Tunisia's Chaambi Mountain: Terrorist stronghold?

Karem Yehia, Tunis , Sunday 7 Feb 2016

While nothing in the villages around Chaambi Mountain in southwest Tunisia suggests an underlying extremism, marginalisation may lead locals to turn a blind eye to the influx of outside terrorists

Chaambi Mountain
Houses of the Chaambi Mountain, Tunisia (Photo : Karem Yehia

The Chaambi Mountain area in southwest Tunisia lies 280 kilometres away from the capital Tunis and is only 80 kilometres from the border with Algeria.

The Chaambi Mountain has been repeatedly mentioned by newspapers and TV channels — domestically and internationally — describing it as a stronghold for militants, including those affiliated to the Islamic State group.

Bolaaba village, located in the foothills of the mountain, became one of the most well known villages because of militant attacks that took place in areas close to it.

The last attack, witnessing the death of four police officers, occurred in February 2015, though the most large-scale attack took place in 16 July 2014, in which 15 military soldiers lost their lives.

On Bolaaba's outskirts

The distance between Bolaaba and Kasserine governorate is less than 10 kilometres. Between them, one passes through an industrial zone.

However, a taxi driver said that the industrial zone is "basically nothing but a signboard." "Investors don't come here, and terrorism made the situation much worse," the driver said.

Bolaaba has a population estimated at 1,800 people. Its dusty, arid lands and single-floor buildings indicate poverty and limited opportunities for agriculture.

The only activities that are conducted are logging, pasturing cattle and sheep, and cultivating olive bushes on the mountain's foothills. Many suspect it works as a hub for smuggling goods though the Algerian border.

Although among those interviewed no one admitted to such, other suspicions involve selling basic goods and food to militants who started to spread in the area by the end of 2011.

Ziad Jahri, a 26-years-old man who lives in Bolaaba, complains of the lack of job opportunities in the village. The average age of marriage, he said, has increased to 35.

"I travel to the capital to work as casual labour for a month or two, and then I return back … More than 80 per cent of the young people of the village are unemployed. The agricultural land is at risk due to the lack of irrigation water and money needed for the cultivation process."

The number of permanent employees in education and local administration does not exceed 20 in the whole village, according to Jahri. However, the state speaks about the increasing the number of employees in the administrative sector, especially after the revolution.

Residents of Bolaaba also complain of undrinkable water with high degrees of salinity, which increases rates of kidney disease. They wait impatiently for water tanks that come twice a month, from which they buy the drinkable water they need.

The village has a small medical clinic visited by a doctor once a week, while the nearest hospital is located in Kasserine. Sanitation is a constant problem.

While Bolaaba doesn't have problems with electricity, the streets are without lamp posts, a matter that impels the sole cafe in the village to close before 9pm. Women refrain from going out when it is dark, Fatima Al-Amiri, 30, told Ahram Online.

A mosque and a shrine with no visitors

Near the entrance to the village lies a mosque that had a very small number of worshippers following the Duhr prayer. The mosque was built in 1985 and is named after a pious Muslim man from the same area. The shrine of the pious man, which is now closed. There are no visits or yearly celebrations.

The imam of the mosque, Mahfouz Bin Nasr, who was appointed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs five years ago, said the mosque has not been affected by extremism. “We have never had takfiri people here; there has never been any contact with them. None of them ever disagreed with what we say during Friday sermons,” Bin Nasr said.

Bin Nasr explained the small number of worshipers as being due to the coldness of the weather, as the mosque has no heating.

The manager of the village youth club said that the youth of the village are moderately religious and not at all extremist. Fatima, who does not think about taking on the veil, said that women in the village were not affected and have not been forced to wear the veil or the niqab.

Militants stealing pasta and tomatoes

Outside the village, on the Wadi Haffa cliff, the commander of the National Guard, who wished to remain anonymous, said that militants hide in the mountains.

He added that the safety of the mountains, villages and valleys are the responsibility of the army.

“Some terrorists from this area have joined foreign arrivals, and hid in caves and mountains. The foreigners are usually Algerians,” he said.

The commander added that the most wanted militant in Chaambi is Algerian leader Mourad El-Shayeb, known as Abu Auf. The numbers of the militants is approximately between 100 and 200, while some of them bring along their wives and children.

There are cluster organisation groups that inhabit the caves: some are affiliated with Ansar Al-Sharia, Al-Qaeda loyalists, and others are affiliated with the Okba Ibn Nafea Brigade, who are Islamic State group loyalists.

On their relations with the people of Bolaaba and other villages, the commander explained that they are trying to exploit the poverty of the people, luring them with money.

“The people don’t deal with them anymore, as they began attacking the shepherds at night and stealing their sheep and supplies, like tomatoes and pasta," he said.

Understanding the mountain

Is Chaambi Mountain a stronghold for terrorists? Why do terrorists take cover in the mountain area? Ahram Online spoke to experts on this phenomenon in Tunis.

El Hadi Yahmid, the author of the book Tunisia Under the Banner of Punishment, said that, “In in the past few years, terrorists in Tunisia have been centered in impoverished and marginal areas surrounding the major cities, such as the mountain area of Tunis in the west, as it is hard to monitor the Tunisia Algerian border due to its rugged terrain.”

“Chaambi is the extension of the Aurès Mountains, which start off from Morocco passing through Algeria,” he asserted.

Yahmid added that there are groups in Chaambi that are affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State group.

“In the beginning, there was Ansar Al-Sharia group, who swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda. Later on, some split forming the Okba Ibn Nafea Brigade. From this brigade, the Islamic State group affiliated Jund Al-Khilafah, which claimed the three major terrorist attacks in Tunisia in 2015 — of the Bardo Museum, the Sousse Hotel, and the presidential guard — arose. “

Speaking to Ahram Online, Mohamed El-Haj Salem, editor of Salafi Jihadism in Tunisia, published by the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies, said that, “Of course, there is an incubator environment for terrorists because of poverty and marginalisation. There are some residents of these areas that provide logistical support and information, whether for money or convinced by the agenda of these radical groups."

"There is also a relation between drug dealing and smuggling of goods and commodities and terrorism. Most of these terrorist groups use smuggling and drugs as a resource for living and saving money. In turn, the terrorist groups facilitate the protection of smugglers and drug dealers," added Salem, who was head of the Salafi Jihad Unit at the institute from 2012 to 2014.

Resisting through culture

Passing through the city of Kasserine, Ahram Online gained a copy of the 19 October 2015 decision to launch a unit to follow up on development and cultural activities in the mountain villages.

However, no one in the village of Bolaaba and its environs spoke about the unit or any of its activities. There was also no presence of the 200 political parties that emerged in Tunisia after the revolution, neither of civil society organisations whose number increased to 18,000 officially licensed.

The villages in the foothills of Chaambi Mountain pose another paradox. Plagued by unemployment, poverty, marginalisation and terrorism, they had the largest number of martyrs in the Jasmine Revolution — even compared to neighboring Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the Tunisian revolution.

As in Sidi Bouzid, time passes and little changes.

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