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The Mideast

Ambush, killings show democracy in Tunisia threatened by religious militants

Assassins mounted on Vespas gun down two secular politicians. Roadside bombs cripple soldiers in the mountains. An ambush this week leaves eight soldiers dead — five with slit throats.

Among the countries of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is widely considered to have the best chance for a successful democracy, with Egypt in an increasingly bloody and complex crisis after a military coup, Libya beset by competing armed groups and Syria deep in a grinding full-scale war without apparent end. But the emergence of an armed al-Qaida-linked jihadi group in the deep wooded valleys and caves of a mountainous region near the Algerian border threatens to derail the tenuous transition.

During a recent visit, The Associated Press discovered a remote region of unpaved streets, smugglers and strong distrust of the government, despite a stepped-up military effort to defeat the militants.

The Jebel Chaambi mountains, established as a national park to protect curved-horned Barbary sheep and endangered species of gazelles in Tunisia's southwest, has now become a haven for al-Qaida in North Africa.

The stakes are high for this North African nation, whose educated, mostly middle-class population kicked off revolutions around the Arab world in 2011, and which is on the cusp of completing a constitution written by Islamist and secular parties working together.

The government ascribes the mounting violence to a jihadist group linked to al-Qaida's branch in North Africa, including militants who fled the French military intervention in Mali. That threat is jeopardizing Tunisia's delicate balance, exacerbating the climate of distrust between political parties and enraging many Tunisians who don't think the moderate Islamist government is doing enough to take them down.

The unrest is challenging security services too underfunded and overstretched to fight a major terrorist threat, one that could also lead to attacks on Europe and undermine the democratic prospects of the Arab revolutions.

"Tunisia could become like Somalia. Other countries have the economic resources to fight terrorism but we have nothing," Gen. Rachid Ammar, then the head of Tunisia's army, warned at the end of June. "I see in Tunisia today signs that make me afraid and keep me from sleeping." He resigned shortly after those comments.

The source of this fear is lurking in training camps hidden in Jebel Chaambi national park at the tail end of the Atlas Mountains that stretch across North Africa. It also hides in nearby cities and towns where smuggling, unemployment and resentment of the central government hold powerful sway.

Extremism was long kept in check under the strong-arm regime of secular dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but after Tunisians overthrew him in January 2011, political prisoners were given amnesty. The government says that among them were Islamist extremists who have gathered new Tunisian recruits and set up training camps with the help of Algerian al-Qaida veterans and the support of ultraconservative Muslims, known as salafis.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African branch of the global terror network and patron of local jihadi groups, had originally taken a hands-off approach to Tunisia. That attitude is changing as the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda Party has increasingly turned against salafi groups and reached out more to secular opposition parties. The party's decision not to enshrine Islamic law in the new constitution earned it a sharp al-Qaida rebuke.

In March, al-Qaida issued a statement urging Tunisians not to join the hundreds already fighting in Syria, but instead to stay home and oppose efforts to secularize the country.

The Tunisian militants call their organization the Oqba Ibn Nafaa brigade, after the 7th-century Arab warrior who conquered Tunisia. Officials have linked it to the assassination of two left-wing politicians, one of whom was shot outside his home just last week in a killing that sparked broad anti-government protests.

After a roadside bomb blew the leg off a soldier patrolling the national park in April, Tunisia sent hundreds of soldiers to search for the militants in Jebel Chaambi. Two months and 10 explosions later, the army declared the mountain cleared, at a cost of three lives, 27 wounded and dozens arrested in the surrounding area — none of them part of the estimated 30 jihadists hiding there.

What the army did find, including documents, identification cards, food and weapons stashes, pointed to a well-organized group with ties to Al-Qaida's North Africa branch across the border in Algeria and even farther afield — and with support from the local population in nearby Kasserine. The ambush Monday that killed eight soldiers on the mountain also points to the group's resilience.

Sgt. Mokhtar Mbarki searched the area for weeks, said his wife, Najat Rteebi, and there "they would find boxes of supplies, including pasta and cooking oil" clearly purchased locally. Mbarki was killed by his own men in a late-night friendly-fire incident in June that his 38-year-old wife, heavily pregnant and with three other children, says has not been adequately explained by authorities.

"Kasserine has always been a rebel region and the attitude of the population has always been one of disobedience," said Samir Rahbi, a local activist with the left-wing Popular Front coalition. "They sympathize with anyone who rebels and this link of blood and regional ties is more important than the interests of the state."

Ezzedine Messaoudi, who was detained for two hours while he was showing a journalist where his brother was injured by a land mine set off by a sheep, scoffed at the soldiers.

"Soldiers always have a problem with shepherds; they're afraid we are helping the terrorists," he said.

Kasserine is crisscrossed with angry graffiti declaring that "all cops are bastards" and asking "where is development for Kasserine?" It is filled with neighborhoods lacking real streets and there is little local industry to employ the large families that have resisted family planning programs so successful elsewhere in the country.

Much of the region survives on smuggling from Algeria, just a few dozen miles (kilometers) away. Roads are clogged with pickup trucks filled with jerry cans of illegal Algerian gasoline sold by the side of the road with apparent impunity.

"Everyone smuggles. Otherwise no one would eat," said a well-dressed smuggler in his 30s who traffics in food and gasoline and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity because of his illegal profession. "The police don't have time to interfere — they let us work while they are busy with the bandits and terrorists."

He said that in Ben Ali's time, smuggling was rigidly controlled, usually by people with ties to the ruling family. Today, militants have used the lack of control and rampant growth of smuggling to their advantage. Where once guns and drugs were forbidden to smugglers, they are now an integral part of the trade.

When the jihadists set up shop, they hooked into these existing networks, much the way al-Qaida took advantage of the Saharan smuggling networks in northern Mali until the French pushed them out in January. A local police commander, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss counterterror efforts, said the militants blended into the population, shaving their beards and wearing ordinary clothes.

The police force, largely discredited for its role as Ben Ali's enforcer, has fared poorly since the breakdown of the police state. It has fallen to the army to secure banks, public institutions and even do riot control. Those tasks leave little time for securing the borders and counterterrorism.

Resource-poor Tunisia does not have the aircraft and monitoring technology to effectively police the thousands of miles of desert and mountain frontiers with Libya and Algeria. In a stark indication of the difference in capabilities between it and its wealthy neighbors, Tunisia sent 280 soldiers to search Jebel Chaambi during the crisis — while oil-rich and militarily powerful Algeria announced it would secure its side of the border with 6,000 new troops.

Military analyst Mohammed Ahmed, a retired lieutenant colonel, said the militants are in a process of "building the maquis," referring to the mountain wilderness Algeria's rebels used as bases to fight French colonialism in the 1950s.

"They are building infrastructure, finding people who share their ideas and training in arms," he said. "If we do nothing, they will move into the active phase."