March 31, 2013 4:02 pm

Fears rise of growing Tunisian militancy

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Tunisian militants©AFP

Islamist militants protest in Tunis

An apparent surge in Tunisians participating in Islamist movements has alarmed terrorism experts and citizens of the nation that began the Arab uprisings and was seen as a relatively secular role model.

Tunisians formed the biggest group among the militants who staged the January attack on the In Amenas natural gas plant in southeastern Algeria, and in February, suspected Islamist militants shot dead a leading secular politician in Tunis, triggering a political crisis that has damaged the country’s weak economy.

Though a relatively small nation of 10m, Tunisian militants have shown up among Islamist fighters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Mali. Their presence abroad, and their apparent increased access to weapons, has complicated the nascent Tunisian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

“The government is afraid of the consequences of French intervention in Mali,” said a western diplomat in Tunis. “They don’t want to appear to support the French. They think there are cells here who might seek revenge. But they also fear these guys coming back to Tunisia from Mali.”

Since peacefully winning independence from France in the 1950s, Tunisia has for the most part charted its own course among Arab nations, investing heavily in education and public infrastructure to form a relatively modern political and social system that resembled Europe or Turkey more than its neighbours.

Ironically, that unique progress, coupled with the turbulence of the Arab uprising and a lack of economic development, may have formed fertile ground for a sizeable number of young Tunisian men to drift toward violent extremism, experts said.

“Tunisia is the most modern country in the region,” said Abdel Basset Ben Hassan, a Tunis human rights activist and researcher. “Modernity is clear and desirable for people capable of enjoying it. But it’s very difficult to be in a modern country but [to] be marginalised. It’s very hard to be exposed to new ideas but not be able to touch them.”

Tunisian interior ministry officials declined a request for an interview to discuss the threat that Islamist militants pose to the country’s security. Few, if any, statistics are available publicly about the extent of Tunisian participation in militant operations.

However, Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki estimated in an interview published in October that 3,000 militant Islamists posed a threat to the country.

“I don’t necessarily think Tunisians are unique, though,” said Aaron Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has studied the country’s jihadists. “More Libyans are involved in Syria than Tunisians and a healthy number of Saudis and Egyptians, too. It’s just that this is more of a new phenomenon and the amount of open information allows us to see it more easily than in the past.”

In depth

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Tunisians boast a long history of supporting pan-Arab movements, from the Palestinian cause to al-Qaeda. Two Tunisians militants posing as journalists assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley days before the September 11 attacks on the US. Some say Tunisia’s high literacy levels contribute to their participation in global movements.

“Tunisians go to the Middle East to fight: it’s traditional,” said Michael Ayari, who is studying Islamist movements in Tunisia as a researcher for the International Crisis Group think-tank. “There’s a sort of romanticism involved. It comes from the system of education. They have a lot of knowledge, so they become cadres very quickly.”

Easy access to weapons looted from Muammer Gaddafi’s storehouses during the Nato-backed 2011 war in Libya has intensified the danger that militants pose to Tunisia, a fragile country undergoing a delicate transition after a popular uprising that drove out longtime ruler Zein el Abidine Ben Ali.

Diplomats, analysts and government officials in Tunisia describe with alarm the increasing weapons traffic countrywide. Security forces have repeatedly found weapons caches heading into Tunisia. They clashed with several alleged Islamist militants in February, killing three suspected gun smugglers.

“People are constantly trying to smuggle weapons,” said Moadh Khediji, a senior official in the ruling Nahda party, a relatively moderate Islamist party. “The security forces are trying their best. But they can’t secure every border. The state can’t be everywhere at the same time.”

Many fear that guns are being stockpiled with a view to taking up arms in the event that a secular government is voted into power.

“The jihadis say some of us have weapons but not for offensive purposes,” Mr Ayari said. “They say: ‘We were in jail under Ben Ali. We will never endure this again.’ ”

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