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Al Qaeda threatens Tunisia’s progress

In mountainous region, militants gain a foothold

Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda party waved flags Saturday in the capital Tunis as they chant slogans in support of the government.

Mohamed Messara/EPA

Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda party waved flags Saturday in the capital Tunis as they chant slogans in support of the government.

KASSERINE, Tunisia — Assassins mounted on Vespas gun down two secular politicians. Roadside bombs cripple soldiers in the mountains. An ambush 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.

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But the emergence of an armed Al Qaeda-linked jihadi group in the deep wooded valleys and caves of a mountainous region near the Algerian border threatens to derail the tenuous transition.

It is 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda’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.

Al Qaeda issued a statement urging Tunisians to oppose efforts to secularize the country.

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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,’’ General 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 Qaeda veterans and the support of ultraconservative Muslims, known as Salafis.

Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda rebuke.

In March, Al Qaeda 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 seventh-century Arab warrior who conquered Tunisia.

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