Jihadists pose a “great danger” to the Maghreb region, which is turning into a “terrorist” hub, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki warned in an interview with Arabic daily Al-Hayat published Tuesday.
“We can say that the center for a group of jihadists -- the so-called terrorist movement -- is moving right now from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arab Maghreb region and there is great danger on our doorstep,” Marzouki said.
“There is a security problem that threatens the whole Maghreb region,” he told the paper in New York, during a visit to the United Nations.
He estimated that there were around 3,000 Islamist militants in his country.
In Tunisia, “the number of active (jihadists) who pose a danger is estimated by the police at around three thousand. They are all known and identified,” Marzouki said.
Islamist radicals angered by a U.S.-made film mocking Islam attacked the US embassy in Tunis and an adjacent American school last month, in a day of violence that left four people dead and dozens wounded.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has since cancelled a planned trip to Tunisia next month, amid reported security concerns.
Tunisian police have been searching for Salafist leaders in connection with the embassy attack, notably Seif Allah Ibn Hussein, also known as Abu Iyadh, who heads the hardline group Ansar al-Sharia and has managed to escape arrest several times.
“I ask why Abu Iyadh has not been arrested until now,” said Marzouki, a veteran human rights activist with Tunisia’s center-left CPR party, in an apparent swipe at the government dominated by the CPR’s Islamist allies Ennahda.
The ruling Islamist party has been strongly criticized for failing to clamp down on Tunisia’s Muslim extremists, who have carried out numerous acts of violence since last year’s revolution that ousted former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Ennahda’s veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi said, in an interview with AFP last month, that the extremists were a danger “to public freedom in the country and to its security.”