Twelve gunmen, originally identified as "gang members," were shot dead Jan. 3 in the Tunisian town of Soliman, 25 miles south of the capital of Tunis. In a similar incident Dec. 24, Tunisian security forces killed two "dangerous criminals" near the Tunis suburb of Hammam Chott. After each incident, the Tunisian government refused to provide more detailed descriptions of the gunmen, despite reports from Reuters that those involved in the Jan. 3 clash crossed into Tunisia from Algeria and were members of an Islamist militant group. Tunisia has apparently become the latest battleground for the Maghreb's resurgent Islamist militant groups.
Al Qaeda has maintained a healthy interest in North Africa for years but has been largely unable to establish a significant presence there. The multiple suicide bombing attacks in Casablanca, Morocco, in 2003 were the last major operation in the region that bore the group's hallmarks. However, several recent events indicate al Qaeda is paying more attention to North Africa. A raid in Morocco
on Nov. 20, 2006, netted 17 suspected militants and exposed the extent of al Qaeda's presence in the country after almost two years of investigation. A Jan. 4 raid on a Moroccan terrorist cell suspected of recruiting militants to fight in Iraq shows that clampdowns have not completely quashed the group's efforts. The October 2006 simultaneous truck bomb attacks
against police stations in Algeria bore some characteristics of an al Qaeda operation, but there were differences as well, suggesting that Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat militant group is tailoring the jihadist network's tactics to suit its needs. Investing in the Maghreb makes strategic sense for al Qaeda. The region has a long history of militant Islamism, along with a history of struggle against Western colonial rulers and their indigenous successors. This provides common ideological ground for local militant movements and al Qaeda. Several highly placed al Qaeda members, such as Abu Yahya al-Libi and Ahmed Ressam, have come from the Maghreb, and individuals from the region — especially Morocco — hold a considerable (and disproportionate) number of leadership positions in the jihadist network. The region's close proximity to Western Europe makes it an ideal logistics and transportation hub, as well as a base from which to carry out strikes in Europe. Furthermore, Western Europe has large immigrant communities from the Maghreb nations; al Qaeda members in North Africa could further radicalize those communities or use them for cover and support networks for jihadist activities in Europe. Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's regime has carefully downplayed the Dec. 24 and Jan. 3 shootings for two reasons. The chief reason is regime security. Tunisia is a police state in a region of police states, and Ben Ali's government has tangled with international human rights groups over jailed activists, closed newspapers and Internet users who were arrested after straying onto banned sites. Although Tunisia harbored elements of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and allowed Palestinian militants to set up shop in the country in the 1980s, the Tunisian regime has since cracked down hard on Islamist extremists and forced the bulk of them into exile. The most prominent indigenous Islamist group, known as Al Nahda, is led by Rachid Ghannouchi, who now calls for the establishment of an Islamist state in Tunisia from exile in London. The last significant terrorist attack to occur in the country happened in April 2002, when a truck bomb detonated near an historic synagogue on the island of Djerba. The al Qaeda-linked Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Sites claimed responsibility for the bombing. The combination of Western tourists and Jewish historical sites on Djerba could again make it a prime target for militant Islamist groups. But the slow pace of attacks until now indicates the government is aware of — and has, for the most part, effectively controlled — Islamist extremism in the country. As recently as November 2006, on the 19th anniversary of Ben Ali's presidency, the regime curried favor by releasing political prisoners from Islamist groups. Playing the benevolent patron while obscuring information about the recent shootings could be the regime's attempt to let the air out of al Qaeda's potential recruiting efforts in Tunisia. Tunisia's other reason for keeping quiet about its Islamist problem is the Tunisian economy's traditional reliance on tourism. Before 9/11, the tourism sector was far and away Tunisia's largest foreign exchange earner, representing $1.7 billion in revenues in 2001 — about 40 percent of foreign exchange receipts. After the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the Djerba bombing, tourism income fell 6 percent. The number of Germans (who traditionally made up about one-third of all tourists) visiting annually dropped by half. The industry recovered in 2005-2006, but the government is not keen on another slowdown, especially in a sector that employs around 300,000 mostly male citizens who could otherwise find work with jihadist groups. In light of Tunis' harsh responses to past militant activity, the government will not let the recent clashes with militants pass lightly. Tunis will keep a tight lid on the details of its dealings with the North African Islamist "gang members" on its soil. The Tunisian regime and economy both depend on the government's ability to combat Islamist dissent — a fight in which al Qaeda's North African allies appear very eager to engage.