Minister: Tunisia salafis get orders from al-Qaeda

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Al-Qaeda has been giving Tunisia’s radical Muslims orders to destabilize the country, the nation’s top security official said Wednesday.

Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou’s news conference follows the announcement the day before that Ansar al-Shariah, the country’s most prominent organization of ultraconservative Muslims known as salafis, was a terrorist organization.

Ben Jeddou presented evidence, including taped confessions and a document allegedly written by the group’s leader, Seifallah Ben Hassine, pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda.

Tunisia overthrew its secular dictatorship in January 2011 but its transition to democracy has been hampered by terrorist attacks, political assassinations and the rise of salafi groups.

Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that dominated elections, has been criticized by the opposition for turning a blind eye to the excesses of the salafi groups, but in recent months the government has taken a harder line.

The presentation included the videotaped confession of Ansar al-Shariah member Mohammed Akkari, who fought against U.S. forces in Iraq in 2004 before being captured and imprisoned in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. He was later extradited to Tunisia and put in jail, only to be released after the revolution, along with Ben Hassine and other future members of the radical group.

Ben Jeddou added that Ansar al-Shariah was involved in the assassinations of two left wing opposition politicians, one in February, the other in July, that have plunged the country into a political crisis.

He added that there was evidence that another 20 public figures were in the radicals’ sights, including the speaker of the assembly, former members of the old regime and other opposition figures.