Ceuta (Spain) “Today that are fewer routes, it’s a holiday today. But you just wait here, the next bus that passes close to El Principe arrives in ten minutes.” Those ten minutes saved us from a shooting.
It’s a few minutes after 3pm. The sun beats down on the Spanish citizens while the stores of famous European brands welcome residents and tourists enjoying the first warm weather of the holidays. A few kilometers away, near the border with Morocco, the city changes in nature. We are in the heart of the El Principe Alfonso. From here, in recent years, ten young people have left to join up with jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
Underneath El Principe
“El Principe has been abandoned by the law, by the authorities, by everyone. Here everything has been left to itself. There is dirt and rubbish. They burn cars and the people go around armed. It is true chaos,” a resident of the neighbourhood says. El Principe presents itself as a tangle of colourful alleys. Three thousand houses of every colour are enclosed within 1400 square meters and host between eight and ten thousand people. Only five cafés are open in the Muslim barrio, which, in contrast, hosts 14 Mosques lead by Moroccan imams. It is a neighbourhood where only a few people speak Spanish; the majority only know the local Arab dialect. Kamal Mohamed, the neighbourhood president, explains:
Unemployment, a high birth rate, abandoned schools, youth without structure and purpose. This is El Principe
These are all factors which favour the development of narcotrafficking and terrorism. “Today, Ceuta is one of the areas of Spain from which the most people are departing for war zones,” continues Kamal. “There have been 15 to 16 youths that have travelled to the Middle East from our barrio.”
“I know a man whose daughter and her husband left for Syria where they were killed,” says an old man. There are many stories like this along the narrow alleyways. All types of people, men and women alike, have been recruited to bo abroad. “It’s all over social media, where they exchange photos and information. The girls, for example, are attracted by the jihadists with blue eyes, 6 feet tall, beautiful – like Brad Pitt”, explains Karim Prim, a security officer in the neighbourhood.
Dozens of children run up and down the alleys all day. Some run after balls while others ride on skates and bicycles. For the little ones, the colourful streets are their home. For adolescents, they represent a prison. “The young people can’t find a way to get out of this situation. They lose themselves and so fall easily into the recruitment networks that convince them to leave and fight,” says Kamal.
There is no future here for the young people of El Principe. “In the barrio, I would like to change everything,” agrees a young girl. She is still not of age and, like her friends, she has left school. Her future, she tells us, is already written: “In ten years time I will be without work, without anything, without a home. On the street. We will get married, we will have a child, our husbands will cheat with other women. This will be our lives,” she says with regret.
Girls and boys in this disarray are left easily influenced, and end up in the recruitment network. “The last arrest was made here,” says Kamal, indicating to a yellow house behind him. “The person that they took was accused of having recruited young people to go and fight. The police have also found many weapons in this part of the barrio.” In the past few years, many operations by the Spanish authorities have promised to dismantle the numerous cells that have formed in the enclave.
“El Principe is favourable for radicalisation because it brings together all the right conditions,” explains Karim, “there is a lot of misery, a lack of infrastructure, security. There aren’t any police or institutions. There is a lot of, even too much, freedom.” But the socio-economic factors are not the only things enticing the younger people. “Some did not study, are marginalized and come from a poor family, but there are also those who are untied by Isis ideology and a desire to fight a jihad that does not exist,” continues Karim.
Living in El Principe
Plaza Padre Cervòs is at the beating heart of the neighbourhood. Just a few minutes before our arrival, a shooting took place in broad daylight. The victim was brought to the hospital by family members – police and ambulances do not enter El Principe. “It was an act of revenge,” someone says, careful not to give too many details away. Nobody here wants to speak; many simply deny that they saw anything. They fear for their safety and that of their family. “There is often fighting and shooting,” I’m told. “The situation here is unlivable.” “It is a sad reality that we are self-managed, without any laws,” another inhabitant adds. “Everything is missing here,” denounces Habiba, a mother of ten who has spent all her life in the neighbourhood.
There are years in which I don’t work. I have asked for help, but no one will listen – not even the social services. There are people here that have nothing to eat. We are left on the brink
A barrio abandoned, far away from the waterfront and the center of Ceuta. In the city, the residents speak about El Principe like it is something separate from them. There are even those who have never ventured into it. “How could I ever go there? There are weapons, terrorists,” a city resident states. “It’s dangerous!” adds another. “It isn’t a place that attracts me. I don’t believe that any citizen that isn’t a muslim would decide to pass through that area.” “Unfortunately, the leaving of young people to Syria and Iraq, and the arrests that take place, serve to solidify the dangerous image of El Principe and its inhabitants,” Karim says gravely. But the neighbourhood does not want the label of terrorism to stick. Hamid Adil, the first Muslim senator of El Principe, has stated: “Everything can change if people believe in themselves. You need to work hard in order to fight poverty, violence, discrimination and to improve the lives of young people. They don’t have great expectations for their future and we have to reverse this wheel.”
While we are leaving the hills and colourful houses of El Principe behind, Karim confides in me: “Our trouble begins now, with the return of the fighters, or with the liberation of those who are prisoners, seeing that Spain is one of the few countries that does not have a plan of deradicalisation.”