Living among jihadists tests Tunisia’s anti-terror strategy

Sunday 11/06/2017
Twice victims. Dhiba Soltani, 42, a Tunisian female herder and cousin of Khalifa Soltani, watches her flock on Mount Mghila between Kasserine and the central town of Sidi Bouzid. (AFP)

Tunis - The gruesome killing of a Tunisian shepherd, 18 months after his 16-year-old brother was kidnapped and killed by the same group, has rekindled concerns over the country’s anti-terror strategy.
On June 3, the body of Khalifa Sol­tani, 33, was found by an army pa­trol in Mount Mghila, a rugged area in central Tunisia where various militant groups are known to be ac­tive. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for Soltani’s killing, saying he was a spy for Tunisian in­telligence services.
Khalifa’s 16-year old brother, Ma­brouk Soltani, was abducted and beheaded by jihadists in November 2015 after being accused of spying for the army. His killers ordered a 14-year-old cousin, who was shep­herding the flock with Mabrouk Soltani, to take the victim’s head wrapped in a plastic bag to his fam­ily’s home in the village of Slatniya.
Each incident, as well as jihadist raids in rural areas from the north­ern regions of El Kef to the central areas of Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid, have revived the question: “Why have terrorists been left to roam these regions for almost four years while the government has deployed more consequential efforts to pro­tecting coastal and main cities?”
Tunisian Defence Minister Farhat Horchani led an official delegation of ministers and local officials at Khali­fa Soltani’s funeral on June 4, facing the anger of villagers. The govern­ment and local authorities offered the Soltani family around $50,000 in financial aid after Mabrouk’s kill­ing. After Khalifa’s death, the gov­ernment promised additional aid for the entire village, including cultural facilities for the area’s young people.
The killing of the second shep­herd was a blow to the government’s efforts to gain popular support and showed the challenges it faces to protect similar regions while it fights corruption and smuggling, two problems the authorities see as intertwined with jihadism and ter­rorism, analysts said.
“After the killing of the shepherd, (Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef) Chahed would not be able to recover the trust, contentment and support of the people unless he stages im­mediately an operation that would shake up the ground under the feet of the terrorists,” wrote Adel Ouni in an editorial in Alchourouk daily.
To offset the unlikely possibility of deploying security forces in each village, the government must de­velop a policy to win the hearts and minds of residents before others are enticed to join the jihadists.
The Mghila jihadists, who likely had support in villages and towns, are said to “go into nearby towns and stay for long periods without being discovered,” the Alchourouk newspaper reported.
“The task of these terrorists is to provide food and other logistical as­sistance to those who remain in the mountain,” it added, quoting a secu­rity official.
Security forces in April captured a terrorist leader who had often de­scended from the Chaambi Moun­tains to spend nights in Kasserine. Police found him after his former girlfriend informed the authorities about him.
Retired army General Ahmed Chabir, in a local radio interview, said the slaying of Khalifa Soltani “is evidence that the terrorists have some intelligence capacity and… have information about the move­ments and positions of armed and security forces.”
“The best proof about that is the fact they carried out the operation without being spotted in time,” he said.
Other analysts said promises by previous governments to clear the mountains of jihadists by flooding the area with soldiers have made people impatient with the current leadership about the jihadist pres­ence in the area.
Former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki vowed in the sum­mer of 2014 to “turn the Chaambi Mountains into a national park open for free to Tunisian and foreign visi­tors.” However, that year, jihadists staged an ambush during Ramadan, killing 17 soldiers and wounding 20 others before returning to their base unchallenged.
Since then, analysts and media have questioned the government’s strategy to overcome terrorism.
Algeria’s experience with terror­ism could provide guidance for Tu­nisia, even if the political and mili­tary contexts in the two countries are different. Like Tunisia, Algeria was forced to protect its strategic national interests from terrorists. As the state strengthened and terror­ists weakened, its influence progres­sively spread.