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.

PIETER STOCKMANS and MONTASSER ALDE’EMEH

‘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

(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

(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

(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.

Read the other articles in our TUNISIA BLOG.