TUNIS, Tunisia – The hunt for al-Qaida-linked militants in a mountainous region near Tunisia's borders with Algeria in recent days has raised alarm that the birthplace of the Arab Spring has become the latest battleground for violent jihadis.
With neighboring Algeria and Libya full of weapons and violent movements of their own, Tunisia is struggling to prevent the growth of armed groups while making its own tentative transition to democracy.
The news out of Tunisia in the past week has been depressingly familiar for the Middle East: roadside bombs badly wounding soldiers and police as they comb a mountainous region for al-Qaida linked militants. What's unusual is that the setting is this largely secularized middle class nation of 10 million.
For now the numbers are small compared to those found in Algeria, Libya or northern Mali. But recent fighting in the Sahel — the arid region just south of the Sahara Desert — has sent jihadi fighters looking for new havens, raising fears that Tunisia is in their sights.
"We have discovered a terrorist plan targeting Tunisians and the state," Mohammed Ali Aroui, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said Tuesday, without giving further details. He estimated that there were some 20 militants hiding in the rugged 70 square kilometers (27 square miles) of Jebel Chaambi, near the southern city of Kasserine. He said that another dozen were at large 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the north, around the town of al-Kef.
The mountain hunt is the culmination of a string of relatively minor incidents with armed groups since Tunisians overthrew the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, kicking off the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring around the region.
Ben Ali's repressive regime was known for its harsh oppression of all forms of Islamists. After his fall, a once-banned moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, went on to dominate parliamentary elections. At the same time, prisons were flung open, letting out many militants with connections to violent groups that appear to have restarted their activities. Ennahda is often accused of tolerating these more radicalized militants or not taking them seriously enough.
The retiring head of the United States' African Command, Gen. Carter Ham, visited Tunisia at the end of March and warned that "it is very clear to me that al-Qaida intends to establish a presence in Tunisia."
Ben Ali's secular-minded dictatorship long bred extremist sentiments but most radicals then sought jihad outside the country's borders, first in Iraq and later in Syria and Mali. Recently, it appears that some Tunisian radicals have decided to do their fighting inside the country — with a failing economy feeding militant views.
Most incidents over the past two years have involved armed groups using Tunisia's southern desert to pass between Algeria and Libya. But in December the Interior Ministry announced the dissolution of a seven-man cell linked to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the same group that had formed an Islamic emirate in northern Mali in alliance with Tuareg tribesmen.
There were also discoveries of what was described as training camps in the border region with Algeria.
"The terrorists were looking to establish a logistical base to conduct their operations," announced Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Mokhtar Ben Nasr on Tuesday, adding that in the past week, four bombs made of ammonium nitrate fertilizer had wounded 13 soldiers and police, including two who lost legs and two who lost eyes.
The campaign around Jebel Chaambi, Tunisia's highest mountain at 1,500 meters (4,900 feet), has transfixed Algeria, which fears that Tunisian violence may start roiling its own shaky security situation.
Since the fall of Ben Ali, there has been a rise not just in moderate Islamist groups but also hardline ultraorthodox Muslims known as salafis, who have railed against what they call the secular elements of a country long known for its progressive attitudes, especially concerning women's rights.
Critics of the government say these salafi groups, including those advocating violence, have been allowed to run rampant. On Sept. 14, several salafi groups converged on the U.S. Embassy, burning cars and destroying a nearby American school. Seifallah Ben Hassine of the Ansar al-Sharia group, a former denizen of Ben Ali's jails, has gone into hiding after being linked to the embassy attack.
In February, a leftist politician, Chokri Beliad, was assassinated and the men eventually arrested were described as being linked to salafi groups.
The attacks sent the country's delicate political transition into turmoil, prompting then-Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to resign in February and raising fears that the Ennahda-led government was failing not only at the economy but security as well.
"The terrorist threat has moved to a higher level," Jebali said in a recent interview with the French-language daily La Presse. "The top priority is to launch a decisive campaign to recover all the weapons circulating in the country."
He added that the country is still in the delicate process of writing a new constitution and holding elections for a new legislature and president, by the end of the year. The process has been riven by angry disputes between Ennahda and the opposition parties, partly over Ennahda's alleged laxity towards salafis.
"Please don't add political and social landmines to those already on Jebel Chaambi," said Jebali, calling for national unity in face of the threat.
Part of the problem is the hundreds of mosques under control of radical preachers that are filling disaffected youth in the impoverished interior with ideas of jihad, whether at home or abroad. A third of the 32 attackers against an Algerian gas facility in January were Tunisian and there are reportedly hundreds fighting in Syria.
Alaya Allani, an expert on North African Islamist movements, estimated that some 500 of 4,000 mosques are outside state control — several times the number the government has acknowledged.
"For now the warning light is orange but it risks turning red if the appropriate measures are not taken," he said, recommending a national conference of all political parties to forge a common anti-terrorism strategy.
But Riccardo Fabiani, the North Africa analyst of the London-based Eurasia group, said that some of the alarm over the recent attacks has been overblown when taken in a broader regional context.
"If we compare the situation in Tunisia to the rest of the region, particularly Libya and Algeria, it is pretty much under control," he said, adding that state and foreign interests were not under any significant threat.
He said that part of the problem is how demoralized security forces have been since the fall of Ben Ali, sapping their ability to maintain border security as well as in the past.
"They are countering the problem with limited resources and security forces are downbeat," he said. "They feel powerless."
Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco.