The interrogation of a Salafi `alim

In their interrogation transcripts, Sidi Ould Sidina and Mohamed Ould Sidi Ould Chabarnou speak of Mohamed Salem Ould Mohamed Lamine al-Majlissi as the ideological guide of the Mauritanian AQIM. Al-Majlissi spent his time around the mosques of Nouakchott “teaching” and spreading the Salafi message. He recruited Ould Sidina and Chabarnou into the ranks of AQIM, along with many other Mauritanians, whom he says showed interest in traveling to the AQIM camp in northern Mali from whence they would be sent to Iraq to fight the Americans. He admits to having traveled to Mali himself out of a desire to wage jihad in Iraq, but changed his mind and returned to Mauritania. Though he would not want to fight himself, he appears to have no problem convincing others to do so and assisting them in realizing that desire. He denies having had any connection to Ould Sidina or Chabarnou’s terrorist activities, though both of the other men describe his role as being integral to the Aleg operation. His interrogation takes part in three phases, which illustrate his role in the recruitment processes for AQIM in Mauritania, and insights into the nature of the Mauritanian Salfist/Islamist scene. This post is concerned with the first part of his interrogation.

During his interrogation, al-Majlissi denies any connection to either Ould Sidina or Chabarnou until he is shown transcripts of telephone calls between himself and the other two. The calls are to al-Majlissi’s cell phone from Senegalese area codes. Ould Sidina and Chabarnou describe the calls as having served two functions: (1) to obtain the phone number of the AQIM Emir in northern Mali, so that the men could inform him of the Aleg massacre, and (2) to inform al-Majlissi of their escape route. Chabarnou also says that he left 180,000 MRO and an identification card with al-Majlissi before fleeing to Dakar, which al-Majlissi denies at first. The two others say that when they informed al-Majlissi of their plan to exit Mauritania straight through to Mali, and on to the AQIM camp there, he told them to instead go through Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea and then into Mali, the course of action they eventually took (they were captured in Guinea). Al-Majlissi claims to have received no communication from either man during or after the Aleg massacre, and states that he views that attack, along with AQIM’s other violent actions as being “not in accordance with sharia.” He says that all the Salafi “teachers” in Mauritania share the same view, mentioning men by the names of Nawawi, Mazide, Abu Huraira, Moulay Idriss, Moulay al-Hassan, Boubakr, and Abdel-Rahmane as examples. These men gathered at Moulay Idriss’s home on the day of the Aleg event to formulate a declaration condemning the attack. He says that he regards “this kind of [violent] Salafism” as an abomination.

Al-Majlissi changes his story when the interrogators present him with a Senegalese phone number from which his cell phone received a call from Chabarnou following the Aleg killings. He says that Chabarnou called to inform him that he had left 180,000 MRO and an ID with a person named Brahim Ould Hmeida, asking him to confirm that Ould Hmeida still had Chabarnou’s materials. The next day, al-Majlissi says, a 17-year old boy came to him with 600 USD and 30,000 MRO. On the same day another courier, whom he identifies as Salik, picked up the money from al-Majlissi and brought it to Chabarnou in Dakar. When he is asked why he aided the two, having heard the news from Aleg, al-Majlissi responds that he was under the impression that the perpetrators were being encircled by the Senegal River, while Chabarnou was in Dakar at the time and that Chabarnou did not tell him that he had been involved. As mentioned earlier, al-Majlissi describes his “shock” upon learning of the massacre. He describes Chabarnou as balanced and Ould Sidina as “troubled” (مضطرب), noting that he did not hold the latter in high esteem. That sentiment seems to be mutual: Ould Sidina derides al-Majlissi as a member of al-qa’idoun (those who sit). The mutual animosity might come from Ould Sidina’s rather unsavory past, which includes a drug history (which might explain why he wanted to leave AQIM after finding out that they were involved in drug trafficking; but more on that later).

With regards to the Mali camp, the interrogators ask him how much time he spent in northern Mali with AQIM when he traveled there. He answers that he only went to suburbs of Timbuktu for five days, and met with no AQIM leaders while he was there. His ambition had been to go on to Iraq and fight the Americans, and that he had not recruited any Mauritanians that did not hope to do the same. He, however, stopped short of joining AQIM’s army and did no training.

Al-Majlissi seems to represent a cross between ideologue, recruiter, and bridge builder. He adeptly connects the network of sympathizers, financiers, volunteers, and organizers. Throughout the transcript he attempts to detach himself from the organization, painting himself as a moderate teacher whose students have gone astray. This appears to be less the result of cowardice or fear of the legal ramifications of his behavior than of the fact that al-Majlissi understands the importance of his role and value within the Mauritanian structure of AQIM. This, I think, makes him as dangerous (if not more so) than either of the two other parties concerned: It is through him that the organization reaches new members and grows. It is by means of mosque wandering men such as al-Majlissi that AQIM’s membership germinates.

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