What Fatima knows
A young Melilla woman who accused two radical Islamists of murdering her boyfriend in 2008 has now married a member of their fundamentalist sect
On June 27, Spanish police arrested Rachid Mohamed Abdela and Nabil Mohamed Chaib, Spanish citizens of Moroccan origin and members of the Takfir Wal Hijra (Anathema and Exile) Islamist cell based in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, on the coast of North Africa. The two men, aged 25 and 30 respectively, are accused of torturing and murdering Salam Mohand Mohamed and Rachid Chaib, both aged 21 and former members of the ultra-radical and highly secretive sect, in July 2008.
The police say the motive for the killing was that Mohamed and Chaib had "adopted Western behavior and tried to disengage from radical Islam." They add that the murders were meted out according to Islamic Sharia law, which calls for the killing of "infidels." Mohamed had been tortured, and his face and genitals burned with a blowtorch. Chaib had been shot in the head.
The day after the arrests, Ignacio Cosidó, the director general of police, told reporters that Abdela and Chaib were "part of an extremely radical group, and had committed a double murder of two members of their own organization who had shown signs of wanting to leave. Their ideology is clearly jihadi and they believe in terrorism as a means to achieve their objectives. Therefore, they posed a threat of the highest order."
The arrests came just days after Spanish newspapers had reported that jihadists in Spain were traveling to Syria to help overthrow the government there.
Spanish authorities say the incidents - on top of many others in recent months - point to the accelerating spread in the country of radical Salafi Islam, which in a leaked secret report Spain's National Intelligence Center, the CNI, states is increasingly posing the greatest threat to national security. This view was corroborated by the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies, an organization tied to the Spanish Ministry of Defense, in its own recently published 43-page report entitled Islamist Movements in Spain .
Abdela and Chaib were arrested in the Melilla neighborhood of Cañada de Hidum after an extended confrontation with police, who, pelted with rocks and bottles by local Muslims, were forced to call in reinforcements. The Moroccan authorities also have an international arrest warrant out for the two men. The Spanish interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, described them as "members of a sect capable of the most horrible crimes," also accusing them of sending fighters to Afghanistan.
But on July 10, the High Court released Rachid Mohamed Abdela and Nabil Mohamed Chaib on bail, saying it did not have enough evidence to hold them.
But the involvement of a young woman, Fatima Mohand Abdelkader, in the case points to another motive for the murders, and another reason for the release of the two men. The accused were identified by 21-year-old Abdelkader, who had also been involved with the Islamist cell until leaving it to marry Salam Mohand Mohamed. But over the course of the last year, she has returned to the extremist sect.
Fatima Mohand Abdelkader became involved with the Takfiris in 2007, when she was just 16. She too lives in the deprived Cañada Hidum neighborhood, which sprawls up a hillside toward the Moroccan border, and where the majority of the ramshackle houses lining its steep and mainly unpaved streets have been built without permission. There are few public services, and the school dropout rate, unemployment and crime levels are the highest of any Spanish city.
Speaking to this newspaper back in 2009, Fatima said that during a year with the organization the Takfiris had forced her to quit school and stopped her from wearing western clothing; instead, she now adopted a full-length black tunic. She no longer attended the local mosque and instead prayed in an abandoned house. She was told to stop seeing her boyfriend Salam Mohamed and even to leave her family.
From now on, her loyalty was solely bound to a sect set up in Egypt in 1969 that forbids its members to watch television, go to the movies and eat meat other than that killed by its members, as well as permits the robbery and murder of infidels and the taking of any other measures to avoid the attention of the intelligence services.
"To begin with it all seemed so nice. They talk to you about God, about what they expect from you, what you can give. I was just 16 years of age, and I liked the sound of the whole thing," Fatima told EL PAÍS in the 2009 interview.
During her time with the sect, Fatima continued to see Salam Mohamed, despite having been told not to. She says he asked her to marry him, but insisted she leave the sect. They had decided to move to Barcelona, hoping to escape the attention of the Takfiris, who were already aware of her plans but insisted she remain within the sect.
On July 8, 2008, the day before the couple were due to leave for Barcelona, Salam was told by one of the sect with whom he was still on friendly terms that they would pay him 4,000 euros to cross the border into Morocco on an errand. He tried to reassure Fatima, telling him he was going with his friend Rachid. "I told him not to go, that it could be a trap," says Salam's father, a former member of the Spanish Foreign Legion, now an unemployed painter. A week later, a Moroccan shepherd found the two bodies in woodland around Buyafar, near Cabo Chico. Salam's clothing had been removed, and his hands and feet tied. His face and genitals had been burnt with a blowtorch, according to the post-mortem examination carried out by the Melilla authorities. His father was only able to identify him from an earring. Rachid's body lay nearby. He had been shot in the head, but not tortured as viciously as Salam.
Fatima immediately accused the Takfiris of murdering her husband-to-be, identifying two members who lived in the Cañada Hidum. This was the first time that anybody had broken the sect's code of silence: "I was threatened and pressured to leave Salam and return to the sect. There were six of us; six girls and I was the youngest. The leader would ask us questions. We weren't allowed to talk about anything other than our doubts about Islam. It was forbidden to listen to music, go to the movies or to watch television; we weren't allowed any contact with men who were not our fathers or brothers. If you went out in public, you had to look at the ground. We had to wear dark clothes, cover our faces, and wear gloves up to our elbows. The wives of members of the sect had to wear burqas or niqabs, and they encouraged us to do the same."
Fatima says that in the two years after Salam's death, she was harassed by the group, and eventually had to seek psychiatric assistance. In January 2009, 18 months after the murder of Salam, Fatima says she came across Chaib, one of the arrested men, close to her house. The two argued, and after she accused him of the murder, he struck her. A few days before, she says she received a phone call from somebody claiming to be Salam. She brought assault charges against Chaib: he was fined 90 euros. Soon after, he and Abdela left for Europe, helped by the Takfir network.
There is now little chance that Fatima will testify against the men she once accused of murdering her boyfriend, having returned to the Takfiris. Over the course of the last year, she has married one of its bearded members, easily identifiable in Melilla by the black tunic worn to just above ankle level, and running shoes. The couple are now expecting a child, and have remained in the Cañada Hidum, close to Melilla's White Mosque.
Salam Mohamed's family say they no longer have any contact with Fatima. They say the last time they saw her was two years ago when she called on Salam's grandmother. "She used to come to see us often; she would talk to my mother and talk about Salam. We know that she went to see his murderers to ask forgiveness. She has married one of the sect, who had been in the army, but who grew a beard and left, saying it was a sin to fight for Spain," says Salam's father Abdelsalam.
He walks over to the terrace of his small apartment, and points about 100 meters away to the house of Chaib, one of the men arrested for the murder of his son, and now out on bail. "It has been very hard for us to have them living so close by. We were happy when they were arrested, but we can't understand how they have been released. What could have happened?" he asks.
Samira, Abdelsalam's third wife, wears an orange tunic, but her head is not covered. She has only seen her once in the last year, when she was in hospital. "She came to see me. I didn't know who she was - she was covered from head to toe in black. She even had gloves on. She was carrying a Koran, and was with her husband, who had a long beard. She was pregnant, and they had come to have some tests. He wanted to go into the examination room with her, but they wouldn't let him. He sat on his own, away from everybody else." Abdelsalam and his wife say they cannot understand why Fatima has returned to the Takfiris.
Najim, aged 32, is Salam's cousin. He sits in the living room of his house rocking his two-year-old boy in his arms. "Look at him: I've named him Salam." He says that he was once a friend of Chaib, one of the men arrested for the murder. "We worked as waiters in the Canary Islands. He was a good man before he got involved with that sect, but now he is crazy. Fatima says he promised to kill Salam on several occasions. He is married, and has two children, but he is still in love with Fatima. I think Fatima knows more than she is letting on."
Abdelsalam's house is also close to that of Chaib's mother, close to the local hairdresser's that often closes so as to attend the wives of women who wear the burqa and whose husbands demand privacy. Looking out of her window, Chaib's sister-in-law criticizes Fatima. "Look, this is somebody who attacked them, and has now converted to radical Islam, and goes out covered from head to toe. She has asked them for forgiveness; she went to their homes to ask them to forgive her. She told them that she had been ill, depressed and pressured by Salam's family. She is to blame for all this - she pointed them out. All this has come about because the family of the dead man thinks it is modern. Why don't they leave these boys alone? Let them dress how they want." Later, she calls Chaib, but says his lawyer has told him not to speak to the media.
Abdala Mohamed Chaib, the brother of Rachid, who was murdered with Salam, says he cannot understand why Fatima has decided to return to the Takfiris. He has lived in Frankfurt for the last 19 years, where he works for a fishing company. "Fatima was told that if she said a word, they would cut her up into little pieces. She accused them, but she has since thrown in the towel. She kissed their heads. She has returned to them."
Abdala Mohamed traveled to Melilla from Germany following the arrest of Abdela and Chaib to make a statement to the police. He says that among the people he saw in the police station was Fatima. "I wanted to spit in that bitch's face. She was complaining because the police told her she had to remove her veil, that she couldn't be in a public building wearing a veil. She was like a cockroach. She is trash. That religion doesn't exist. That is not Islam. Those people are destroying our neighborhood. You don't know how happy I am to have left that place, and that my children will never have anything to do with them. When I go back to the Cañada I don't recognize the place any more. Why don't those people go and live in Afghanistan?"
The Takfiris do not attend the mosques in Melilla, instead preferring to pray in the woods and hills outside the city, or in their own homes. Neither do they take part in the collective prayers held each Ramadan that attract up to 5,000 people to an esplanade next to the barracks of the Spanish Legion, close to the Cañada Hidum. "In Rachid's house, up to four or five rows of people would pray; I could see them through binoculars from my house," says Salam's cousin Najim. "They say that we are not proper Muslims, that the imams in Melilla are not true Muslims. These people believe that stealing from non-Muslims is not a sin. They deal in drugs, break into people's houses, steal chickens and sacrifice them out there on the hills. The bearded ones don't mix with anybody. They are a sect," he says, adding that they meet informally in internet cafés.
The White Mosque sits on the edge of the Cañada Hidum, and is a meeting point for the neighborhood's more radical Muslims. As with the other mosques in this city of 71,000 people, half of whom are Muslims, it is run by a Moroccan imam. The family of Salam and Chaib, the young men murdered in 2008, say the mosque is closed to all but those associated with the Takfiris. "A neighbor of mine once tried to enter to pray, and everybody else inside left. They made it clear he was not one of them. They told him that they did not pray with women. That mosque is dangerous. It is where the sect meets," says Najim.
Before returning to the Takfiris, Fatima earned 745 euros a month in a branch of Burger King on Melilla's seafront, in the prosperous, modern center of the city, but only 10 minutes by car from the Cañada de Hidum. Her former workmates say they have not heard from her. "She just upped and left," says one. Only a few people know the identity of the pregnant young woman dressed from head to toe in black, and driven around in a battered Mercedes by her husband.
On July 11, Fatima's father Mimo did not wish to talk about his daughter. Speaking on the doorstep of his house, he would only say: "I have no relationship with my daughter. She doesn't live here - she has married and has her own life." When he's asked why she might have returned to the Takfiri fold, Fatima's voice suddenly peals out from behind the door: "Are they asking about me? Tell them to go away. Tell them to go away."