Authorities Crack Down on Algeria-Tunisia Border Terror Hub

The border region near Jebel ech Chambi between Tunisia and Algeria proves to be a constant security concern.

al-monitor White smoke rises as the military carries out a remote detonation of mines in the area of Mount Chambi, west Tunisia, May 13, 2013. The mines were laid by militants, according to local media.  Photo by REUTERS.

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jebel ech chambi, tunisian-algerian border, sahel region

May 17, 2013

Located in Tunisia, Jebel ech Chambi, which is known as a terrorist hub, constitutes a new challenge for the Algerian army — one that “cannot be confronted except through raising awareness among citizens about the actual security issues and preparing them to defend their country’s security,” said Mohammed Burefaah, a jihadist and former commander in the People’s National Army (ANP) [the land force of the Algerian military].

Nothing in Tebessa province gives its visitors these days the impression that it faces Jebel ech Chambi — a spot that has become the focus of international security services and a source of terror for both citizens and the authorities in Tunisia. One hour of walking from Tebessa city to the nearest border crossing, Bou Chebka, is enough to provide a view of the Jebel ech Chambi mountain range adjacent to Boudrias and Bou Jlal mountains in Algeria. The road is safe, in general. You can only hear the chirping of birds and the voices of families parking their cars on the side of the road, accompanying their children to the forest to spend hours of relaxation and recreation together. Every now and then a border guard car crosses your path or overtakes you. The Toyota Hilux, Peugeot 505 and Mercedes cars from the ’70s do not take the paved road except for short distances before entering the sand stretches that lead to the border villages far from the eyes of security interests.

Here we are in the El Houidjbet municipality, characterized by wide agricultural lands and a low population density that does not pressure the officials in any way. The population of this municipality does not exceed 5,000, distributed over an area of 280 square kilometers (108 square miles).

The municipality alone has recorded 100 employment contracts in the framework of the professional integration program, not to mention the contracts in the remaining administrative departments. This is to say that all the youth of El Houidjbet are enrolled in this program, but only a few of them do their job. Meanwhile, most of them only protest when a day of absence is deducted from their paycheck. What is important is that the unemployment rate in El Houidjbet is nearly 0%, and that is what we noticed while we were passing through the city center. Three young men were painting the pavement, but otherwise the town was almost devoid of human activity. Even the Bou Chebka border crossing that usually bustles with passers-by has not been very active since the deterioration of the security situation in Tunisia, and not only since the outbreak of the Jebel ech Chaambi incidents. The number of cars entering Algeria from this crossing did not exceed 800 in the past two weeks, compared with 900 cars that left during the same period.

This activity is nearly restricted to only the town’s inhabitants. Family ties melt the borders between the town’s Algerians and Tunisians. The latter get their food daily from the different Tebessa markets, while the former get al shamma (a type of tobacco) and chips made from Tebessan potatoes from the other side of the border. As for the border guards, customs agents, and security officials, their eyes are wide open, day and night, to deter the entry of weapons, drugs and any other material that pose a danger to the nation. However, they admit how difficult it is to impose certain trade rules on the inhabitants of the border regions. A group of Tunisians already left their houses in Qasrin and moved to the adjacent Boudrias town to escape hellish living conditions imposed by the Ben Ali regime. Today, these same people are complaining about the further deterioration of their social situation, in addition to being terrorized by Salafists.

Two Tunisian women who happened to be at the border crossing flashing their passports at the moment we were passing confirmed this to us. Mount Boudrias has been a source of anxiety for the Algerian security forces since the start of the crisis in Tunisia, given that the first terrorist attacks happened in Tebessa. According to testimonies from the region’s residents, some citizens endured the effects of bombs that were planted by terrorists in the 1990s in Boudrias, just as they are planted today in Jebel ech Chaambi on the Tunisian side.

A few kilometers away from the Bou Chebka border crossing and El Houidjbet municipality center, there are two sand paths leading to the villages of Mount Boudrias, both guarded by aides of the border guards. We approached one of the guard posts to ask for permission to access these isolated villages through the main road. We were asked to head to the border guard regiment on a nearby hill. When we followed their orders and told the officials that we obtained permission from the civil and security authorities in Tebessa to enter, we were asked to wait because the border guards in Bou Chebka had not been informed of our mission.

Moments later, one of the commanders told us that he could not help us or allow us to go to Boudrias, and he pointed us in the direction of the national gendarmerie of El Houidjbet municipality.

“If the El Houidjbet gendarmerie gives you the permission to go to Boudrias, then we will be happy to accompany you,” the officer said. But the gendarmerie, in turn, contacted the leadership because it was not advised about our mission. After all these contacts, we learned that Boudrias has become a military zone where movement is forbidden, just like the border point between Tebessa and Oued Souf. These are "areas that the jihadist Mohammed Burefaah calls to be taken out of poverty and isolation so as to stop being a source of security risks and social ills."

Even the two Tunisian citizens that we met at the border crossing of Bou Shabka told us that the presence of terrorist elements in Jebel ech Chambi dates back eight or nine years, but al-Qasrayn residents stopped talking about them. Perhaps because the goal of the terrorists was Algeria at that time, and Tunisia was only a rear base for them, or because the Tunisian media was not interested in broadcasting news about terrorism, being focused on polishing the touristic image of Tunisia.

Either way, Burefaah says, “It is impossible for the Tunisian army to control Jebel ech Chambi," as it is a mountain that our mujahedeen know better than Tunisians themselves simply because it was a base for the border army during the Algerian Revolution. France's only way to repel the activity of the mujahedeen on this border was by establishing the famous electric fence. According to Burefaah, the Tunisian authorities were unaware of the details of the Algerian army sites in Jebel ech Chambi. They did not know about the caches, blockhouses and training centers that it had established. ... According to this jihadist and former officer in the ANP, the besieged terrorist elements in Jebel ech Chambi may have moved to other areas. Mohammed starts recalling his memories in the region, and how the mujahedeen infiltrated into Mount Samama in the heart of Tunisia. He warns, saying, ''I am afraid that they will infiltrate into Mount Bou Jlal (i.e., the heart of the Tebessa province), and start moving all around in Algeria. This will be a disaster.”

According to Burefaah, "The Jebel ech Chambi range links the Tunisian and Algerian mountains together, this is why it constitutes  — along with the al-Khadra triangle, a vast desert in which the Algerian, Tunisian and Libyan borders meet — the most dangerous point from which the terrorist threat can get to us." The al-Khadra triangle is not far from the gas plant in Tigantourine, according to Burefaah, who worked for four years on this border with the ANP. According to him, in order to control all of the border, citizens must be "aware of the danger threatening them and should be encouraged to defend their country. At the military level, however, the recruitment of 40 million Algerians into the ranks of the security services will not be enough to solve the problem.”

When Burefaah talks about the awakening of citizens, he mentions what he calls the “Trabando” disease, which refers to smuggling — a source of livelihood for the entire population that resides along the border. He says, "Smuggling is the biggest disease threatening us," blaming the Tunisian and Algerian authorities alike. According to him, the two governments deliberately isolated residents of the border region from the rest of their countrymen when they did not split roads linking them to the rest of their destinations, be it in Tunisia or Algeria.

What happened in one of the towns located between Khenchla and Tebessa provinces shows that poverty and isolation automatically lead to terrorism. Burefaah said, “When I asked some older residents about the number of youth who have taken up arms, they responded 70.”

Khenchla is one of the areas that has recently witnessed a strong return of terrorist activity. The discussion with Burefaah brought back to our minds bets that various parties had placed on a “war of attrition,” which many former officials in the state apparatus warned against.

Although the Algerian army imposed its views on the financial crisis, refused to intervene beyond its borders, and succeeded in the Tigantourine operation, the Tunisian incident of Jebel ech Chambi came as a new test for the Algerian army, especially amid attempts to accuse this region of smuggling terrorists into Algeria, before the Tunisian authorities confirmed that they snuck in from Libya.

Burefaah believes that ''the Algerian army had to help the Tunisian army in this crisis, because Tunisians do not have the capabilities to face it alone." This is the vision of a former ANP officer, who graduated from the army’s border patrol school and then joined the Shershal military academy and trained soldiers in Blida before he retired in 1991. This, however, is a viewpoint which, once again, puts the Algerian army in front of the challenge of reconciling between its principled position of non-intervention outside its borders and the threats to internal security coming from outside the border.

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