Tunisia's Museum Attack Puts The Spotlight On Its Foreign Fighter Problem

03/18/2015 06:48 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2015

Tunisia reeled from the deadly shooting Wednesday at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis that left 21 dead -- including two gunmen -- in one of the worst terrorist attacks to hit the country in decades. While the motive of the assailants is currently unknown, the attack once again put the spotlight on the growing influence of radical Islamists in the country in recent years.

Few countries are estimated to have provided as many foreign fighters to various radical groups in Iraq and Syria as Tunisia. Between 1,500 and 3,000 Tunisians have migrated east into the conflict zones, according to the most recent data by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. Saudi Arabia, with a high-end estimate of 2,500 foreign fighters, is the only country that comes close.

Tunisia's interior minister, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, said in October 2014 that at least 2,000 Tunisians had gone to join the Islamic State group alone, and claimed that the nation had stopped another 9,000 from leaving to Syria, The Washington Post reported.

With its population of just 11 million people, Tunisia is also high up on the list of the countries with the highest number of foreign fighters per capita. In this ranking, Tunisia is behind only Jordan, which has around 6.5 million people and shares an extensive northern border with Syria and Iraq. "While only a minority of Tunisians have expressed support for the militants, it seemed that everyone under 30 knew someone who had traveled to fight in Syria or Iraq, or someone who had died there," wrote David Kirkpatrick in a report for The New York Times.

Tunisia's transition to a democracy after the fall of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 has frequently been held as a symbol of hope amid the turbulent fallout of the Arab Spring protests. While Libya descended into civil war and the new Egyptian administration resorted to a violent crackdown on dissent, Tunisians voted in several elections.

In February, secular and Islamist parties agreed to form an inclusive coalition government after a vote that was praised as free and fair. Though the country has seen political assassinations and attacks on security services in the years since Ben Ali's ouster, Tunisia has been referred to as "the sole and partial exception" to the failure of the Arab uprisings.

But the opening of the public sphere after years of dictatorship appears to have provided more space for radical ideologies to grow. Growing religious freedom also led to a surge in popularity of long-repressed Islamic extremism, The Washington Post reported.

Under Ben Ali, dissidents and Islamists faced brutal repression, including torture, Foreign Policy reported. While the type of repression under Ben Ali is a thing of the past, human-rights advocates claim that Islamists still face harassment by the state, which in turn can contribute to their radicalization.

Radical ideologies have proven particularly popular among disillusioned youth in the country. Amid conditions of high unemployment, extremists have taken advantage of the political and economic climate to recruit thousands of mostly young men with limited education, according to The Washington Post.

The proximity of Tunisia to the chaos and rising extremism in Libya has also been a concern for Tunisian authorities. Last May, Tunisia arrested eight Libyans suspected of plotting terror attacks against government institutions and associating with al Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia.

The two slain gunmen have been identified as Tunisians Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, and up to three gunmen are believed to still be at large. No organization has yet taken responsibility for Wednesday's attack -- though it has been celebrated online by supporters of the Islamic State. Experts on the region have urged caution in coming to conclusions about which group is behind the killings, however, as there are many different terror groups who could be responsible.

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