By Patrick Markey
TUNIS (Reuters) - When protesters stormed the U.S. embassy in Tunis last year, they hoisted a black jihadist flag that exposed the militant Islamist undercurrent in one of the Muslim world's most secular societies.
An attack on a tourist resort last week by a suicide bomber, and recent gun battles with Tunisian police, revealed how deeply that fervor, fostered worldwide by al Qaeda, has taken root in the country where the Arab Spring began.
Militants, few in number, have little chance of forging the Islamic state they want in Tunisia or igniting wider war. But with the country still stumbling toward democracy and Libya's chaos on its doorstep, violent Islamists have room to flourish.
No one else died when a man blew himself up on the beach at Sousse on Wednesday after failing to get in to a resort hotel. Another would-be suicide bomber was arrested. Last month, nine policemen died in a clash with Islamists.
Both incidents shocked a small country little used to violence, dependent on tourism and in the process of forming a national unity government to organize elections after two years of rule by moderate Islamists allied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
"When we have seen this in the past, in Syria or elsewhere, it is usually a very ominous sign of things to come," Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington said of the suicide bomber. "It represents a marked escalation in the tactics the jihadists are willing to use."
Officials blame Ansar al-Sharia, which they link to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), active across North Africa. The Tunisian group emerged after the uprising of early 2011 that ended the secular police state of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali but was banned by the moderate Islamist government this year after two secular politicians were assassinated.
The ruling Ennahda party, having also launched a wider crackdown on militants, has agreed to make way for a caretaker government and new elections after months of protests by opponents who accuse it of being soft on Salafist hardliners.
But in the cafes and mosques of poor Tunis districts, where Ansar al-Sharia clerics often preached, the anger that fuelled the U.S. embassy attack in September 2012 still seethes.
That raises the prospect of more Tunisians taking up arms, not just an existing hard core of violent jihadists but so far peaceful members of broader Salafist fundamentalist movements.
"What happens with repression? Things go underground," said one young man outside a Tunis mosque who described himself a Salafist in the weeks before Wednesday's attack. "For every action, there is reaction. If you cut off my tongue and tie my arms, how should I react?"
Another Salafist, who lived in exile in Europe before 2011, said he was particularly angry to face arrest under a government of fellow Islamists shortly after the Ansar al-Sharia ban.
"When Ben Ali cracked down it was normal because he was a dictator," he said. "The frustration you saw in the jihadist groups, now you see in the moderate Salafists. Not everyone will be able to be patient."
Unlike in Libya and Yemen, where Islamist fighters control swathes of territory, Ansar al-Sharia appears a far more limited challenge to the state. It claims tens of thousands of members and has gathered 20,000 supporters at some rallies.
But local security sources play down its influence in the former French colony and estimate its violent core is only a few small cells that have spread across Tunisia since the ban.
Yet Ansar al-Sharia is tied to other militants in North Africa, such as AQIM and Libyan Islamists. That may put Tunisia in the line of fire, troubling a tourist industry that is only now recovering from the unrest of 2011.
Ennahda, divided internally between conservatives and moderates, has had an ambivalent attitude to Salafists, who favour a more radical enforcement of Islamic law and social custom. Trying to accommodate their views in its new democracy, Tunisia has registered hundreds of Salafist charities and a Salafist political party that calls for a Islamic state.
Critics say Ennahda's indulgence encouraged those who have attacked targets ranging from the U.S. embassy and shops selling alcohol to theatres and art exhibitions, calling them affronts to Islam. A wave of arrests may have come too late to reverse the spread of Salafist groups.
Ansar al-Sharia members say it is not violent and focuses on charity and spiritual teaching. In some neighbourhoods it has also provided vigilante security. However, its fugitive leader Saifallah Benahssine, known as Abu Iyadh, fought in Afghanistan. He has declared democracy blasphemous. And before the group was banned he openly aligned himself with al Qaeda.
"We have to make Tunisia - and not just Tunisia, but elsewhere - an Islamic state," said Ahmed, a member of Ansar al-Sharia in a Tunis neighbourhood in the weeks after the ban. "It is the only way."
(Additional reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)