Kairouan, or the network behind the Tunisian suspect of the Berlin attack

Anis Amri, chief suspect behind the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, grew up in Kairouan. Jihadi Salafists proclaimed this ancient Tunisian city the capital of an Islamic state. The shooter who killed 38 hotel guests on a beach in Sousse in 2015 radicalized here as well. In the summer of 2015, Montasser AlDe’emeh and Pieter Stockmans went to the city to look for the instigators and their motives.

  • © Baram Maaruf We ask people on the streets of Sfax what they think of imam Ridha Jaouadi. © Baram Maaruf
  • © Baram Maaruf With imam Tayyib Ghozzi on the courtyard of the Great Mosque of Kairouan © Baram Maaruf
  • © Baram Maaruf The courtyard of the Great Mosque of Kairouan © Baram Maaruf
  • © Baram Maaruf Evening prayers in the Great Mosque of Kairouan © Baram Maaruf
  • © Baram Maaruf 'Dégage Ghannouchi’, slogan against the president of de Islamist party Ennahda, in Oueslatia © Baram Maaruf
  • © Baram Maaruf Fatma shows a picture of her brother Khalid in Syria. © Baram Maaruf

Anis Amri apparently grew up in Kairouan, Tunisia. He was a follower of Ansar Sharia, the Tunisian Jihadi movement banned by a partially islamist government. In the summer of 2015, it was already practically impossible to probe into Ansar Sharia. However, we managed to infiltrate their organization and talk to top leaders and supporters. This was our report for Knack.The situation is tense in Tunisia. When the regime of dictator Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011, radical Islam gained ground. A crucial hotspot was Kairouan, which Jihadi Salafists proclaimed the capital of their Islamic state.

Friday January 14, 2011. After months of protest, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia. The Tunisian president, who came to power after a coup in 1987, was convicted in absentia to 35 years in prison.

Wednesday March 18, 2015. 23 people die in a terrorist attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. ISIS claims responsibility.

Friday June 26, 2015. On the beach of a hotel in Port El Kantaoui, close to Sousse, Seifiddine Rezgui Yacoubi, a student of the University of Kairouan, kills 38 people.

Kairouan is consistently included in the Unesco World Heritage List, having the oldest mosque of Africa. Freed from the secular Ben Ali regime and briefly occupied by Jihadi Salafists who claimed the city as the capital of an Islamic state, since the terrorist attacks the city has been back in the hands of a recurrent police state.

The drive to the city is endless. Only in the small decrepit villages our crazed bus driver slows down a bit. On the radio, the cracking voice of the newsreader reads out the umpteenth announcement by the government about a round-up terror cell: ‘The suspects were in contact with the terrorists who attacked the Bardo National Museum.’

The face behind those terror cells is what we are looking for.

© Baram Maaruf

With imam Tayyib Ghozzi on the courtyard of the Great Mosque of Kairouan

Clouds of thunder gather around the minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. Inside, there is nothing but peace and quiet, and the soul of thirteen centuries of history is roaming around the portico. The old Islamic schools are now desolate cultural heritage. Some of the buildings house souvenir shops. Here, there once was a vibrant Islamic community.

Kairouan is one of the most important cities of the Islamic world. The Arab emir ‘Uqba ibn Nafi‘ founded Kairouan in 671 after the death of the prophet Mohammed. It served as a military headquarters for tens of thousands of soldiers of the Umayyad Caliphate, from which they would conquer and islamize North Africa. The next four centuries, the city remained the undisputed capital of the Islamic Caliphates in North Africa. No wonder that, after the revolution, Jihadi Salafists had their eyes on this jackpot.

One week after the fall of Ben Ali in January 2011, Mohamed al-Khelif, the son of the old imam, mounted the pulpit and declared the time ripe for an Islamic state. Yet today, one of his enemies stands on the world’s oldest pulpit: imam Tayyib Ghozzi.

After the Friday prayers, we approach the man in our traditional Tunisian Islamic dress. He jumps up and greets us as renowned scholars. ‘My apologies for not having prayed for Palestine’, he says when Montasser tells him he is Palestinian.

‘Jihadi Salafists immediately wanted to get rid of everyone who had assisted in the oppression of what they believed was the true faith’, the imam explains in his small consulting-room draped with tapestry. ‘They believed I was one of them. They opposed anything Tunisian, because they associated it with the dictatorship.’

‘Our youth has no knowledge of Islam, because the first president Bourguiba closed down all Islamic institutions as part of an aggressive secularization policy. As a result after the revolution, vulnerable young people were highly susceptible to extremist ideas. Ansar Sharia was quick to fill that void.’

The conferences of Ansar Sharia, the Jihadi Salafist movement that was founded shortly after the revolution and soon saw Mohamed al-Khelif as one of its leaders, drew thousands of sympathizers to the square in front of the Great Mosque. Among them islamist prisoners who were released during the general amnesty after the fall of Ben Ali. 

In May 2012, al-Khelif was sitting self-confidently on the stage at the mass meeting. Masked fighters were practicing martial arts and after inciting speeches the crowd burst into a deafening “Allah Akbar”. The square turned black with flags. Today, only the flapping of small red Tunisian flags disturb the serene silence.

‘No Islam light’

What happened from 2012 until today, we discover during our search for Mohamed al-Khelif. On a street corner, two Salafists are standing beside a motorbike. Are they Jihadi Salafists? They can no longer reveal their true identity, but we have developed a sixth sense to spot them. ‘No one will help you find us’, said Karim, one of the men.

By “us” he undoubtedly means Ansar Sharia, which went underground. We sit on the terrace of a teahouse. ‘The secret service is keeping a close eye on me’, he grins cynically. ‘They even know I’m sitting here now with you guys.’

Suddenly, we notice the police car. It passed the teahouse three times already. Are they really watching us, or are we becoming paranoid too? A suffocating feeling, as if Big Brother is reading our minds. As Karim is afraid to talk about the forbidden topic, we can only gather from a couple of cryptic descriptions that he does in fact sympathize with Ansar Sharia and may even be part of ISIS.

‘I am Muslim first, then Tunisian. We must condemn infidels. The only law is God’s law.’ Karim rejects national identities and embraces religious identity as the basis of a caliphate. If we ask him if ISIS would destroy tourist sites in Tunisia, he answers defensively “only the ones that are idolatry”. We know enough.

When Ansar Sharia was banned, hundreds of Jihadi Salafists fled to Libya, where they entered a war zone and received military training.

While the police car passes one more time, we show a picture of us sitting with an islamic scholar of Al Qaeda in Jordan. ‘Did he invite Pieter to become Muslim?’, Karim asks. ‘No? Yet more proof that they do not follow the true Islam.’ That’s his way of saying he supports IS, and not al-Qaeda.

A few summers ago, Karim was radiating with self-confidence among the thousands of sympathizers at the Great Mosque. They took over dozens of mosques in Kairouan, gained support through charity in neglected neighbourhoods, and preached about the islamization of the state, the media, education and tourism.

In 2012, they clashed with members of the labour union and attacked the American embassy, a music festival, liquor stores and Sufi sanctuaries. The policy to pacify them by integrating them into the political system failed miserably. In 2013 two left-wing politicians were killed. The government prohibited the third largest conference by Ansar Sharia in Kairouan and placed the movement outside the law as a “terrorist movement”.

During the wave of arrests that ensued, hundreds of Jihadi Salafists fled to Libya – just like Islamists had fled to Afghanistan years ago during the oppression by Ben Ali – where they entered a war zone and received military training.

But Karim did stay in his beloved city of Kairouan, balancing the thin rope the secret services set up for him. He hesitates when we ask to continue the conversation at his place: ‘How can I know you won’t give my address to the secret services?’ Anxiously, he disappears in the dusky alleyways.

We are allowed to follow him to the local mosque. There, he gets into a conversation with an older man with a low grey beard, ordinary trousers and a T-shirt. ‘We’re looking for Mohamed al-Khelif’, we tell him. ‘That’s me. And I don’t give interviews under any circumstance.’ His last interview was with The New York Times in 2012. Still, we can see the man feels wronged and when we continue to shoot questions at him, more and more answers come trickling out.

© Baram Maaruf

Evening prayers in the Great Mosque of Kairouan

‘The new law against terrorism is driving us mad. I know for a fact that my enemies in this mosque will snitch to the secret services that I’m talking to foreigners. The terrorist threat is being exaggerated. For instance, a couple of days ago, four brothers were arrested in their home. The media talked about “dangerous terrorists who regularly went to Libya”. After interrogation, they were released that same night. It turned out that their neighbour had wanted to settle a score with them and had wrongfully accused them. But you don’t read that in the media. In the meanwhile, Tunisians have become scared enough to swallow dictatorial laws.’

The streets grow smaller and darker. Karim apparently lives in a poor neighbourhood. As we enter his home, he immediately dishes up some couscous and fruit. Al-Khelif is now really getting into his stride.

‘Yes, on the Friday after the fall of Ben Ali, I went to preach in the Great Mosque. I condemned the corruption of the secular system. But the window to freedom was open for only a short time. In the sixties, my father also preached that president Bourguiba was an atheist who fought against Islam. One year later, he ended up in prison. All in all, nothing has changed.’

For Jihadi Salafists, “extremism” is nothing but true Islam.

After the deadly attack on 15 soldiers on July 16, 2014, 20 mosques and 157 Islamist organizations were closed down because of “extremism”. It turned out many preachers did not have an official certificate to be an imam and some of them did not even have a secondary school degree. 

For Jihadi Salafists, “extremism” is nothing but true Islam. ‘The so-called Islamists of Ennahda collaborate with the US to create an “Islam light”’, al-Khelif says after a bite of couscous. ‘An Islam that bows down to dictatorship, to a democracy that fights Islam, to the injustice in Palestine. And Kairouan? They want to turn it into a zoo for tourists, dead heritage instead of a lively Islamic community. The money tourists bring in is invested in beach clubs while Kairouan itself lags behind.’

It is unlikely that the secular party Nidaa Tounes, which sees itself as Bourguiba’s heir, will restore Kairouan’s ancient Islamic centres of knowledge. In October 2014, they won the parliamentary elections with 39%. Ennahda too – who came in second with 32% – did not make it a priority, because of which they were excommunicated by Jihadi Salafists. 

‘Development of Islamic institutions is less of a priority than anchoring democracy for all Tunisians’, said Khaled Jarad, president of Ennahdha Kairouan. ‘But it is true that seculars obstruct the integration of strong Islamic institutions in Tunisian society. Because of that, the influence of intolerant foreign ideologies is growing.’

Breeding ground for the Islamic State

That night we see dozens of men getting into a trance as they collectively recite the Quran on the courtyard of the Great Mosque. In a bar on the city walls around the mosque, scantily dressed women are partying to disco music, boys and girls together, and practically no headscarves can be seen. This world would come to an end if Ansar Sharia succeeds in enforcing Islamic law.

We can see what their ideology can lead to in Oueslatia, a small desert town a one-hour-drive away from Kairouan. Adel Ftaiti, the son of the former imam, is waiting for us. ‘About thirty young people from our town went to ISIS in Libya, Syria and Iraq, on top of the thousands of people who escaped to Lampedusa’, Adel tells us. ‘Some dream of paradise in this life, others of paradise in the afterlife. One of them blew himself up in Libya, another joined in cruel actions in the countryside of Damascus.’

How come a forgotten provincial town with barely 10,000 inhabitants produces so many ruthless ISIS fighters? The Ben Ali regime decided the subjects of Friday prayers, so they could promote a milder Islamic practice and prevent protest against the dictatorship emanating from mosques. The revolution has freed about 5,000 official mosques from the intransigent control by the regime.

‘Immediately after the fall of the Ben Ali regime, people stormed the mosque’, Adel says while we walk through the empty streets. ‘Salafists with al Qaeda sympathies changed the lock and took over the mosque. Later, the judge intervened, but the new government never respected the judicial verdict. After every attack we heard people in the mosque shout “Takbir! Allah Akbar!”. Before the boys left to Libya and Syria, we saw them in small groups training on the football pitch. Police did not intervene. All of this happened under the watchful eye of Islamist Ennahdha in the government.’

© Baram Maaruf

‘Dégage Ghannouchi’, slogan against the president of de Islamist party Ennahda, in Oueslatia

We ring up Fatma, the sister of a boy who is fighting for ISIS in the countryside of Damascus. ‘Why would we still talk to journalists?’, she asks. ‘We hoped the media would urge the government to protect other families, but nothing has helped. ISIS’ propaganda is much stronger. How is it possible that my twin brothers left nevertheless, despite the pain they caused to their mother?’

Fatma agrees when we tell her that, for years, we have given a voice to traumatized families of Belgian foreign fighters in Syria. During the entire conversation we have in her brother’s veterinary practice, she not once mentions the horrors her brother is participating in. Too sensitive.

‘Khalid has always been a sensitive boy’, Fatma says. ‘He used to watch videos about the atrocities in Gaza in his room. He wanted to go and help the Palestinians. I think he found comfort in Salafism. But Walid, he was your typical ladies man with gel in his hair. He used to even mock Khalid’s religious clothes and piety.’

‘Salafists with al Qaeda sympathies took over the mosque. After every attack we heard people in the mosque shout “Takbir! Allah Akbar!”. 

This country’s political fault lines ran straight through the family: Khalid often went to the mosque, because of which the police picked him up for interrogation all the time during the Ben Ali regime. His own father was a member of Ben Ali’s party.

‘When Ennahdha won the elections and came into office, Khalid immediately joined them’, Fatma tells us. ‘He used to have trainings on democracy; now he’s against democracy. He used to be an election observer; now he’s against elections.’

The first months after the revolution, Ennahdha’s democratic Islamists controlled politics, the antidemocratic Salafists the mosques. Khalid navigated between both. Like many political Salafists, he had hoped Ennahdha would enforce Islamic law, but they didn’t.

‘That’s why some Salafists turned to violence. Khalid was very disappointed in Ennahdha. He began training and eventually left with a group of young people. The last time we heard from him was to let us know he joined the fight against the Kurds in Kobani.’

© Baram Maaruf

Fatma shows a picture of her brother Khalid in Syria.

Straightaway Fatma knew they would also lose Walid, even though he had never been religious. He told her that he felt devastated without his twin brother. ‘On his Facebook account I found a conversation with a recruiter’, Fatma says. ‘He promised him 750 euro. Father took Walid to the police station in Tunis, but they did nothing. A couple weeks later he was gone.’

Fatma shows us pictures of her brothers at their graduation ceremony with their proud mother, pictures of the boys as ISIS fighters, and pictures of Walid’s dead body. A smile is resting on his face. Only then do Fatma’s tears start welling up.

‘I found that picture on Facebook. And then we got the message: “Walid’s a martyr.” It feels as if he’s still alive. We couldn’t bury him. He left, we didn’t hear anything from him, and now he’s gone forever. Something inside me died with him.’

Fatma, a bio-engineer, found a job at Weslatia Trip Tours, an agency for ecotourism that sets up hiking trails in the stunning landscapes around Oueslatia. ‘If we don’t start drawing tourists to our region, we’ll end up like Kasserine’, she says.

‘There, terrorists have set up a base in the mountains around the city. Can you believe that armed groups control the least developed regions on the border with Algeria and Libya? The economy is starting to get attuned to it. We want to offer people an alternative source of income. Tourism against terrorism, that’s our slogan.’

Fatma’s father, a retired truck driver, comes to see us off when his nephew offers us a ride. ‘I don’t recognize him anymore, ever since his sons left’, the nephew tells us. ‘He used to be a respected man. Now, he doesn’t talk to anyone anymore. He’s on the brink of a nervous breakdown.’

With unemployment rates going through the roof, Kairouan heads the list of suicide rates in Tunisia: fifteen every month. Before the last rays of sunlight fade behind the horizon, we can still catch a glimpse of the small villages that are among the poorest in the country. The government acknowledges the poor economic growth, the total absence of investments in agriculture and tourism. But no creaky voice of any newsreader talking about that.

100,000 arrests

After the attack on the Bardo National Museum in March 2015, a new wave of arrests washed over Tunisia. The government closed down even more mosques and Islamic associations, and fired more imams. Human Rights Watch called the policies illegal, disproportionate, and a “return to the former regime’s authoritarian practices”.

By doing so, the government is violating a new law that cancelled Ben Ali’s repressive law, because only the judiciary can order to close down associations, if they pose a clear and imminent threat.

Ayman is one of the 100,000 of people – 1% of the Tunisian population – that were arrested in the first half of 2015. His brother’s Islamic association was closed down. In all secrecy, we met him in our hotel. He talked in a hushed voice and was looking around anxiously.

‘After the fall of Ben Ali, my brother became the head of an Islamic organization that collected goods for refugees and invited people to join Islam. Everything was legal. But a year ago, the s association was shut down. We never saw a judge’s order. The secret services drove him so mad he eventually fled to Libya. He’s not a fighter. He works in Tripoli and got married there. And now, they’re doing the same thing to me.’

Time and again Ayman is summoned for interrogation by the secret services. ‘They tie me up by my hands and feet and throw me in the trunk of their car. In prison, I’m cramped with 200 other people, including minors, in a space made for 50 people. They keep me awake at night, serve spoilt food, deny access to an attorney, force me to sign documents without allowing me to read them. They make us stand outside in the cold without any clothes on. I’m willing to sign anything just to make them stop.’

Every time, the judge orders to release him, but still the police imposes punishment. ‘I got a travel ban and was also banned from working for the government. I’m the only provider for a family of four. My fiancée left me. I long for the day I’ll be free.’

Ayman claims to have nothing to do with Jihadists. He does not understand why the secret services invest so much energy in him. ‘They themselves are making sure we hate the state. They showed my picture on television with a text saying I’m part of a “terror cell”. We are the bridge they cross to impose a dictatorship.

© Baram Maaruf

We ask people on the streets of Sfax what they think of imam Ridha Jaouadi.

The renowned imam Ridha Jaouadi, not an antidemocratic Salafist but a democratic Islamist, is afraid secular parties will join in a sneaky attack on Islamists. He points to what happened in Egypt.

The government focuses on firing radical imams, but Jaouadi thinks they should focus on giving a better education to other imams so they can spread more nuanced knowledge about Islam across Tunisia. Only 5% of imams have a degree of the Islamic Zeitouna University. 45% have another university degree, 28% hold a bachelor degree. And 13% only have a secondary school degree.

There are plans for a new institute for imam trainings in Kairouan, but the budget for the Department of Religious Affairs is not more than 40 million euros. To compare: the budget for the Department of the Interior is 984 million euros. And since the attack on Sousse in June 2005, it was even raised by another 63 million euros.

The government declared a state of emergency and, by the end of June 2015, parliament approved an antiterrorism law that would give even more power to the secret services. The country now has all the tools it needs to suppress Islamists.

This report was the first part of the series “The true story behind the Tunisian attacks”, which appeared in Knack magazine on September 9 and 16, 2015. Read part two, “Battle for the Mountain”

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