ALEG, Mauritania (Reuters) - By a sand-swept road in southern Mauritania a monument to four French tourists shot dead by suspected Islamic militants lies smashed into concrete shards.
Like many details surrounding the Christmas Eve shootings, who destroyed the plinth remains a mystery. But its symbolism seems clear: the moderate Muslim culture of this Saharan state has been penetrated by violence.
The broad-daylight attack at Aleg was followed days later by the killing of three Mauritanian soldiers and an assault on the Israeli embassy in the capital Nouakchott in early February, both claimed by al Qaeda's North African branch.
The attacks, which prompted the cancellation of the Dakar rally, have sown fears of an organized militant cell within pro-Western Mauritania and raised concerns al Qaeda is expanding southward, as U.S. intelligence has long predicted.
While neighboring states like Morocco and Algeria have suffered major bombings, Mauritania has largely escaped attack. The exception, an ambush on a desert outpost three years ago which left 15 soldiers dead, was rare enough to leave doubts.
"Al Qaeda does not exist in Mauritania. We are a peaceful people," said Oumar Thiecoura N'Diaye, deputy mayor of Aleg, shrouded from the wind by a blue turban as he stood next to the plinth's remains. "They must have been bandits who did this."
Western governments are taking the threat seriously. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, on a visit to Nouakchott last week, vowed greater security cooperation. Washington, which includes Mauritania in its $500 million Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative, has stepped up military aid.
A vast, sparsely populated nation of just 1.5 million people on the edge of the Sahara, Mauritania holds significance for Islamists, experts say.
It is the only Maghreb country to have relations with Israel, despite vocal domestic opposition, and has undergone a democratic transition since the toppling of dictator Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya in 2005, which has been held up as an example to the Muslim world.
"We're the last country in Arab North Africa where there's no declared arm of al Qaeda. Some people want to end that," said Moussa Ould Hamed, a local newspaper editor.
"You would have to be stupid to say there is no terrorism in Mauritania. Call it what you will -- al Qaeda, fundamentalism, extremism -- it's claiming lives."
WEAKEST LINK IN MAGHREB
The attacks have already affected life in Mauritania. Charter flights have been cancelled, while many restaurants now refuse to serve alcohol. Western diplomats say they no longer venture into the eastern desert, popular for camel treks.
Evidence of Islamic militancy in Mauritania, linked to Saharan drug trafficking, has mounted in recent years. At least three suspects held incommunicado for the tourists' killing have been detained before for al Qaeda-related activities.
The alleged ringleader, Sidi Ould Sidna, was one of 24 suspects acquitted last year of receiving training from Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), renamed al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) a year ago.
AQIM is believed to have between 400 and 4,000 members, mostly in Algeria, with camps scattered around water holes in the Sahara. Western security sources describe it as a loosely connected web of cells, best organized in Algeria.
The acquittals and subsequent disappearance of the suspects were seen in Mauritania as a sign of disarray in the security services following Taya's fall.
New President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi has been hesitant to tackle Islamists and his critics say Islamic militants are taking advantage of the newfound freedom to operate.
"Terrorists attack the weak and in North Africa ... Mauritania is the most vulnerable country, not because it's a vast territory but because there's no consensus to tackle the problem," said opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah.
Abdallahi, however, has said he will not resort to the authoritarian tactics used by Taya, who harshly repressed Islamists during his two-decade rule and courted Western aid.
"There's no structured terrorist organization in this country," Abdallahi said. "These are people recruited by a foreign movement. Mauritania ... is very peaceful and tolerant."
But experts say Mauritania's moderate Maliki school of Sunni Islam has been infiltrated by Salafism, a conservative ideology linked to the strict Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.
Amid a flood of Saudi funding in the 1990s, the number of mosques in the capital mushroomed to more than 900 by 2002 from around 50 in 1989, said anthropologist Yahya Ould al-Bara.
Despite a crackdown after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, links persist. Mauritania arrested one of Saudi Arabia's most wanted Islamists in January, Abdallahi Ould Mohamed Sidiya, after tracking him across four countries.
High unemployment and Mauritania's rapid transformation from a culture of nomads to city-dwellers has left many young men disorientated and susceptible to extremism, al-Bara said.
Marking a break with Taya, Abdallahi legalized Islamist political parties and has created a new Ministry for Islamic affairs, naming a Salafist imam to head it.
"The government has collaborated with the Islamists," said al-Bara. "They don't talk about al Qaeda because they know it's dangerous. They cannot control the borders or fight al Qaeda."
Jemil Ould Mohamed Mansour, head of a moderate Islamist political party, said a foreign call to jihad was resonating among youths angry at Taya's repression of Islamists.
"We're a large country bordered by Algeria, Morocco and Mali, so it is very possible that ideas and people close to al Qaeda have entered," said Mansour. "Mauritania, like its neighbors, must try to secure its borders."
The isolated, lawless desert region spanning northern Mali and Niger and southern Algeria has long been considered a fiefdom of the GSPC, where it finances itself through cigarette and drug smuggling, money laundering and protection rackets.
But Jeremy Keenan, an expert at Bristol University, questions whether AQIM has significant capability outside Algeria, noting the attacks in Mauritania have been small.
"The myth of al Qaeda is important because it is used to justify Western security and immigration policies in the region," Keenan said, noting media attention could trigger copy-cat attacks. "The point is, myths can become real things."