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.
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, said 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.”