Islamist militancy quietly makes inroads in post-revolution Tunisia

John Thorne, Christian Science Monitor, Mar.28

Tunisia has been spared most violence since ousting its longtime dictator. But Islamist extremism is growing, and young Tunisian men are heading overseas to fight.

One night last December, national guardsmen burst into the hospital emergency room in this mountain town leading a young man, handcuffed and shot through the right buttock.

“I am a mujahid on the path of God,” he proclaimed, but disclosed no more, according to a hospital worker who asked not to be named because he wasn’t allowed to speak to media.

The young man, Saifeddine Chagroun, was shot and arrested while trying to sneak into Algeria en route to Syrian battlefields, says his lawyer. He is one of many would-be fighters signaling Islamist militancy that is increasingly spanning borders.

The Arab Spring has brought new freedoms, but also instability. Libya is swamped with weapons, which fueled an Islamist takeover of northern Mali last year. In Tunisia, revolution has weakened security and allowed a hardline conservative Salafi current to emerge.

For North Africa’s militants, that makes Tunisia a good place to traffic arms and recruit fighters. Authorities want to crack down harder, but lack resources. Lawyers warn that what they describe as scapegoating and alleged abuse of Salafi suspects could inflame an already tense situation.

US and Tunisian authorities are increasingly worried. This week Gen. Carter Ham, who heads the US Army’s Africa Command, said Al Qaeda was trying to get a foothold in Tunisia, while Tunisia’s interior ministry said it was creating “crisis cells” to watch for terrorist activity.

On March 17, North Africa’s premier militant group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, called on supporters to work against local secularists or fight government forces in Algeria and a French-led intervention in Mali.

Meanwhile, the families of young men like Mr. Chagroun are still groping for an explanation.

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