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Tunisia's Militant Struggle: Elusive Militants of Chaambi Mountains Could be Linked to Algeria

01/08/2013 13:12 BST | Updated 01/10/2013 10:12 BST

The Tunisian army is currently fighting militants on the Algerian border in the governorate of Kasserine. The military operation in the Chaambi Mountains is being conducted in close collaboration with their Algerian counterparts. In spite of this, the militants have inflicted considerable damage on the Tunisian army, the most recent being the killing and mutilation of eight soldiers in the north-western region on July 29. This sent shock waves throughout the country and sparked protests against Tunisia's Islamist-led government.

The perpetrators remain as elusive as ever. There is little agreement as to who these militants are and why they are fighting. The country is awash with both plausible and fanciful theories; from Sykes-Picot conspiracies, to the protocols of the elders of Zion to the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). All theories have their proponent and detractors.

Sitting in a café in Habib Bourguiba avenue Tunis, Ahmed, a senior member of Hizb Tahrir, a banned Islamist group, believes that Chaambi has all the tell tale signs of a Ministry of Interior conspiracy. "It has always capitalized on the fear of terrorism" says Ahmed, who has suffered the consequences of Islamists successes in Algeria in the 90s and was thrown into prison several times. Murad, an Ennahda activist, on the other hand, disagrees and accuses the Left for the reverses in Chaambi, "yet again the Left is trying their best to make our movement synonymous with terrorism".

Tunisian media has focused its suspicions on its homegrown Salafists, namely Ansar al-Sharia, citing as evidence a recent police raid on one of the homes of its leaders Abu Iyadh. The connection between the Salafists and Chaambi is tenuous and has not been accepted by many. Even Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda and no friend of Abu Iyadh, has suggested that the militants are mere bandits with no connection to Ansar al-Sharia.

In the corridors of power there is a feeling that the militants are linked to Algerian intelligence. A senior military source, who wished to remain anonymous, stated that there are definitely outside actors involved; "these outside actors are very likely to come from a segment of the Algerian intelligence community". The assertion is supported by Jeremy Keenan, author of Dark Sahara, and former Algeria diplomat turned human rights activist, Mohamed Zitoute. Both assert that Algerian intelligence is involved in the machinations of the porous border regions in southern Algeria.

The reason why Algerian intelligence is focusing on Chaambi could be due to the fact that the ailing president Boutflika needs a successor. The crisis of leadership may have reignited the fear of Islamists taking charge among the political elite. There are already hints that Algerian Islamists are flexing their muscles. They recently declared their willingness to leave the coalition and strike out on their own. There is a realization among the ruling elite that Algeria is no longer immune to the Arab Spring because it is surrounded by neighbors with Islamist parties dominating the political landscape. Algerian involvement in Chaambi could be a message to both Algerians and Tunisians that the Islamist threat is a clear and present danger to all and can have bloody consequences.

This article was first published in the Majalla