Friday, May 24, 2013

Worries That Secular Tunisia's Becoming New al-Qaida Base !

The hunt for al-Qaida-linked militants in a mountainous region near Tunisia's borders with Algeria in recent weeks has raised alarm that the birthplace of the Arab Spring has become the latest battleground for violent jihadis. With neighboring Algeria and Libya still full of weapons and violent movements of their own, Tunisia is struggling to prevent the growth or 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 the 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 norther Mali. But recent fighting in the Sahel -- the arid region just south of the Sahara Desert -- has sent these jihadi scum looking for new havens, raising fears that Tunisia is in their sights. ''We have discovered a terrorist plan targeting Tunisians and the state,'' the Interior Ministry spokesman, Mohammed Ali Aroui, said without giving further details. He estimated that there were some 20 militants hiding in the rugged area near the southern city of Kasserine. He said that another dozen were at large in the north around the town of al-Kef.

The overthrow of the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, kicked off the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring around the region. The once-banned moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, went on to dominate parliamentary elections. Shortly there after, they foolishly flung open the prisons, letting out many militants with connections to violent groups. Ennahda is often accused of tolerating these more radicalized militants or not taking them seriously enough. Ben Ali's secular-minded dictatorship long bred extremist sentiments but most radicals sought jihad outside the country's borders. Recently, it appears that some Tunisian radicals have decided to come home to fight. ''The terrorists are looking to establish a logistical base to conduct their operations,'' announced Brig. Gen. Mokhtar Ben Nasr last week.  (photo left)

Unfortunately, since the fall of Ben Ali, there has been a rise not just in moderate Islamic groups but also hardline ultraorthiodox Muslims known as the Salafis. These scum have railed against what they call the secular elements of a country long known for its progressive (read non-medieval) attitudes, especially concerning women's rights. This was sharply brought into focus when Amina Tyler posed half-naked on Facebook in March with the words ''My body belongs to me''  on her chest causing a Salafi preacher to call for her to be stoned. Critics of the government say these Salafi groups, including those advocating violence, have been allowed to run rampant. Last September, several of these groups converged on the U.S. Embassy, burning cars and destroying a nearby American school. In February, a leftist politician was assassinated and the men eventually arrested were linked to the Ansar al-Sharia Salafi group.

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 in security as well. The terrorist threat has moved to a higher level,'' Jebali said in a recent interview. He added that the country was 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 the damn Salafis. Just five days ago the relations between Ennahda and the Salafist activists, particularly the Ansar al-Sharia group reached breaking point, sparking deadly clashes in two Tunisian cities.  (above right)

The violence erupted after the government banned an annual preaching rally in the central city of Kairouan, a historic centre of Islamic learning, considered by many Muslims to be the fourth holiest city after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. And it showed its determination by deploying a mass force of 10,000 security personnel on May 19 to prevent the public meeting. Also a young man was killed in the capital, Tunis. Unfortunately, the Salafist movement seems to be gaining support among young people who are disenchanted with Ennahda's failure to anchor Islamic Sharia Law in the constitution, and are alienated by unemployment and lack of economic opportunity. There is likely to be more confrontation in the short to medium term. This crackdown on radical Islamists will test Tunisia's resolve and future stability for its 11 million citizens.

The Way I See It.....seems like Ennahda have finally put their foot down, but that shouldn't be applauded because over the past years they have tolerated the growth of Salafism and done nothing about it. Part of the problem is the hundreds of mosques under the control of radical preachers that are filling disaffected youth with the ideas of jihad, whether at home or abroad. A third of the 32 attackers against an Algerian gas facility in January were Tunisian and hundreds are fighting in Syria. ''This is the message from Tunisia for the entire region: Tunisia proved there is a chance for democracy in the Arab world,'' says Rafik Abdessalem, Ennahda's foreign policy chief. ''The second message is that democracy is not possible without order and confronting violent elements and groups.''

The U.S. and France have shown real concern and are recommending a national conference of all political parties to forge a common anti-terrorism strategy. At the moment, if we compare the situation in Tunisia to the rest of the region, particularly Libya and Algeria, it is pretty much under control with state and foreign interests were not under any significant threat. The real concern 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.  Brig Gen Ben Nasr has been trying to counter the problem within the ranks with increasing resources and moral. We in the West must wish him and Tunisia the best of luck knowing that the only way to beat Islamic militants is to let law-abiding Islamists do it.

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