KASSERINE - Sitting on his doorstep, squinting under his straw hat, the shepherd looks closely at the military tank that crosses his land with a deafening rumble.
“For now, we let them, but if it goes on, we, the people, we will revolt and stop this joke by all available means,” says Ridha Messaoudi.
Early on June 11, he and his cousin Tahar had gone to take their sheep to graze at the steps of the Jebel ech Chambi mountain. Then, a goat walked on a mine – Tahar was riddled with shrapnel and had to be transferred to the Tunisian capital, Tunis. He became the first civilian victim of the guerrilla warfare in this western stretch of the country, near the Algerian border that pits the Tunisian army against a group of jihadists linked to al-Qaeda.
“It is not us who are being targeted, it is them,” says Messaoudi while pointing his chin toward the tank. “But, now, no one dares to leave their home anymore, and I don’t have any hay left for my sheep!”
Since April 29, the hunt for the jihadists that had started weeks earlier took another turn with the explosion of several mines, which resulted in 27 victims, all from the army and the National Guard. Among them, three soldiers died and another five had to be amputated.
“They are using anti-personnel mines made out of ammonium nitrate,” a chemical compound that very common in this agricultural zone. “The mines are placed in plastic containers that are very hard to spot,” says Major-Colonel Mokhtar Ben Nasr, Defense Ministry spokesman. Since then, Mount Chaambi and its national park, created in 1980 in order to bring back the Barbary sheep – a native species of goat-antelope – has turned into a military zone. The mountain is surrounded. On June 16, the population of Kasserine came out to protest and say “no to terrorism.”
In this poor city located approximately 300 kilometers southwest of Tunis, at the foot of the Jebel ech Chambi, which at 1,544 meters high is the highest mountain in the country, anger vies with incomprehension. The trucks, loaded with contraband gasoline cans, continue to travel the roads as if nothing had happened, despite the presence of troops, tanks and daily military helicopter flyovers. The locals say they’ve never seen one of the terrorists or “bearded men” and are increasingly suspicious of the increasingly visible military operations. “The terrorists move around in small groups, we don’t see them, our actions are part of an asymmetrical war that people do not understand,” says Major-Colonel Ben Nasr.
Underground tunnels and caves
A sign of how little they trust the authorities, the families of deceased soldiers refused the military honors they had been awarded. The death of Chief Warrant Officer Mokhtar Mbarki, 43, killed by friendly fire on June 3 during a night operation did not help quell the families’ doubts. “How could all five of his friends mistake him for an enemy combatant? Mokhtar was shot 10 times from a distance of 3.5 meters!” says Mokhtar’s widow, Najet Rtibi, who is pregnant with their fourth child.
“According to phone taps, the terrorists are still on the mountain. It is not a plot, nor a fake scenario, it is the hard reality which is hard to accept for Kasserine’s image,” says Walid Bennani, a member of parliament for the Islamist party Ennahda. Torn between the need to inform the population and the fear of harming Tunisia’s image, the authorities try to minimize what is happening.
On the ground, the army has uncovered found huts, underground tunnels and hideouts in the numerous caves around the mountain containing plans, SIM cards and documents on ammonium nitrate. The group named itself the katiba (“battalion”) Uqba ibn Nafi, after the Arab general who began the Islamic conquest of the Maghreb and founded the cultural city of Kairouan in the 7th century.
The authorities published the portraits of these jihadists. “Out of 35 men, 11 of them are Algerian […] their goal is to establish a training camp and attract young recruits,” explains police officer Mohamed Ali Aroui, Interior ministry spokesman.
It is not the first time that the mountain, which is known for being difficult to access, is the target of infiltration attempts by jihadists. On May 18, 2011, nearby at the Rouhia command post at the Algerian, four people were killed – two soldiers and two jihadists – after a violent clash. Among them was Abdelwaheb Hmaied, a known operative for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). There was another clash at Bir Ali Ben Khelifa, near Sfax, on Feb. 2, 2012, where two jihadists were killed. After that, 25 Kalashnikov were discovered in Kasserine.
The weapons come from Libya, and investigators are certain that the group has close ties with the jihadists in northern Mali. Since then, the violent confrontations continue to multiply.