Last month Mohamed Zorgui found his dog dead on his doorstep, with a chilling note attached to it saying “enemy of Allah”.
The 26-year-old rapper and former prisoner from Kasserine said that his beloved pet was killed as a warning after he broke away from the hardline militants who tried to convert him to the cause of violence while he was in jail.
Showing up in downtown Tunis wearing a trendy jacket over a black T-shirt and trousers, and sporting designer casual shoes, Zorgui has come a long way from his days as a would-be militant.
After becoming sympathetic to the Islamic State (IS) group while held in prison and briefly following an extreme ideology, Mohamed Zorgui, also known as The Gladiator, is now composing rap music against IS. The lyrics to one of his songs speaks of how he will never support IS, which he describes as an illusion.
“I have my own battalion, rap is my weapon and letters are my bullets
I will never support you [IS], that is what is new about me
I will sacrifice myself for the flag, Tunisia is my love.”
Performing both as a solo artist and as part of the band Psycho Street, for Zorgui, rap is a “weapon” to use against injustice, oppression and extremism.
Zorgui was brought up in the impoverished central city of Kasserine, 300km southwest of the capital Tunis. In recalling the beginning of his troubled past, he detailed a night in May 2013, when he was arrested along with some others for alcohol consumption and smoking cannabis, following a brawl in his neighbourhood.
Due to the tough legislation Tunisia implements against the use of cannabis, he spent 13 months in jail under pre-trial detention.
While in prison, he was introduced to militants who sympathised with IS and supported violence.
One month into his detention, he was moved from Kasserine prison to Kef penitentiary, northwest of Tunis. Between 100 and 120 prisoners were crammed inside his cell, he said, including four who had been convicted of terrorism charges. The rest of the prisoners were arrested for minor offences such as drug use or alcohol consumption.
“The four terrorists should have been put in another cell, and not mixed with us,” Zorgui said emphatically. According to Zorgui, most of them sympathised with IS, and others were linked to militant groups who support violence.
Amna Guellali, Human Rights Watch’s director in Tunisia, told MEE that Tunisian prisons are overcrowded with a capacity of around 150 percent. She added that detainees convicted of minor offences are put in the same prison cell with individuals detained for “terrorism” charges.
“This is also what we heard from at least 40 ex-prisoners we interviewed for a report on the application of the drug law,” she said.
According to a 2016 report by Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, Tunisian prison facilities exceed their capacity by 150-200 percent, often resulting in inmates sleeping on the floor or two in one bed.
Those imprisoned for relatively minor crimes are detained with individuals convicted of “terrorist acts,” the report added.
Once a drinker, a smoker and non-religious, Zorgui suddenly found himself in jail with nothing to do. Eager to learn more about Islam and get his life back in shape, he and most of his inmates started attending religious lessons on Islam, held by the four men in “educational circles”.
“First I was attracted by the hadiths of Prophet Muhammad and the Quranic verses,” Zorgui said. “They had this magical way to convince people, especially those with little knowledge of religion, that they were truly talking about Islam.”
The message and ideology
According to Zorgui, at least 90 detainees were actively following what the four were preaching.
Additionally, he said that prison guards were afraid of the four militants, who rarely followed the rules and had great influence inside the prison’s walls.
“A lot of these prisoners had committed offences like attacking police or security officers verbally or physically,” he said.
“Those extremists used to get respect from police officers and prison guards,” he added.
According to Zorgui, many militants intentionally committed crimes to go to prison with the goal of spreading their ideology and indoctrinating other vulnerable convicts.
Their key strength was disseminating the view that the government and police were “tyrant” forces that should be fought with violence.
Zorgui, who at the time was seeking revenge against the authorities for his detainment, was drawn to the militants and their message.
As a result, he started to embrace their ideology and his name was changed to Abu Ahmad Al-Raqy. The name describes someone who has a good voice for reciting prayers known as Al-Ruqyah.
Bombs and tyrants
By drawing sketches with detailed instructions, they taught him how to make bombs and explosive devices with basic materials that can be found at home.
“You can use a gas flask, a lamp, a mobile phone and wires to bomb a whole building,” he said.
While the idea of fighting abroad appealed to him, when he asked the four militants “Why not fight in Palestine?” the answer would always be: “We haven’t received orders from Allah yet.”
“Idiots,” he commented, while smiling.
The turning point for Zorgui came one week before his release, after he was told to slaughter his brother-in-law, an army officer, who they described as a “tyrant”.
“I was shocked… I couldn’t pray, eat or sleep, thinking about it over and over again,” he said.
Following his arrest, his brother-in-law had offered him much support by hiring a lawyer to defend him, bringing him food and driving his mother to see him for regular visits.
“Is it religion what those men preach?” he thought, refusing to commit the crime after his release.
After he was set free in 2014, Zorgui did not stay in touch with the four militants or their network of followers outside the prison, but he continued to follow their ideology.
Zorgui was saddened by the attacks and started questioning his sympathy towards IS, which was killing innocent tourists.
“I realised that IS fighters were men displacing families, killing innocent people, destroying and looting museums, and they were losing their battle in many areas across Syria and Iraq,” he said.
At the end of 2015, Zorgui denounced the ideology after reading many books and meeting moderate Muslims. During this period he learned that true Islamic teachings prohibit inflicting harm on innocent civilians.
“Joining that group of radicals in my cell was the biggest mistake. Thank God I didn’t go down that path,” he said.
Yet the rapper is facing threats in Kasserine from a group of militants, who are not happy with his “de-radicalisation”.
“Two years ago, I was physically assaulted by a bunch of radical Salafists because I’m now perceived as a ‘traitor’,” he said showing a medical record dated 23 August 2015. In the incident, Zorgui sustained injuries.
When the assault occurred, Zorgui said that two people chased and attacked him, hitting him with a big stick on his face. Afterwards, he caught them writing phrases in support of IS on his house. Zorgui filed a police report, but the perpetrators have yet to be arrested.
Despite the killing of his dog and the attack, Zorgui is defiant.
“Still, I don’t regret my decision,” he concluded.