Inside Ben Gardane, Tunisia's Jihadist Enclave
Not far from Libya's border, the town of Ben Gardane is rife with smuggling, illegal money trading, and jihadist recruitment.
All photos by Mohamed Abdelkawi
Arriving in Ben Gardane, a tiny area in Tunisia just minutes from the border with Libya, feels like crossing into a bona fide rogue state. Gone are the tourist-friendly resorts, the open-minded attitudes, and the patriotic "new democracy" feeling that swaddles the rest of the country. Even Tunisian flags are a rare sight.
As Saad, a local schoolteacher, tells me, "Ben Gardane is only a part of Tunisia because we carry the same passport. It is like a different country here."
In Ben Gardane, the local economy is made up largely of smuggling contraband goods, weapons, and jihadists across the Libyan border, where Islamic State training camps were established late last year. The Tunisian government invests most of its funds in the north, which is located on the Mediterranean Sea and is a relative hotbed of tourism. As a result, areas such as Ben Gardane, which provide little return on government investment, are often overlooked. Saad pulls no punches about the effects of the government's blind eye. "They don't want to help us with education, financially like they do with the north and the coastal areas," he says. "This pushes people to do something else. They will deal with Libyans instead."
As an educator of the town's youth, Saad sees firsthand the struggle many face while attempting to survive. "Children here in Ben Gardane quit school as young as possible because there is no incentive to stay in education," he explains. "They can make more money by smuggling on the border. Life here is a dead end."
As a foreign journalist, one is immediately eyed with suspicion here, and there is some justification for locals to be wary of outsiders. Just weeks before my visit, two major weapons caches were unearthed by Tunisian security forces in the town. Reports vary about the possible destination of the double haul, which included rocket launchers and ammunition. It is unclear whether the weapons had been stashed and perhaps forgotten about during the Libyan revolution in 2011, or destined for jihadist groups inside the Tunisian state.
Jihad is big business around these parts, where decades of government underinvestment has forced people to eke out a living in any way that they can. One man I spoke to, Mohamed, knows the problems caused by the lure of terror, which has drawn in many of the town's youth.
Related: The Rebels of Libya
"My cousin went to Syria in 2012, and right now even his family doesn't know whether he is dead or alive. It is heartbreaking," he says.
The Tunisian interior ministry estimates that at least 2,400 of its citizens have joined external jihadist groups since 2011, though other estimates put the figure at well over 3,000, with the conservative south and center of the country providing fertile breeding grounds for terrorism.
Anti-government feeling runs deep in the weather-worn town, where a recently imposed border tax has left many struggling to survive. "The government says that we must pay the 30 dinar ($15 USD) tax every time we cross the border but this leaves many people, especially small-time traders, struggling to cover their costs," Mohamed claims. "But the government is blind to Ben Gardane—they don't listen until people take to the streets and cause trouble."
Since the 2011 revolution, locals have learned to depend on themselves rather than those in power in the Tunisian capital.
"Everything here is fixed by local people and not the government in Tunis," says Mohamed. "People raise money themselves to fix the streets, pavements, everything, because the government won't help us."
Most interestingly, Ben Gardane makes it easy to send cash out of the country via wire transfer, a process that takes place outside the law and without banks or traditional transfer services. One of the first things one notices upon entering the town is the street lined with nondescript blue wooden booths. The thrown-together huts are used by illegal money-changers to process currency coming from Libya, Algeria, or elsewhere in the world.
The entire operation—which allows for funds to be sent as far away as China—works on an informal global network of underground money dealers, and a long-term relationship of trust.
Ahmed, whose name has been changed, is one of the many so-called "money men" who operate on the streets of Ben Gardane. "You can send money from here," he explains, "and it is available in your country of choice in about thirty minutes."
He is discrete when ushering me into his ramshackle place of work. "The transfer network is entirely based on trust—we don't use banks," he says. "But from Ben Gardane you can send money to anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes. A lot of my customers come from Libya but also there are requests to send money to Egypt, Europe, and China."
The illicit transfer trade works in tandem with the town's lucrative smuggling business and allows traffickers to pay for goods purchased abroad.
Despite his profitable work, Ahmed admits that life in the dusty southern town is far from easy. "There are no other opportunities for people here, that is why the police allow the illegal trade to continue. If I could get any other job or any other way to make a living, then I would happily do it," he says.
While many transfers are used for relatively innocuous reasons, Ahmed tells me, "We must be careful that the money isn't used for terrorism. For me, I always ask what the purpose of the transfer—I use my own judgment, and if I don't believe that the person is being truthful, then I will refuse to carry out the deal. We don't want to give money to terrorism or terrorist groups here, otherwise the police will come here and cause big problems for everybody."
Ahmed believes that the scores of Ben Gardanian youth who choose to join jihadists in Libya, Syria, or Iraq have far more than money on their minds. "They go because of the way that Britain and America treat Muslims. The problem here is not economic—it is a religious decision," he argues, even as he is quick to denounce the extremists joining the fight abroad. "Many of them come back after a few months because they discover the truth about these groups: They are traitors on the name of Islam."
Some of the local recruits turn to terrorism after being radicalized by extremist preachers and fellow hardliners online. Ali, who owns an internet cafe frequented by many of the town's youth, has a firsthand view of the methods used to recruit jihadists from the town. As he explains, "People don't recruit from the mosque anymore because they are afraid of the security services. They recruit from the marketplace, or from the internet. These recruiters can spot impressionable targets and then they make it their mission to warp their minds."
Security forces face a daily game of cat and mouse with terror groups who use the area as a pit stop before joining the jihad elsewhere. However, those who return are left facing an identity battle of their own. According to Ali, "Going to fight in Syria is like going to live in Europe for people from here. They will stay there for a few years and then they will come back."
Of course, the process is not quite that simple.
"Those who return are never the same again," Ali says. "They go there with thoughts of paradise and thinking that everything will be easy, but then they see that the reality there is different.
"When they come back they feel as though somebody has used them. But it is normal here—people accept it."
Follow Conor Sheils on Twitter.