A growing number of Tunisians who’ve joined the ranks of the Islamic State, including 4,000 believed fighting in Libya and another 3,000 fighting with the group in Syria and Iraq, pose a threat to their home country and as many as 15 nations in sub-Saharan and North Africa, according to security experts and United Nations officials.
Among the countries at risk are Chad, Niger and Mauritania, where poverty is exacerbated by problems ranging from drought to poor governance, the experts say.
Officials have long known that Tunisia, the first country to have thrown off a dictatorial government in the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 and considered the only success story of the Arab Spring nations, has become a fertile zone for Islamic State recruiters. On Tuesday, one of Tunisia’s most wanted men, Ahmed Rouissi, was reported killed fighting with Islamic State militants in the Libyan city of Sirte. Tunisian authorities had accused him of masterminding the murders of two Tunisian opposition leaders in 2013, which plunged the country into crisis.
Until recently, there had been little appreciation for the sheer numbers of Tunisians who’ve joined the Islamic State.
A 2014 report by the U.S. State Department’s bureau on counterterrorism flagged the growing security threat that Tunisian jihadists represent and suggested they were more numerous than might be expected, but it offered no specifics.
“The disproportionate numbers of Tunisians among those traveling to fight in Libya, Mali, and Syria – and the ensuing return of these fighters – is another cause of concern,” the report warned.
Officials familiar with developments in Tunisia say they have been told that local authorities have interrogated between 500 and 1,000 Tunisian fighters who’ve returned to their homeland from foreign battlefields.
The surge in jihadist numbers in North Africa also poses a serious security threat to Europe, the experts said, because North Africans easily can hide among large immigrant communities living in France, Belgium, Germany and other countries. Tunisia is a former French colony.
Experts said Islamic State recruiters are using social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to woo young Tunisians, particularly after the government there cracked down on conservative Salafist mosques.
Tunisians also account for about 300, or half, of the 600-strong Ansar al Dine (Defenders of the Faith) jihadist rebel group affiliated with al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is active in southern Algeria and Mali, said one North African security expert, who asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
Both Ansar al Dine and AQIM have been designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. government and the United Nations.
Another 200 military combatants affiliated with the Islamic State or al Qaida are believed to be operating in the Chaambi mountains on the Tunisia-Algeria border, the expert said.
In addition, authorities are worried about the Ansar al Shariah in Tunisia itself. Tunisia outlawed the group in 2013 after the assassinations in which Rouissi was blamed, but experts believe it is still operating in small cells.
Its leader, Abu Ayyad al Tunisi, was among 300 people released from prison in 2011, including 30 seasoned combatants who had been imprisoned for terrorism, during an amnesty granted by the Islamist party that ruled at the time. Abu Ayyad is thought to be in Libya.
“The Tunisian government authorities are very concerned about the large Islamic State presence in Libya,” said a senior U.N. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Tunisia has a small army and much bigger security service. However, the security service is have a difficulty collecting intelligence on jihadi movements because of its reputation for the widespread use of torture during the 23-year rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was deposed in the Arab Spring revolt.
In February, a report by the Congressional Research Service concluded Tunisians are divided over how to handle the terrorist challenge. “Policy debates over the root causes of violent extremism and how best to approach the problem have entrenched mutual distrust between Islamist and secularist political factions,” the report said.
Tunisia, along with Algeria, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria and six other countries in the region, is part of the U.S.-funded Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a program designed to boost counterterrorism cooperation among the countries.