By Houda Trabelsi
Tunisian authorities on Tuesday (May 15th) deported two radical Moroccan preachers with alleged ties to al-Qaeda.
Salafist preachers Hassan Kettani and Omar Hadouchi were accused of trying to enter the country illegally. Both were banned from Tunisia after receiving 20-year prison sentences for indoctrinating the Islamists who committed the deadly 2003 Casablanca attacks, according to the Tunisian interior ministry.
They travelled to Tunisia for a 15-day visit to present a series of lectures on behalf of the salafist Dar as-Salam Association for Charity and Sharia Sciences in Bizerte, but security intercepted them at the Tunis–Carthage Airport.
Though they both received royal pardons from Morocco in February, the Tunisian interior ministry cited “their involvement in terrorist acts and belonging to al-Qaeda” as reasons why they were denied entry to the country.
Neither the two jihadist theologians nor the organisation from which they received the invitation admitted to doing anything wrong.
“We were shocked that the ban from 2003, under Ben Ali, was still in effect,” Dar as-Salam Association official Slim Ben Yakhlef said. “It was supposed to have been cancelled as soon as the ousted president departed from Tunisia, however, this didn’t happen,” he added.
“We’re just religion seekers and can’t engage in any act that would hurt our country or threaten its safety,” Ben Yakhlef said.
About 300 salafists showed up at the airport to greet Kettani and Hadouchi. After news of their detainment, about 50 of them stayed to protest their arrest and deportation, AFP reported.
“Some secularists have intervened to thwart the visit,” said Rabah, one of the protesting salafists. “We have the right to invite whoever we believe is good for us and for our country,” he said.
But according to Tunisian authorities, the deportation was well-warranted.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche explained that the arrests were due to the “previous attitude in which the leader of salafist jihadists in Morocco, Sheikh Omar Haddouchi, called for launching jihadist operations in Tunisia during the January 14th, 2011 revolution”.
He explained that they are still “on the list of people banned from entry on to Tunisian territory”.
Many Tunisians condemned the scene at the airport calling it “harmful to Tunisia’s image and its tourism”.
“First of all, I salute the Interior Ministry’s decision to prevent those people from entering Tunisian soil,” Mahdi Mahjoub told Magharebia. “I condemn what those bearded people did at the airport and the chaos and panic they caused, especially the fear that Tunisia’s tourists lived through,” he said.
Mounira Mechri, weighed in by saying: “Any association or political party that seeks to invite anyone must apply for a permit from the authorities concerned. If people are allowed to bring to Tunisia whoever they want, the country will face security, social and even cultural threats.”
Rabeb Almi described what transpired as “strange”.
“The arrival of those terrorists to Tunisia after being invited by a licensed association is a bad omen,” Almi explained.
“Therefore, I call on Tunisian authorities to take all necessary actions to thwart any attempts to bring al-Qaeda symbols to Tunisia,” she said.