TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian militants have fought in foreign wars for decades, from Afghanistan to Somalia to Iraq. But after the 2011 revolt against President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, hundreds of hard-liners were released from prisons, strengthening militant ranks with experienced old hands.
Critics accused the Islamist-led government that followed Ali of allowing extremists too much freedom. Since then, a caretaker government and a coalition government elected at the end of 2014 have taken a tougher line, going to court to take back mosques, sweeping up hundreds of suspected militants, and curbing militant websites that recruit for Iraq and Syria.
Journalist Hedi Yahmed, whose book, “Beneath the Black flag: Tunisia’s Salafists,” features interviews with Tunisian militants fighting in Iraq, Somalia and Syria, said the jihadi phenomenon was driven in part by the end of 20 years of religious repression.
“This generation has to deal with this image of Tunisia that is liberal, secular, that gives freedoms to women. Now a young Tunisian in Iraq and Syria desperately wants to show there is another side to Tunisia, one even more attached to that form of extreme Islam,” he said.
Nouredine Mbarki, a Tunisian specialist in extremist groups, said Islamic State recruiters wanted more middle-class youth, to take advantage of their education. “They are more flexible, and can help apply the group’s communication strategy.”
That has Tunis worried.
In an Islamic State video posted online in March, a masked Tunisian jihadist by the name of Abu Yahya al-Tounessi called on Tunisian brothers to join him in Libya to prepare for a bigger campaign.
“We are coming to conquer back Tunisia,” he said in the video, Kalashnikov strapped to his back. “I swear you will not be at ease now with the Islamic State a few kilometres from you just across the border.”
Edited by Simon Robinson