Tunis — Tunisian authorities worry about al-Qaeda's plans to establish itself more firmly in the Maghreb.
Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is trying to expand its operations in the Maghreb by taking advantage of security chaos, the availability of weapons and the increasing number of jihadists.
The recent discovery of a terror cell in Tunisia demonstrates AQIM's growing reach in the region.
In a press statement released Saturday (December 15th), the Tunisian Interior Ministry said that several elements of a "terrorist" group were arrested and brought to court on December 13th, and that efforts were under way to arrest other suspects.
The "terrorist" network was engaged in recruiting "religiously radical elements" and sending them to AQIM strongholds, officials said.
The investigation began after a rental car was stopped December 6th in Fernana, Jendouba province, near the Algeria border, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khaled Tarrouche said. The driver and a passenger were arrested, while two other passengers managed to escape.
"When the car was searched, four bags containing suspicious items, such as wires, electric detonators, explosives and powder, as well as some documents and food items, were found," Tarrouche said.
He described the suspects as part of a group "usually known as jihadist salafists".
Tarrouche added that following intensive security campaigns, other members of the network were arrested.
"A pistol, a Kalashnikov, bullets, combat gear, knives and maps were seized at a house owned by one element of the group," he said.
The announcement that a terror network had been dismantled came a week after military weapons were found in Jendouba province.
It also came days after an armed gunfight broke out between Tunisian security forces and unknown militants near Feriana, some 200 kilometres west of Tunis, near the Algeria border.
The border post chief, 27-year-old Anis Jlassi, was killed in the December 10th Kasserine clash.
The Algerian-Tunisian border is a vital route for AQIM elements who cross from Libya towards training camps in Algeria. They take advantage of the lack of security on the border between Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.
According to Algerian paper El Khabar's December 15th edition, the Algerian army killed three militants - two Libyans and one Tunisian - who were trying to join al-Qaeda's strongholds in northern Mali. They reportedly had weapons in their possession.
Tunisian officials have repeatedly warned about threats posed by al-Qaeda and jihadist networks to the region's security.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki recently declared that weapons from Libya were making their way to radical Islamists in both Tunisia and Algeria.
Observers fear that this might be a part of al-Qaeda's plan to get out of Algeria and expand to a broader area, recover its popularity and attract more jihadists.
Additionally, Tunisians worry over the danger posed by returning Tunisian jihadists from Syria.
"These groups are linked to al-Qaeda and their return poses a major threat to the country and our young people," said Abd Aziz Bahrini, 40, an employee at a private company.
"The solution is for them to choose peaceful action; otherwise, Tunisian prisons are wide enough to accommodate many" he said.