The Tunisian armed forces found the body of Khalifa al-Sultani, a 21-year-old shepherd, in Jebel Mghila in the central governorate of Sidi Bouzid on June 3, after combing the exact area where the body of his brother, Mabrouk, was previously found in November 2015.
On the same day, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for Khalifa's death. Back in 2015, IS posted a video showing the final moments of Mabrouk, 16, before he was beheaded, accusing him of cooperating with the Tunisian military services.
This incident shed light once again on the deteriorating security and economic conditions in the Tunisian mountainous areas affected by the jihadi groups in the Kasserine, Jendouba and Sidi Bouzid governorates in the northwest and the central western region. Residents have been suffering under the decline of agricultural and pastoral activity in the area due to the unstable security situation and the state’s inability to provide alternatives to help.
In April 2014, the Tunisian authorities declared Mount Chambi and some of its adjacent areas, such as Semmama, Salloum and Mghila mountains, a closed military zone, after jihadi groups claimed the area as their stronghold. Getting access to this region now requires permits from the military authorities. This reduced the size of the pastoral area used by the local population. The decision also ended wood and coal production and the harvesting of wild plants that are sold for oil extraction, all of which are daily activities that allow residents to put food on the table in a primitive economy that lacks services.
Adnan al-Hilali, a civil society activist in the Jebel Semmama area, told Al-Monitor, “The social and economic conditions of the population in the mountainous areas were on the verge of collapsing even before the battle against terrorism began in 2012, as they suffer from poverty, unemployment and lack of infrastructure. However, the residents had adapted with this vulnerability fueled by the government’s neglect and tried to make due with rural activities such as beekeeping, coal production, livestock breeding and agriculture. Today, residents can no longer practice these activities due to the landmines spread across the area, killing many farmers and herders. Turning these mountains into a closed military zone has further complicated the lives of the residents.”
He said, “When these residents needed their government, it was unable to help them out but only supported some families who were directly affected by terrorism, by providing some financial and in-kind aid. This was merely a temporary solution — and even on the security level, the government failed to protect these poor people.”
Hilali added, “Many residents were threatened by jihadis after filing complaints against them before the authorities; some were even killed as a result. For instance, the Sultani brothers were killed because they were suspected of spying for the government. Other residents died in landmine accidents planted by jihadis in the foothills."
Jihadi groups have been carrying out terrorist attacks in Tunisia since 2011. Some of these groups are loyal to al-Qaeda, such as the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, and others loyal to IS, such as the Army of the Caliphate. These attacks have resulted in the death of 220 officers and soldiers and 99 civilians, according to a survey conducted by local press website Inkyfada.
Abdul Salam al-Harashi, a freelance journalist specializing in economics, told Al-Monitor, “When the government neglects mountainous areas, particularly border areas in Qusayreen and Jendouba in the west, it opens the door to a social climate that tolerates smuggling and terrorism networks. Young people who do not find jobs and live in marginalized and poor areas will often resort to smuggling or even joining terrorist groups. The proof is the spread of such networks in the area.”
Harashi noted, “I have always called on the government to negotiate with these smugglers and set up a reconciliation project for them, provided that they agree to commit to the revolution completely. The government can then create partnerships with them in agricultural projects. It would then have created a new field of work for smugglers as well as job opportunities for the area’s residents. All security and military solutions will remain impotent unless accompanied by economic solutions that strengthen the social fabric in the mountains in order to counter terrorism.”
Despite their difficult living situation, the residents are making efforts to escape the jihadi groups’ terrorism and the government’s marginalization.
Hilal said, “Thanks to activists interested in the development of poor mountain areas, we have been able to create a regular social and cultural dynamic in our region. In January 2017, the Rambourg Foundation embarked on building a cultural center in Semmama, which will open next fall and will serve as a model project to develop arts and crafts to help the residents make some profits.”
He added, “On Jan. 29, we, as local activists, declared Jebel Semmama the 'cosmopolitan capital of the mountainous culture.' Artists from 15 countries responded by participating in the sixth edition of World Herder's Day on May 20-21. We also launched our cultural and social demonstrations in September 2016 with the Star in Semmama Festival, followed by the launching of the Flame Theater in December 2016 and the Third Cultural Descent in January 2017. These are integrated workshops that develop the same vision, centered on the culture of the Earth, a mountainous culture that is both inherent and open.”
In short, the inhabitants of the Tunisian mountainous areas live under difficult social and economic conditions and suffer under either direct threats from terrorists or the landmines planted all around mountain routes used by the people to graze sheep or collect firewood and plants.
Six years into the war on terrorism in the region and the Tunisian government is still unable to do much to improve the situation of these people or protect them from terrorist threats. The Tunisian government will not be able to win this battle anytime soon if it only relies on military and security forces; it needs to take economic and social development action in the targeted areas, which, if left to marginalization and poverty, can become hubs for jihadi groups.