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Al-Qaeda Finds Foothold In Tunisian Poverty

A report from Kasserine, an unlikely incubator for Islamic extremism.
Tunisian army vehicles are deployed in Kasserine, the regional capital of the western region of Mount Chaambi, on May 7, 2013, as soldiers continue their hunt for a jihadist group hiding out in the the border region with Algeria. Tunisian authorities recognised that two jihadist groups which the army has been hunting on the Algerian border have links to Al-Qaeda, stressing their determination to take them out. AFP PHOTO / ABDERRAZEK KHLIFI        (Photo credit should read ABDERRAZEK KHLIFI

KASSERINE, Tunisia — When the Tunisian government was forced by popular pressure to appoint a new interior minister in March, they chose Lotfi Ben Jeddou, a well-respected public prosecutor from one of the country's poorest and most marginalized cities, Kasserine.

When he took office, Ben Jeddou had no way of knowing that his first serious challenge as head of Tunisian security would come from just outside of his home town.

But that's exactly what happened when the national guard, under Ben Jeddou's command, started stumbling over landmines in Chaambi Mountain National Park, just a few kilometers from Kasserine. The mines have injured 16 security agents, claiming the legs of five.

Over the last few weeks, authorities have dribbled out information about the militant group who planted the mines to defend their hideout in the mountain, and with each detail the danger posed by the combatants has become clearer. We now know that they belong to an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb cell and have experience in Mali and access to military equipment.

Given that Tunisia's security situation is marked by frequent violent protests and a radical Islamist movement that's growing in size and power, it's no surprise that Ben Jeddou's family was not exactly thrilled when they heard of his appointment to head Tunisia's most challenging ministry.

“We don't want him to be torn apart by politics. He's in a very, very difficult situation. But I count on his honesty, his will, his experience. I think he'll overcome these problems,” says Riadh Ben Jeddou, the interior minister's brother and a teacher at Kasserine's Institut Superieur des Etudes Technologiques.

For Riadh, Tunisia's unstable security situation is a reaction to the government's inability to deliver on the promises of development with which they took office in the 2011 elections.

“The revolution is not very apparent. You don't see anything special, even if the will is there. The state is powerless; they can't really work in the right direction to make things better. There isn't enough experience in our politicians — that's clear, both [Ennahdha] and the opposition,” he says.

Kasserine is no hotbed for Islamic extremism. In fact, it is one of the few cities that has no visible presence of jihadist groups like Ansar al-Sharia, and whose mosques are mostly free of radical sermonizing. Nevertheless, the city's problems are representative of the shortcomings of the state which radical Islamists have been able to take advantage of: a lack of job opportunities and an undisciplined and untrusted police force.

The primary industry here is making cellulose from the hardy grasses that grow in the plains surrounding the city. However, the cellulose factories haven't been producing much recently, and have not been aided by the region's poor infrastructure. Many of the youth in Kasserine, even those with degrees, end up taking odd jobs to help their families survive, spending the rest of their time in cafes.

Tareq Bouzidi is one such 25-year-old from Cité Zouhour, one of the poorest neighborhoods of the municipality and the arena of near-weekly anti-government protests. While he holds a degree in business administration, he hasn't found steady work in Kasserine for two years, managing to make just 10 dinars (around $7) a week selling used clothing with a friend. He says that the only people who have been able to get a job recently either have political connections to the Ennahdha party or are willing to pay bribes.

“Everything here is with bakchich [bribery]. It is at least as bad as before, and maybe even a little bit worse,” says Bouzidi.

In the absence of investment and infrastructure improvements, Kasserine's most profitable resource has become the close and porous border with Algeria. For years, local merchants have made a living crossing secretly into the neighboring country and buying goods such as petrol that are cheaper in the oil-producing nation than they are in Tunisia, and reselling them.

Hichem Gharsali has always made his living running goods across the Algerian border. However, things have gotten more difficult recently, not because police have tightened security along the border but because now there's no security at all.

“After the revolution, the level [of smuggling] is five times higher. I'm having trouble finding work because there's so much competition,” says Gharsali. According to the smuggler, bribes of 5 dinars to 20 dinars ($3 to $14) are enough to ensure safe passage into Algeria.

While Gharsali said that he smuggled only otherwise legal goods such as gas and cigarettes, residents of Kasserine confirmed that other traders transport drugs as well, and even arms.

In a recent press conference, the spokesperson for Tunisia's military said it was “quite possible” that the supply networks for the terrorists in Chaambi Mountain worked in partnership with smugglers.

And while Kasserine lacks jihadist groups, there are nevertheless individuals in the city who have come to believe that holy war against infidels is indeed a just and necessary cause.

For Hachem Missaoui, who works in a small computer store in the city center, it is the greatest thing a Muslim can do for his religion.

“The highest thing in Islam is jihad; there are no Muslims who hate jihad,” he says. For Missaoui, the declaration of where and against whom to perform jihad are orders that must come from certain sheikhs or preachers such as Abou Iyadh, who had previously fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban. Iyadh has so far said that Tunisia is not a territory where jihad should be practiced, but the leader's recent statements have contained increasingly menacing language toward the Tunisian government.

Missaoui speaks highly of Iyadh's organization, Ansar al-Sharia.

“They've done lots of good things for Tunisians in the poor regions, but the media doesn't cover what they do,” says Missaoui, referring to Ansar al-Sharia's “charitable caravans” which bring food and medical care to disadvantaged areas, along with pamphlets touting the group's ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.

Those campaigns in cities much like Kasserine have won the group tens of thousands of followers. This Sunday, May 19, Ansar al-Sharia will gather those followers for an annual meeting which Ben Jeddou's Interior Ministry has banned. The violent confrontation which could result will likely mean the problems for Kasserine's proud son are just beginning.

Mischa Benoit-Lavelle is an American freelance journalist based in the Tunisian capital. Before becoming a freelancer, he was a senior editor for the country's first English-language news website, Tunisia Live. He is currently the English-language correspondent from Tunisia for the French news network France 24.

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