The plan, hatched for months in the arid mountains of North Africa, was to attack the U.S. and British embassies here. It ended in a series of gunbattles in January that killed a dozen militants and left two Tunisian security officers dead.
But the most disturbing aspect of the violence in this normally placid, tourist-friendly nation is that it came from across the border in Algeria, where an Islamic terrorist organization has vowed to unite radical Islamic groups across North Africa.
Counterterrorism officials on three continents say the trouble in Tunisia is the latest evidence yet that a brutal Algerian group with a long history of violence is acting on its promise: to organize extremists across North Africa and join the remnants of al-Qaida into a new international force for jihad.
Last week, the group claimed responsibility for seven nearly simultaneous bombings that destroyed police stations in towns east of Algiers, the Algerian capital, killing six people.
This article was prepared from interviews with U.S. government and military officials, French counterterrorism officials, Italian counterterrorism prosecutors, Algerian terrorism experts, Tunisian government officials and a Tunisian attorney working with Islamists charged with terrorist activities.
They say North Africa, with its vast, thinly governed stretches of mountain and desert, could become an Afghanistan-like terrorist hinterland within easy striking distance of Europe. That is all the more alarming because of the deep roots that North African communities have in Europe and the ease of travel between the regions. For the United States, the threat is also real because of visa-free travel to U.S. cities for most European passport holders.
The violent Algerian group the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known by its French initials GSPC, has for several years been under U.S. watch.
“The GSPC has become a regional terrorist organization, recruiting and operating in all of your countries — and beyond,” Henry A. Crumpton, then-U.S. ambassador at large for counterterrorism, said at a counterterrorism conference in Algiers last year. “It is forging links with terrorist groups in Morocco, Nigeria, Mauritania, Tunisia and elsewhere.”
Officials say the group is funneling North African fighters to Iraq, but is also turning militants back toward their home countries.