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CEUTA, Spain — In the cliffhanger for the successful Spanish drama series “El Príncipe,” which aired its first season last year, a bus carrying explosives that could cause the biggest attack on Spanish soil since the 2004 Madrid bombings rolls into muggy Ceuta, Spain’s tiny enclave in North Africa. Just before one of the passengers — Alfonso, a young manfrom El Príncipe, one of Ceuta’s predominantly Muslim neighborhoods — detonates the bomb, he is shot dead by security forces.
The fictional TV series has helped cement El Príncipe’s reputation as a breeding ground for radicalism. In the 1990s the neighborhood became infamous for its drug trade, and in 2003 leading Spanish newspaper El País named it the most dangerous place in the country. This January, Spain’s top prosecutor, Javier Zaragoza, made clear that Ceuta; the other North African Spanish enclave, Melilla; and nearby Moroccan towns “have become real hotbeds for indoctrination and recruitment for jihadist terrorist organizations, especially for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL].”
In March the Elcano Royal Institute, an important nonpartisan Spanish think tank, stated that 70 percent of those arrested on terrorism charges in the last two years in Spain had Spanish nationality and lived in Ceuta or Melilla. At least 40 people have been detained on Spanish soil for allegations of terrorism so far this year, compared with 36 for all of last year, according to data from the Spanish Interior Ministry.
The first trial for members from an alleged ISIL-linked cell from El Príncipe began in March.
Al Jazeera spoke with young people in the neighborhood who said that El Príncipe has deeply rooted social problems but that residents’ tendency for radicalization is exaggerated in the series.
“It’s not all true,” said Sukaina, a21-year-old born and raised in El Príncipe who preferred not to give her last name. “About the jihadists, I never saw one. But the drug trade — maybe some of it is true,” she said with a smile.
She was standing in a 19th century fortress overlooking the neighboring town of Fnideq in Morocco. The fortress is the base of a government restoration program that teaches about two dozen young people skills like brickwork, carpentry and plumbing to give them a boost in the anemic job market.
“Do you only want to see the reality of the [government-sponsored] projects?” asked Sukaina’s friend Morad Mohamed, 23, who also participates in the restoration project, as he walked through the narrow streets of El Príncipe. “Because that is not the only one. There are many more,” he said, referring to the severe social problems El Príncipe suffers.
Ceuta has been under the rule of Spain since the 16th century but has been claimed by neighboring Morocco. Almost half the 85,000 inhabitants of Ceuta are Muslim and of Moroccan descent; the majority are Christian, with smallJewish and Hindu minorities.
Ceuta has the third-highest unemployment rate in the European Union, according to the EU statistical office Eurostat, with nearly a third of the population out of work. Among El Príncipe’s approximately 12,000 residents, almost all of whom are Muslim, unemployment is a staggering 80 percent. Those who do work in El Príncipe are typically employed in small shops or coffeehouses.
In the office of the neighborhood council, volunteer Abdelkader Ahmed, a thin, bearded man, explained that many families in El Príncipe lack basic needs like water and electricity. Many inhabitants are not registered, he said. “Anyone can come live here,” he said. Getting out, however, is a different story.
“It feels as if there is a fence around El Príncipe. We are trapped like cats,” Ahmed said, referring to El Príncipe residents difficulties making a living.
The local government says 40 percent of Ceuta’s annual social aid budget is allocated to El Príncipe. From 2007 until this year, over 100 million euros in city, national and EU funds were invested in infrastructure, water, housing and other social projects, according to Ana Villazán, a spokeswoman for the city. The EU plans to funnel an additional 25 million euros into El Príncipe over the next five years to support similar projects. A prominent EU-sponsored educational and cultural center opened in 2004 in the heart of the neighborhood.
‘I can’t deny that El Príncipe has many problems … that can cause social exclusion.’
Juan Jesús Vivas
Despite these large-scale investments, Príncipe residents like Karim Tuktuy feel abandoned by local politicians.
“In election time, we tear the posters off the wall,” he said as he walked to a job interview at a downtown restaurant. “They are not welcome here.”
“The projects are flooded with people from outside the neighborhood,” he continued. “But more important, these projects don’t bring us much if there are hardly any jobs available. At least not for people from El Príncipe.”
In the 1990s, the drug trade was an economic lifeline for many in El Príncipe, where buyers from the Iberian Peninsula arrived by ferry to buy Moroccan hashish.
“I remember the traffic jams blocking the entrances,” Mohamed recalled. An investigation from Granada University in 2006 said police actions against drug trafficking in Ceuta “dried up” the drug trade considerably, which exacerbated the existing poverty.
Ceuta Mayor Juan Jesús Vivas says high unemployment is a long-term problem for the enclave because of limited space and a lack of industry and tourism.
“I can’t deny that El Príncipe has many problems … that can cause social exclusion,” he said.
Nonetheless, he believes that government projects like the fortress project and future investments to prevent social exclusion and poverty will prove fruitful and that Ceuta is unfairly targeted as a hub for extremism.
“Why do people focus on Ceuta as a singularity when this concerns all of us?” he asked.
Evidence of radicalization in El Príncipe is not immediately apparent. The government believes that most recruitment for armed groups like ISIL takes place online and not in the neighborhood’s many mosques.
Some in El Príncipe are undeniably drawn to such movements. A video posted online shows Rachid Hossain Mohamed, a former taxi driver from El Príncipe, executing a suicide attack in Syria three years ago that killed 130 people.
In April, European Union Justice Commissioner Vera Jouriva told French newspaper Le Figaro that at least 5,000 Europeans have left for Syria to join armed groups. According to Spanish police, roughly 100 ISIL fighters have residency in Spain, a relatively low count compared with that of Morocco, one of the largest suppliers of ISIL recruits. About one-third of the 1,500 ISIL fighters from Morocco come from that country’s northern triangle — between Tangier, Tetouan and Fnideq — which borders Ceuta.
Ceuta has always had strong ties to the Moroccan “jihadist-Salafist movement,” said Mohamed Ben Aissa, the directorof the North Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO that has investigated radical tendencies in northern Morocco. He believes religious currents in the region were important for the first generation that left for Syria but are less relevant now. “The second group is between 18 and 25 years old, mostly of lower social economic class who don’t have a religious background,” he said.
“Some are on dating or soccer sites. Others watch extremist content. And again others see porn. You can get addicted to anything online,” said Laarbi al-Lal Maateis, president of the UCIDCE, an organization that unites 32 Muslim communities in Ceuta, sitting in his office just before Friday prayer. “Unfortunately, when Muslims see on jihadi pages that women are raped and civilian targets attacked, they want to act.” The UCIDCE recently started a project to teach parents how to monitor their children’s social media behavior.
Since the success of “El Príncipe,” residents say they occasionally run into tourists from across Spain who are fans of the show and want to see the neighborhood with their own eyes (although most scenes are not actually shot there).
Morad Mohamed doesn’t mind. He is more worried about earning the 50 euros a day needed to pay for a house outside El Príncipe where he wants to start a family with his wife. During the week, he carries huge piles of clothes and shoes to Morocco. If he doesn’t make enough, he works extra hours as a cab driver.
After prayer he drinks mint tea with friends in a coffeehouse, where older men play dominoes. The place is filled with the sweet scent of hashish smoked from wooden pipes. The television shows video of riots in Baltimore.
“When things happen elsewhere, like there or in Palestine, it makes us angry,” he said. Nonetheless, he said, he never considered fighting in Syria.
“That is only about oil and money,” he said. “I am sure that if everybody in El Príncipe had a job, nobody would leave to Syria.”