Abu Yahya al-Libi, Bechir El-Magribi Abu Bacir Al-Libi, Abu Seyaff El-Tounissi, Iyad Ag Ghali, Aaron Yoon, Ali Medlej, Xristos Katsiroubas Maxime Hauchard (alias Abu Abdallah al Faransi) are names that made big headlines.
They came to Mauritania to study in the Mahadhra. Their names fuel the hypothesis that Mauritanian mosques and Mahadhra are incubators of jihadism.
However, these Mahadhras have enjoyed for over 800 years a solid reputation as Quranic schools, which are the equivalent of universities of Islamic sciences. They trained eminent scholars (Ulama) acknowledged in the sub-region and even outside the continent for their training and knowledge.
Mohamed Fall Ould Bah, a researcher and director of CEROS (Centre for Studies and Research on Western Sahara) says: "The teaching of the Mahadhra, particularly sought after for its accessibility, richness and diversity, has remained faithful to the same standards it has always delivered in accordance with the same practices."
He said the problem did not arise from the content of the religious teaching provided within Mauritanian Mahadhra, but instead because of the poor job prospects and career opportunities of its graduates. He concluded: "Graduates that would swell the number of a marginalized youth in search of recognition and a future."
The Universities of the Desert: a Springboard for Jihadist Recruiters?
Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Aboulmaali, a writer, journalist and expert on armed groups in the Sahara says: "No, we cannot blame the content of traditional education." But, he adds, the configuration of Mahadhra and their particular lifestyle, make it an ideal source of infiltration for the indoctrination of youth. Extremist groups in the Maghreb send their recruiters to the Mauritanian Mahadhra to recruit candidates for jihad."
According to Ould Aboulmaali, Abu Yahya al-Libi, one of the charismatic leaders of Al Qaeda, came to Mauritania in the late 1980s, to learn the skills that would help him build his religious discourse. He realized then the lack of vigilance of the sheikhs (the teachers) of the Mahadhra, and the accessibility to the students, which would facilitate infiltration of extremist discourse through bin Laden tapes or brochures.
Are the Mahadhra in the cities safe from infiltration?
Since around 2005, the infiltration of rural Mahadhra has become more complex, thanks to the security system set up by the Mauritanian authorities. But, the towns and cities with their huge number of mosques and Mahadhra still offer potential operating areas, especially among vulnerable communities.
Ould Aboulmaali is convinced, for example, that sub-Saharan students motivated by religious learning, are a perfect target for recruiters. They are generally too poorly educated to distinguish between good and bad speeches. They are often isolated and easier to influence. The risk is even higher if they are in a hard precarious material situation.
In 2012, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance estimated that one fourth of 163,912 students identified in 1836 Mahadhra in Mauritania were foreign students. Most of the foreigners would come from the sub-region, often in groups, through traditional channels of Talibés (the traditional designation of students).
The story of the Gambian student Ismaïl, illustrates this scenario. To listen, click or copy this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dgm58Dq54ig
Ismaïl says: "I was 10 when my father sent me in 1992, to a mission of the institute Ibn Abbas in Nouakchott." He adds: "This mission visited mosques in Gambia, offering to support their children who are eager to learn the Quran. My father, who is an Imam, knew the reputation of the Mauritanian Mahadhra and wanted me to learn the Quran."
Ismail then joined a group of 40 children, the oldest of whom was 14 years old, to travel to Mauritania. Their families did not have the means to send them to school in Gambia because education there is not free.
Ismail remembers well the Mahadhra A-Taqwa that hosted him for nearly twenty years and his guardian, the Faqih Mohamed Fadel Ould Mohamed Lemine. He remembers them with great nostalgia.
It is located in the heart of Tevragh Zeina, a posh residential neighbourhood of Nouakchott. The A-Taqwa Mahadhra permanently hosts foreign students. In addition to teaching, it provides food and accommodation in a safe environment.
But the A-Taqwa Mahadhra was closed in 2011 and the Gambian students who were there, are now squatting in an abandoned house, located next door, and use it much more as a shelter than a home.
Henceforth, they are still hosting their countrymen to learn but, also to teach the Quran to younger students (Mauritanians and foreigners) as it was the case in the A-Taqwa Mahadhra.
Today, with no resources, these illegal students live in abject poverty. Their unhealthy shelter used as a school and a dormitory, with no amenities: no drinking water, nor electricity, or sanitation.
Ismail who is going back home after a long absence, is worried about the fate of his countrymen that he is leaving behind. He wants to go home, because in his country, many young children are just as poor, and are waiting for him to teach them. He hopes to open a Mahadhra like the one he experienced in Mauritania and to do so, he will not hesitate to seek the support of all those who would like to help.
Are desert universities endangered?
Infiltration of foreign ideologies, social and religious changes, competition and economic pressures, etc, are all influences affecting the desert universities. What will be the fate of traditional Mahadhra, with their values of altruism, sharing, generosity, and the respected teaching they used to disseminate, in front of all these invasions and turbulences? Will they succeed in surviving and preserving their rich universal heritage in today's troubled world?