Tunisia blog

Do you want to know the story behind the recent terrorist attacks in Tunisia? Follow our Tunisia Blog and share our posts widely to inform as many people as possible. Our final research will published in the Belgian Knack magazine and hopefully in some international outlet.

After the MO*-series “Syriëstrijders” on the international jihad movement in key country Jordan, Pieter and researcher Montasser AlDe’emeh are doing a similar research in this other key country: Tunisia. Photographer Baram Maaruf will document the journey.

What remains of the poem of the famous Tunisian poet Abdul Qasim al-Shabi, which served as a basis for the Tunisian national anthem and for slogans of the Arab Spring: “When the people choose life, then fate must obey”? At the end of 2010 the Tunisian people chose life, but more Tunisian youth then we would think, are choosing death today. And there are times – Sousse, June 26, 2015 – when this tragic reality comes back as a blow in our faces.

During the days of the Arab Spring many youth sang the national anthem of Tunisia proudly and filled with hope, holding the red flag of Tunisia. Do some of those young people today chant the slogans of the jihadists, holding the black flag of jihad? Small Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, has as many inhabitants as Belgium and saw 3,000 of its youth head to Libya, Syria, Iraq to join IS or the Nusra Front. This country leads in both the Arab Spring and the armed jihad. An apparent contradiction.

‘Kairouan’s islamic history is more than just cultural heritage’

(c) Baram Maaruf

How to find salafists in the holy city of Kairouan after a terrorist attack in Tunisia? Go to the Great Mosque and speak to the first man with a beard and a long islamic dress. We could ask him one question, because he was not feeling comfortable. Everywhere in Tunisia it shows that salafists do not feel free since the government declared a state of emergency. Yet we continued talking for half an hour, and interesting things came up.

The centuries-old neighborhoods around the Great Mosque of Kairouan, one of the largest mosques in the world, were empty and deserted. Kairouan is one of the main cities in Islam, apart from Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

The city welcomed us with an awesome storm. Residents had not seen the gates of heaven that open for years. ‘No, this kind of weather is far from normal here. You brought fertility back to Kairouan’, said a woman on the street.

(c) Baram Maaruf

Fortunately we were able to take shelter in the Great Mosque where Pieter and photographer Baram were exceptionally allowed to attend the Maghrib prayer. Outside the storm raged, inside peace and quiet prevailed.

Around the mosque, the old Islamic schools were empty as cultural heritage. The grandeur of the mosque stood in stark contrast with the few believers. This is not the great Islamic knowledge centre that we had expected here. Why is that, we asked a pacifist salafist in the streets surrounding the mosque.

(c) Baram Maaruf

‘Spiritual progress comes only when people are close to God’, said Saddam Abu Yahyah. ‘Too many Tunisians are far from Islam, even the youngsters who go to fight with IS abroad. A true believer does not kill, not even for a project as the Caliphate. Young people go to IS, not because Islam is better there – their own city Kairouan has one of the oldest mosques in the world – but because of hopelessness. Tunisia has a high rate of unemployed and poor youth. On top of that they also have little knowledge of Islam. This makes an explosive cocktail. That’s because the first Tunisian President Bourguiba destroyed the Islamic knowledge centres of Kairouan.’

‘Bourguiba closed mosques and the Islamic university, making sure the vulnerable young people from poor neighborhoods or young people without resilience were quickly prone to hate preachers after the revolution. Had there still been plenty of Islamic institutions and scholars to deal with these young people, the number of youth going to IS would’ve been much lower. Today we make the same mistake: opponents of IS are being locked up or monitored by the secret service, simply because they are orthodox muslims.’

‘Look at me: I am not concerned with extremist nonsense, but yet I can not speak freely. I only purify my own soul and pass on our knowledge by peaceful missionary work. That is why I am a member of Tablighi Jamaat.’ During our trip in Jordan we met members of these “hippies among the Salafists”. In groups of about 10 people they spread the good message of peace and love, which one can find in islam, according to them. Read more:

‘The thousands of young Tunisians who went to foreign extremists, make up a large Islamic potential that could be deployed here in Kairouan. To spread the faith, to restore the destroyed Islamic knowledge community of yesteryear. Kairouan was the capital of Tunisia with a world famous Islamic knowledge centre, but today it is a poor and neglected town.’

Kairouan saw many of its young people leave for Syria, Iraq and Libya, where armed Jihadists want to establish an Islamic state. The jihadist-Salafist movement Ansar Sharia also wants to establish an Islamic state in Tunisia. Kairouan was their main base. They want to restore this town to former glory and re-create the capital of an Islamic Tunisia. Since the revolution of 2011, they conduct an armed struggle against the Tunisian state.

‘If you want to know more about Kairouan and the Great Mosque, come back tomorrow and talk to the imam’, said Saddam Abu Yahyah as he wandered off into the deserted streets, decorated with lights and hundreds of Tunisian flags.

Beneath the stones of Kairouan’s ancient mosque

(c) Baram Maaruf

This man preaches on the oldest pulpit in the world, in one of the largest mosques in the world, in the city claimed by jihadi-Salafists as the capital of an Islamic emirate. Under this surface we started digging. A hidden feud lies beneath the ancient stones of the Great Mosque of Kairouan.

In a shop just in front of the main gate of the mosque, we bought new outfits. The effect was instant. Dressed in traditional Tunisian Islamic clothing we walked straight up to imam Ghozzi Taieb who was still sitting in front of the crowd after Friday prayers. Immediately, the man jumped up to greet Montasser as if he was a famous scholar. Pieter could sit down next to the imam, even though it is forbidden for non-Muslims to come here. Hardly any foreign journalists were allowed here, so Baram’s pictures are rare.
– ‘My apologies, I forgot to say a supplication for Palestine,’ said the imam as Montasser mentioned he is Palestinian.
After a traditional marriage inauguration in the mosque, we sat in the back room decorated with beautiful rugs hung by the walls. On these benches, famous Islamic scholars went before us. Al-Qaradawi, al-Awadi, and so on.

(c) Baram Maaruf

The mosque is named after Uqba ibn Nafi, the Arab emir, or general who conquered North Africa from the Byzantines. In the seventh century, shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, he led an army of tens of thousands of soldiers from Damascus, the capital of the Umayyad caliphate, to North Africa. He founded this Great Mosque and a military base that would later become the city of Kairouan. From here he conquered North Africa. Kairouan is Arabic for “military base”. The English word “caravan” is derived from this word. Is it a coincidence that we end up in Kairouan after writing our book “The Jihad Caravan”? During the caliphate of the Aglabites, the mosque was expanded. The pulpit is 1200 years old and was brought from Iraq.

Imam Ghozzi Taieb continues:

‘One week after the revolution of December 2010, the son of the famous old imam Abderrahman Khlif came to the mosque. He disturbed my sermon. He thought he should’ve been the rightful successor when his father died in 2006, so after the revolution he saw his chance to take what he thought was rightfully his: being the imam of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. He climbed up to the pulpit and started preaching. He criticized the ousted dictator Ben Ali. The city council intervened and appointed him as the imam of another mosque. For three years he was able to preach extremism there. Out of frustration under Ben Ali, he had embraced extremist salafist ideas.’

‘After the revolution, imams like him preached armed Jihad in Syria and Iraq, and the establishment of a Caliphate in Tunisia. After the fall of the dictatorship they wanted to make an immediate end to the regime that severely oppressed the Islamic faith, and an end to everyone who cooperated with the regime. They charged me with collaboration. The mess that Ben Ali has left behind, needs years to be cleared. The new government was too weak to keep extremists in check.’

‘The extremists want to take over Tunisia and govern the country according to the extremist Salafist ideology. Then our tolerant Maliki school of islamic jurisprudence will be over. They are opposed to all that is Tunisian because they associate it with the dictatorship. They choose the Saudi school of islamic jurisprudence and wear Saudi clothes. It hurts me to see how our young people begin to hate their own country and adhere to a foreign ideology.’

‘These youth are victims and products of our dictatorship that has pushed them into the hands of those who lead them to death. But I do not reject them. Many young people yearn for the days when Kairouan and Tunisia were important in Islam. I understand that. If we realize the dream of the jihadists ourselves, then the jihadists will be weakened. In 2014 an Islamic institute was founded in Kairouan, supported by the Islamist party Ennahda. But extremist secularists opposed it, because they fear “islamization”. That is the real problem of Tunisia: secularists prevent the recovery of our indigenous Islamic identity and the development of strong Islamic institutions integrated into Tunisian society. Thereby they strengthen the growth of foreign intolerant ideologies that preach secession.’

We want to know more about the disagreement between imam Ghozzi Taieb and the son of the world famous old imam Abderrahman Khlif. We suspect that there’s more to it than just a succession struggle. We will look for his son.

Islamists of Ennahdha on a historical mission

(c) Baram Maaruf

We walked into the local Ennahdha office and spoke with Khaled Jarad, the secretary-general of Ennahdha Kairouan. How is an Islamist party surviving in a country plagued by violence in the name of Islam?

‘The development of Islamic institutions is not our priority. Over the past four years, Ennahdha worked to anchor a new democracy for all Tunisians. We even wanted the salafist movement Ansar Sharia to have a chance of defending their values in a normal way. They could even organize a major conference in Kairouan. But they felt superior to all others, and verbally and physically attacked their opponents. The state has rightly intervened.’

‘Ennahdha wants to build this country with other parties. We want to show that we are serious and that we can take responsibility. Secular parties have understood that they must cooperate with us for the future of Tunisia, even though extreme secularists do everything to discredit Ennahdha. And if we defend ourselves against their verbal attacks, they accuse us of wanting to “islamise” Tunisia.’

‘If we’d plead for creating institutions to support the parents of children who went to fight with IS, secularists would accuse us of “supporting terrorism”. On the other end of the extreme, jihadists declare us to be “apostates” because we refuse to impose the Islamic law of the Sharia.’

‘Ennahdha is part of a government that is closing mosques, having suspects arrested or closely monitored by the secret service. After the attack in Sousse, many want to withdraw the authorization of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an islamist movement that peacefully strives for the restoration of the caliphate. That would be wrong. Repression should be proportional. We are balancing on a thin cord, because repression could make things worse.’

‘The secret service has been operating outside the control of the elected minister of internal affairs. Giving them even more power is very dangerous. And if Ennahdha politician Ali Larayedh had tried to reform them when he was the interior minister, then others would’ve accused us of trying to take over control of the country. We must be very careful about what we can and cannot do. There’s a lot at stake. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt wanted everything and got nothing. If the Tunisian project of integrating political Islam into a pluralistic democracy fails, then either IS or a secular dictatorship will present itself as the alternative. Either way, democracy will be the victim. To counter the violent jihadist ideology, we need more democracy, not more repression.’

(c) Baram Maaruf

‘The change we want to bring via the political path is slow, while some young people fall for the jihadists who promise rapid change via the gun. But there are many more young people who do support our responsible attitude; we just never see them in the news. Still, progress should go faster. For example, one oil rich Gulf state could upgrade Kairouan in one year, but many secularists oppose the Gulf States because these countries spread Islam and political influence through financial help. So it will take us at least 20 years and in the meantime we will lose a lot of impatient youth to IS.’

‘Our city has been severely neglected under president Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Our ancient Islamic institutions were the first to be targeted by Bourguiba’s policy of secularization. In 2008, UNESCO proclaimed Kairouan as a cultural capital. But still very few investments came to our city, even though there is so much tourism potential.’

‘Tunisia has a history of violent secularization and violent islamisation is a counter-reaction. Ennahdha is presenting itself as the responsible middle way. We show the world that Islam can function as a democratic and political power in a pluralist system. Just like the European Christian democrats who also welcome Muslims, we even welcome non-practicing Muslims in our party. We want to be a party of all Tunisians. Nobody had expected a small and violently secularized country as Tunisia to ever represent the hope of political Islam.’

Khaled pronounced every word with full conviction. Even though he might have adapted his words speaking to a Western audience, he sounded sincere. After the interview, Khaled and his colleague showed us their campaign material: flyers, folders, flags, posters, Palestine banners, pamphlets and a small booklet by their party leader sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi on Islam and democracy. Inside the office everything pointed to the fact that Ennahdha is a very well organized political party, represented in all corners – city and countryside – of Tunisia. 

We will try to meet a top Ennahdha politician in Tunis to continue this interview.

When your brother is an IS fighter

(c) Baram Maaruf

‘Two sons of this family have become IS-fighters. One died in Libya, the other one is fighting in Syria.’ All too often we wrongly associate the family with the violent acts of their sons. And all too often the family ends up in a paralyzing depression. Therefore it is absolutely admirable how Fatma embodies peaceful activism, hope and strength in such catastrophic circumstances.

The brother of a Tunisian IS-fighter sat down in front of us and asked: ‘Do you have permission from the intelligence services to talk to me? No? Then I can’t talk to you.’ And off he went. So we are crossing the desert on our way to his town Oueslatia to find out who his brother was. His name is Bilal al-Kabi and he blew himself up in Benghazi, Libya. The family received a short message: “Your brother is a martyr.”

We will stay here for a while, because since the revolution (apart from the hundreds of youth who left to Lampedusa as clandestine migrants) about 30 youth from this sleepy desert town left to Syria, Iraq and Libya. What happened here will teach us a lot about the explosive cocktail that turns ordinary Tunisian boys into fighting machines.

We drove one hour through inhospitable terrain. This lamentable town belongs to the province of Kairouan, but is miles away from any major city. Empty, dead, abandoned and groaning under a scorching heat. We seemed to have ended up in an American Western film.

Adel Ftaiti greeted us. Adel is the son of the former imam of the main mosque. Today he is an activist for ATIDE, an NGO defending democracy and monitoring elections.

– ‘The al-Kabi family refused to speak with you. But I know another family. Their son Khalid is an IS-fighter. Their other son Walid died in Libya.’

Tunisian IS fighters have a reputation for being ruthless and cruel. But immediately one question surfaced: how can this family remain standing with this stigma and the loss of a son?

Adel said the family has seen enough journalists. So we decided to call the family to clarify that we would not catch their story and portray the whole family as terrorists, as so many Tunisian and foreign journalists had already done. We would come as journalists, of course, but also as human beings willing to understand the pain of another human being and explain it to others.

Adel explained what happened to this town.

– ‘After the revolution thousands of young people escaped our city to Lampedusa. Some boys who found different things on their path towards escape, are now in Syria. It depends on the circumstances, but basically they have something in common: they dream of a paradise, Europe or jihad, paradise in this world or the next. Immediately after the revolution our mosque was taken over by political Salafists. They just changed the lock. The judge intervened, but the government never implemented the decision. Ennahdha, the Islamist party in the government, took a lax attitude towards the Salafists. After the assassination of seven soldiers in the Chaambi mountains next to the Algerian border, we heard people in our mosque shout “Takbir! Allah akbar!” As if they booked a victory over the state. Shortly before the boys started leaving for Libya and Syria, we saw them work out in groups on the football field. Heavy military training. The police did not intervene. This all happened under the watchful eye of Ennahdha in the government.’

While we recovered from the heat with some fresh watermelons, Adel called the police to declare our presence in this city. We were worried. We still didn’t know whether the police wanted spy on us or protect us. Finally we ended up at the local police station: exactly what one would imagine thinking of a police station in a desert town. The policeman didn’t come much further than the obligatory “you are the only foreigners here, we want to protect you and welcome you with tea and coffee, Tunisia is a beautiful country, we’re glad you’re here, do not worry”.

The father of the family is a retired truck driver. Mother is a housewife. One of the sisters, Fatma* is a bio-engineer. The brother is a veterinarian. Another brother is a driver between Oueslatia and Tunis. And the two youngest brothers became IS-fighters. Fatma told the story of her twin brothers.

– ‘Khalid and Walid were twins. Before the revolution, the police repeatedly arrested Khalid for interrogation just because he was religious. Khalid always wanted to go to Gaza to help the Palestinians. He became Salafist. Walid mocked his clothing and strict religiosity. Walid was a macho, with gel in his hair and modern clothing. When I went to college, Walid phoned me constantly to ask how I was doing. He told me about his relations with girls.’

‘Khalid constantly quarrelled with his father, who was a member of the party of Ben Ali. His own son was constantly harassed by the Ben Ali regime and began to develop hatred against the state. Two months after his last arrest, the revolution began. Both Khalid and Walid participated in the protests of 2010-2011. When Ennahdha won the elections and entered the government, we could see how hopeful Khalid was. He immediately joined Ennahdha. He attended trainings on democracy. Today he is against democracy. He was an observer of the elections. Today he is against elections.’

Khalid during a formation on democracy by the Islamist party Ennahdha

– ‘Father always hated Ennahdha. Ennahdha played a game on the Salafists. They just wanted their votes in the first elections. That’s why they were so lax against acts of violence by Salafists. They let them take over mosques. In those days Khalid was glowing with strength and confidence. But I felt something was wrong. All those Salafists thought Ennahdha would introduce the Sharia, but it did not. So the Salafists became angry and some resorted to violence. Khalid got deeply disappointed in Ennahdha and started training. Ultimately he left with a group of youngsters to Libya and Syria.’

Khalid is now called Abu Haydara al-Tunisi. The last time the family heard from him was months ago, when he told his mother on Facebook that he participated in the battle against the Kurds in Kobani.

– ‘Maybe he died there, we don’t know. Ennahdha is responsible for the departure of Khalid, not for the departure of Walid. He just followed his brother. I knew immediately that we would also lose Walid, even though he was never a Salafist, not even religious. But the departure of Khalid was a shock to the whole family, especially to Walid. Constantly he told me that he wanted to go to his brother, his other half. On his Facebook account, I found a conversation with a person with a false identity, who encouraged him to go to Syria for jihad. That man – a Lebanese – promised him a sum of 1,600 dinars. Father took Walid to the police in Tunis, but the police did nothing. These dangerous recruiters need to be arrested.’

‘We had hoped that our voices in the media would urge the government to take action to protect other families, but nothing helped. IS propaganda is many times stronger. How is it possible that Walid still decided to leave, despite the pain of his mother, despite the fact that he was mother’s darling? He just wanted to go and help at a hospital in Benghazi. But he went to fight and now he’s dead.’

Khalid and Walid with their mother (c) Baram Maaruf

Fatma talked with strength and dignity. No tears blinked from her eyes. But after our conversation, she showed a photo of Walid’s dead body. On his face a calm smile. The sight of that picture penetrates her heart. Her brother is gone. And then the tears started.

– ‘One day I saw that picture on Facebook. We got a message: Walid is a martyr. I use the name and image of Walid as much as I can, as the password for our Wi-Fi network, as the background picture on my phone, so he remains alive. He is not dead. It seems he is still alive. It is impossible to close it if you can’t bury him, if you can’t say goodbye. He left, he stayed gone, and now he’s just gone forever. Something is broken inside of me.’

Children are pulled away from their families. It feels like a family whose children were killed or kidnapped.

A cousin of the family offers us a ride, all the way back to Kairouan: ‘Walid used to be my best playmate. His father, my uncle, is a different man since his sons are gone. I don’t recognize him anymore. Previously, he was a respected man in Oueslatia. Everybody knew him. Now he isolates himself and he stopped talking to anyone. He is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.’

In such situations, we see all too often that the victims end up in a paralyzing depression. Therefore, it is absolutely admirable how Fatma embodies hope and strength. She found work at an agency for ecotourism: Weslatia Trip Tours.

We’d almost forget that Oueslatia is loctated in the midst of breath-taking mountainous desert landscapes. Fatma is on a mission: ‘Terrorists often try to build their camps in harsh, mountainous regions. For now, Oueslatia is as safe as can be. But we should hurry and develop our region as a tourist area, build walking trails, organize trips and attract visitors, so we can integrate these areas into the rest of society. Isn’t it unbelievable that the government just allows the least developed regions and border areas with Algeria and Libya to be controlled by armed groups one by one? The whole economy is geared towards this criminal activity, and ordinary people get their income from smuggling and violence when these areas are not developed and people get no other source of income. Tourism against terrorism, that is our slogan.R

* Fake name to protect the privacy of the family.

Imam or politician?

(c) Baram Maaruf

After several terrorist attacks in Tunisia, the government is closing down mosques and dismissing imams. Not just jihadi-Salafists, but also imams who give political sermons in the mosques. Imam Ridha Jaouadi is such an imam, respected and loved in his city of Sfax and famous throughout Tunisia. In his sermons in the great mosque of Sidi Lakhmi, he criticizes the government. He says the government is going too far and speaks bluntly of a “war against Islam”. Therefore, he himself is now threatened with dismissal.

‘The government does not want political imams giving seditious sermons’, said a pacifist Salafist by the mosque. ‘If politicians are criticized from an Islamic point of view, then Islam can be attacked and that damages Muslims.’ An unveiled woman was more supportive of Jaouadi: ‘During his sermons he treated political events. He is a masterful orator and is not afraid of hard language. He has a lot of guts. If he’d preach here at the market, the mosque would be empty. People find it sad that he’s gone. But he began to accuse the ruling party Nida Tounes of ties with the dictatorship of Ben Ali. Perhaps it’s better that imams do not interfere in politics in this very sensitive period.’

Imam Jaouadi is not an antidemocratic Salafist, but a democratic Islamist. Nevertheless many in Tunisia want to ban political sermons in the mosques. According to the Constitution, the state must ensure that mosques do not become instruments of a particular political movement. However, imams must be able to preach about social justice issues. And there is a real danger that Tunisia could go back to the practice of the Ben Ali regime that controlled the content of sermons to ensure that no protest against the dictatorship would arise from the mosques.

After the murder of 15 soldiers on July 16, 2014, 20 mosques were closed for “preaching extremism” and 157 Islamic organizations were closed because of “links to terrorism”. At least 1,000 people were arrested and suspected of sympathies for jihadi-Salafists. Human Rights Watch called this policy illegal and disproportionate, because the ministry of Interior does not have arrest warrants issued by a judge. In Egypt, the return of dictatorship began with closing Islamist organizations. The Tunisian Islamists of Ennahdha are scared that the fate of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood could await them as well. So they remain silent. But Imam Ridha Jaouadi does not remain silent. According to him, the real target of the repression is not the jihadi-Salafists, but eventually all Islamists, also the democratic ones. He fears, referring to Egypt, that secular parties are cooperating in a hidden and creeping attack on Islamists.

Sidi Lakhmi mosque, Sfax, where imam Ridha Jaouadi preaches (c) Baram Maaruf

Problematic of course, is when imams incite worshippers to hatred and violence. Left-wing politicians Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid were excommunicated as “apostates” in sermons in mosques, after which they were assassinated. In his sermon on December 7, 2012, imam Jaouadi would have called for a struggle against the Union Générale de Travail Tunisien and former members of the RCD party of Ben Ali. In his sermon of August 2, 2013, he called to prosecute “counterrevolutionaries” and “communists”. 200 lawyers submitted a complaint against him for “incitement to murder”.

On April 21, 2015, the Minister for Religious Affairs said he asked Jaouadi not to call for hatred and violence against opponents. But can Jaouadi still talk about politics? After the attack in Sousse in June 2015 the government closed another 80 irregular mosques instead of regularizing them, and again Jaouadi criticised this policy. Therefore, 80 members of parliament belonging to different parties demanded his dismissal. Jaouadi reached an agreement with the Minister: the freedoms of mosques, regained since the fall of Ben Ali, can not be touched; instead of just dismissing extremist imams, imams must also be better trained so they can pass on a more nuanced knowledge to the worshippers; and dismissed imams should be reintegrated on the condition that they respect the law. This is wiser than closing mosques.

Jaouadi has a point. Tunisian imams are poorly trained and badly paid. Only 5% of the imams are graduates of the Islamic Zeitouna University. Another 45% have other university degrees, 28% have a bachelor’s degree. 13% have a high school diploma. There will be a new institute for imam training in Kairouan. But the budget of the Ministry of Religious Affairs is still only 40 million euros. By comparison, the budget of the Ministry of Internal Affairs is 984 million euros. And it was increased by a further 63 million euros since the terrorist attacks.

Arrived in Kasserine, where the Tunisian army is fighting Al-Qaeda

We arrived at the hotel in Kasserine, another sleepy Tunisian town on the Algerian border. Sky-high unemployment and deep poverty. We are the only foreigners in the hotel, even in the entire city. Two policemen followed us from the bus station to the hotel. They wanted to make sure we had arrived well. Foreigners don’t come to Kasserine every day. 

During our whole whole trip, it feels like the police is following us. Maybe they want to know who we are meeting? The police officers told us protecting foreigners is standard procedure after the terrorist attacks. In the hotel it was all hands on deck for the three foreigners. The kitchen was opened specially for us. Oh yes, there is no water. And it’s 45 degrees. Just adapt to ‘local living conditions’. Fortunately, every Tunisian city welcomes us with refreshing rain showers and awesome storm clouds.

A map of the road we travelled so far. Kasserine is close to the Algerian border.

Kasserine is the second city we want to understand. Until recently, Kasserine was best known for its young people who were martyred during the revolution or who went to Lampedusa.

Tunisia-Lampedusa

Since two years, Kasserine is known for a third dubious honor. Al-Qaeda is recruiting foot soldiers from its dreary slums for an armed rebellion against the state. Some young people go (or flee?) to the mountains surrounding Kasserine to join al-Qaeda. The past two years, militants killed at least 30 soldiers and police in and around Kasserine. It shocked the whole Tunisian society and provoked the army into launching air raids on the breathtaking mountains where the militants maintain training camps.

One of the leaders, the “dangerous terrorist” Murad Gharsalli, was killed by the police last month. But who was this guy? And how do you become a “dangerous terrorist”? We suspect that he was once an ordinary boy from the slums of Kasserine. We will try to find his family. We also suspect that Tunisia is shooting itself in the foot. Kasserine is in this dreadful condition by the fault of the Tunisian state. The city is neglected since Tunisia’s independence in the 50s. Neglect of a city in a sensitive border region with Algeria: not so wise. Part of the population simply survives because of criminal activities such as trafficking, smuggling and terrorism.

There is a fourth type of activist youth in Kasserine, alongside the revolutionaries, the migrants and the armed militants. Behind the counter of the hotel we meet a friendly young man who is expressing his frustrations through rap. Houssem Siko is a rapper. But in Kasserine he can not develop his skills: ‘We are recording our songs in a studio in Sousse. In Kasserine, there is nothing, absolutely nothing for young people.’

One salafist is not the other

(c) Baram Maaruf

The mosque of Kasserine is an oasis of peace in a desert of chaos. In the back of the mosque, a group of students is following Islamic lessons. Studying together with like-minded youth gives them a feeling of home. ‘A sense of belonging and a clear structure in their lives, is what many young people from Kasserine are seeking’, said one of them. ‘Some find it at IS, others find it with us. Our religious community also gives structure, the difference is that we are peaceful.’

Before the revolution even these gatherings of peaceful Salafists were impossible. Any expression of religious organization was immediately seen as a potential terrorist threat.

‘The security services used to think we were calling for violence just because we look like jihadists, with beards and long robes’, one of the youth says. ‘But we have always been ideologically opposed to jihadists, and even to all the uprisings in the Arab world. After all, we follow the scholar al-Albani. Jihadists revolt, but do not have the means to bring it to a successful conclusion. This is not allowed in Islam. They call themselves Salafists, but are nothing more than terrorists dressed as Salafists. And where did they get the idea they can kill tourists? Salafis follow the example of the prophet Mohammed, who made a pact with strangers to offer them protection.’

‘After each jihadist attack, we feel increasing pressure on our religious community. We are being held responsible for the actions of people who are our enemies. There is no one who fights against terrorism more than we do, because we fight them intellectually. We convince young people, not by force, but with arguments that IS is wrong. But some rather follow their instincts and desires to fight, rather then their minds. They reject our knowledge to be able to go for adventure in a war zone.’

(c) Baram Maaruf

After visiting the mosque, two agents outside started aggressively interrogating three young men from the mosque: ‘Who are you? Are you Tunisian? Why do you speak to these foreigners?’ They are probably agents of the intelligence services. Apparently, the trust between the government and the Salafists is not yet fully restored. But we did not allow the agents to interrogate the youngsters and walked off together.

We sat in a café where men smoked the water-pipe, which is not permitted by peaceful Salafists and jihadi Salafists. But these Salafist youth take a tolerant attitude. ‘We are opposed to smoking, but we don’t judge others’, says 27-year-old Sabri. ‘We feel distaste for the act, not hatred for the person. That’s what we learned during our lessons in the mosque. We study the books of Sheikh al-Albani. We don’t declare other Muslims as apostates. When I hear someone declare other Muslims as apostates, I go and report it at the police.’

Another peaceful Salafist who owns a tiny shop with Islamic clothing, books and perfume (photo), did call the leader of the Islamist Ennahdha party an apostate. ‘I even prefer Ben Ali over Ghannouchien’, he says, referring to Rachid Ghannouchi with the French word for “dog”. ‘Ennahdha has adapted Islam for the sake of gaining political power.’

(c) Baram Maaruf

Imad Nasri, who used to be imam, phrased it more elegantly: ‘We have ideological problems with all Muslims who use Islam to engage in politics. Our doctrine is different. When I was an imam, a group of jihadi Salafists entered the mosque and began to pray behind another man. After I refused me to join them, they declared us to be apostates. They see us as their biggest enemy because we have the knowledge to combat them intellectually, to deter young people to join them. Also the Islamist party Ennahdha asked me to talk about them favourably in my preaches so that people would vote for them. Again I refused.’

Because of their apolitical and secular attitude these Salafists have a good relationship with the authorities. It was the chief of the police who introduced us to Imam Nasri.

‘Before the revolution, the government made no distinction between different kinds of Salafists’, he said. ‘They did not even know we are Salafists because we follow the ways of the prophet. I spoke with the governor of Kasserine. “You resemble those terrorists”, he said. Since the revolution we had the chance to prove the difference between Salafists and jihadists. This is my biggest goal: make clear to the authorities that we have nothing to do with people who legitimize violence under the guise of Salafism so there would be no misunderstanding and we would have the freedom to practice our faith freely.’

On the way to the mosque where Nasri goes to pray, a convoy of police cars and armored military vehicles suddenly thundered through the narrow streets of this popular district. On board were heavily armed soldiers and police. ‘They come back from the mountains. There they patrol every day and go look for terrorists,’ said Nasri. ‘I prefer the armoured vehicles of the state over those of IS. I prefer the national Tunisian flag over the black Islamic flag if that black flag stands for human rights violations.’

Uninformed readers would find these words remarkable for a Salafist, but in fact they’d find them perfectly normal if they’d understand the differences between the groups who call themselves Salafist. An understanding of these differences is crucial in the fight against violence in the name of Islam.

Embedded with the police

(c) Baram Maaruf

We interviewed the chief of police in Kasserine, where security forces are battling jihadists in the mountains around the city. Lotfi Belaid sat behind his desk in front of a large map of Kasserine. ‘We can not allow al-Qaeda to build a base in Tunisia’, he said. 

‘They maintain a network of connections with terrorists in Algeria and Libya. At the Libyan border, we are building a wall, but here in the mountainous border region with Algeria we cannot keep an eye on everything. Armed groups can organize themselves in the mountains. In the 40s already farmers went from their fields to the mountains to train for the fight against the French.’

Belaid showed photographs of youth who are in the mountains. ‘There are about 100 Tunisians in the mountains. About 20 have been killed. In addition, there are Algerians and Malians who were expelled during the French intervention in Mali. Weapons, including heavy weapons such as RPGs, are smuggled from Libya. You have to keep in mind there is a civil war raging there. We must implement the state of emergency as strictly as possible. Who else will invest in Kasserine, next to an armed uprising in the mountains? We need investment and, therefore, stability is important.’

The day after we went embedded with the police to the foot of the mountains. We passed the checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, where police checks the papers of all drivers and examines if weapons are brought in the city. ‘You see the four mountains surrounding,’ says officer Hamza. ‘We have drones to screen the entire area.’ A helicopter flies over. ‘The interior minister is in Kasserine. Some time ago, terrorists attacked his house in Kasserine and killed 4 guards.’

(c) Baram Maaruf

Slowly, the streets got bumpier and the houses poorer. ‘We are driving through Cité Nour and Cité Karma, dangerous neighbourhoods of terrorists and criminals’, said Hamza. ‘Paradoxical names, don’t you think? Karma means dignity, nour means light. But there’s not a ray of light or shred of dignity here.’ Hamza pointed to the unpaved streets, the garbage, and the children walking barefoot through the dust. He showed us expansive views over slums and heaps.

‘Jihadists can easily recruit from these neighbourhoods. From here the roads lead straight into the mountains. And there is deep poverty here. The deeper you go into the popular neighbourhoods, the deeper the poverty. Suppose you are looking for work in the well-developed coastal city of Monastir, and you always return to your poor neighbourhood in Kasserine. The gap between the coastal regions and the interior ensures that these young people hate their country. Few young people from Kasserine left for Syria because they have their own Syria here. These are young people who want to do something with their lives. And then we bomb them with our army. Yes, that’s a tragedy. But the new poverty reduction programs can only have an effect by 2020. Meanwhile, we have to protect our country against the violence of the armed jihadists.’

(c) Baram Maaruf

Some residents of these areas help the jihadists by selling or giving them food. ‘These people are poor and for them this is a source of income’, says Hamza. ‘But actually they logistically supporting terrorism. We do try to figure out if the jihadists forced them to give food. A few months ago we arrested youth who were providing food to the jihadists in the mountains provide.’

Driving through an underdeveloped area in a convoy of heavy police cars, it felt like we were driving through a zoo. The officers even allowed us to talk with the “locals”. ‘It’s not dangerous here’, says one man. ‘The police are protecting us.’ We did not expect another sound in presence of the police. But not everyone here agrees, according to graffiti on the wall: “Fuck the police”. Undoubtedly, Murad Gharsalli, the “most wanted terrorist” of the last four years, was thinking exactly this. ‘This is the home of the dangerous terrorist Murad Gharsalli’, says Hamza. ‘We killed him between Gafsa and Kasserine.’ Maybe we should come back here, but not embedded with the police. We drove on the dirt road leading to the mountain of Cité Nour. Gharsalli took this road when he fled into the mountains to join al-Qaeda.

‘In recent years we lost dozens of colleagues in the fight against the terrorists’, said Hamza. ‘Last Ramadan we lost 15 colleagues in one attack. The terrorists shot them and cut their throats, to frighten us. But they won’t succeed. We don’t fear death anymore. When we saw our colleagues’ dead bodies, our heart died’, replied another officer. Today once again, roadside bombs exploded on the mountain Sammama.

(c) Baram Maaruf

On the horizon, giant plumes of smoke rose from the mountains. The Tunisian army is bombing the mountain and forests continue to burn and smoulder for days, only to still leave behind bald spots. The beautiful nature park of the Chaambi Mountains, today is a closed and destroyed military zone. ‘Every day we bomb them with phosphor bombs’, said Hamza, who was surprisingly open and frank. ‘They hide like rats, so we have to lure them out.’

Back at the office, police chief Lotfi Belaid put us in touch with Imad Nasri, a Salafi imam. Both men greeted each other warmly. What’s behind their cooperation, you can read here.

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