fell under the influence of the Takfiris, and I should say that there are no Takfiris here," says Mateeis.

Takfir Wal Hijra is slowly gaining ground in Spain. It is a select club of hatemongers, one of the least-known groups of its kind. Its members despise Muslims who do not share their views. They are permitted to steal from non-Muslims, and to disguise themselves to avoid attracting the attention of the police or intelligence services. They do not watch television, believing it to be a sin, and oblige their women to be covered in public. They do not pray in mosques.

But Sanaa insists that her husband had no contact with Takfir Wal Hijra.

An officer stands guard near the La Caracola mosque.
An officer stands guard near the La Caracola mosque.FIDEL RASO (EL PAÍS)

It is unlikely that the three friends travelled to Syria without the help of others, alone, and without the letters of introduction, telephone numbers or routes that have been established since the times of the Balkan wars in the early 1990s.

Five minutes by car from Rachid and Mustafá's homes lives Hamed Abderramán, known as "Hmido," a 37-year-old from Ceuta who has trained in Taliban camps in Afghanistan run by Osama bin Laden, and who was arrested and handed over to the US authorities and locked up in Guantánamo for almost a decade.

Hmido has links to the Syrian religious leader Imad Eddin Barakat and Abu Dahdah, the head of Al Qaida in Spain, who is currently in prison. His brothers Mustafá and Yusuf have just been absolved by the Spanish courts after spending several years in prison. They were accused of preparing terrorist attacks. Lachen Ikasrrien, aged 45, also a former prisoner of Guantánamo, and now living in Madrid, says simply: "You have to have contacts to get into Syria."

Javier Gómez Bermúdez, the judge who oversaw the trial of those accused of carrying out the March 11, 2004 bombings in Madrid, told the US authorities that there could be an attack in Ceuta at any time, but warned of the difficulties of trying to infiltrate the radical networks he says operate there. "Of every three people you meet there, one is a member of the armed forces, one a police officer and the other is a spy," he has said. This would seem to be something of an exaggeration, bearing in mind the difficulties the authorities have faced in getting information from the Muslim community that makes up half of the city's population.

In the meantime, Sanaa, the widow in white, sits quietly in her parents-in-law's house. "I still haven't come to terms with what has happened. I am in pain, it is destroying me. I have to carry on, for the sake of my children. The memory of him, and our children, are the only thing I have left of Rachid."

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