TUNIS, Tunisia – The cradle of the Arab Spring is increasingly looking like the birthplace of jihadists.
Long before Tunisia ousted its dictator and inspired the North African pro-democracy movement, the small, relatively prosperous country had the more dubious distinction of exporting Islamic militants. Now, as the country wrestles with the creation of a new government after the killing of a liberal opposition leader, experts say the flow of fighters is getting worse.
The repressive measures of the old secular dictatorship fueled the anger that produced jihadi movements, but its ruthless security apparatus also kept them largely in check. The much more relaxed approach of the country's new leaders is allowing extremist groups and their networks to flourish like never before, experts say.
Though no one knows for sure just how many Tunisian fighters have traveled abroad, evidence suggests it remains one of the top exporters of jihadists per capita. Tunisians have turned up on the battlefields of Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Mali. The 32-man militant strike team that seized a gas plant in Algeria and took dozens of foreign workers hostage was more than one-third Tunisian.
Because of its small, well-educated population, there were hopes Tunisia would transition relatively easily to democracy after the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. But it is now a battleground pitting secularists and Islamists against one another and in the confusion of creating a new state networks radicalized by the previous regime are flourishing.
The country has fallen victim to a faltering economy, high unemployment and the failure of its new leaders to keep track of extremists freed from prison during the revolution. The long-oppressed moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, won elections in 2011 and immediately sought to overturn the harsh security measures and intolerance for religion of its predecessor — opening them to accusations they are coddling violent Islamists.
"The high number of Tunisian jihadis is because of the lack of control of these people after they were freed following the revolution, by either state or society," said Alaya Allani, an expert on these groups and author of numerous articles on the subject.
Tunisia is a special case. Largely middle class, Tunisians have more means to travel abroad than their poorer neighbors in Egypt, Morocco or Yemen. Its high unemployment, even under the relatively prosperous economy of the dictatorship, has also left a ready pool of militant recruits.
Experts say Tunisians turned to extremist forms of Islam as a reaction to Ben Ali's heavy-handed secular rule. There was no freedom of expression under Ben Ali and many were imprisoned not just for having extremist ideas but practically any anti-government sentiment.
Allani blamed the "absence of a clear religious policy on the part of the new authorities" for the spread of jihadi networks, noting that more than a hundred mosques of the 2,500 across the country are under the control of radical preachers who advocate jihad in other countries.
The government has repeatedly promised to bring these radical mosques, which are believed to be a key part of Tunisia's recruiting network, under control.
Much of the recruiting is done openly.
Tunisia' most famous militant, Seifallah Ben Hassine or Abu Yadh, was released following the revolution — after which he formed a group known as Ansar al-Shariah that is believed to be behind an assault last year on the U.S. embassy in Tunis.
Ben Hassine regularly preached for joining jihads in Syria and elsewhere and is now on the run from Tunisian police in the embassy attack. In an interview on his organization's Facebook page, the leader said many Tunisians were fighting in Syria and Mali.
"Tunisians can be found everywhere in the land of jihad," he said, claiming that his organization actually urges them to stay in the country. "The ways of going are easy and we don't stop our people from leaving."
A suspect in the fatal Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three others had been released from a Tunisian prison during the revolution. Ali Harzi was question by Tunisian authorities, and even the FBI, but was released due to lack of evidence.
The records of around 600 foreign jihadis found in Iraq in 2007 showed that while the majority were Libyans and Saudis, per capita, Tunisians came in third.
In May 2012, the Syrian government presented a list of 26 foreign fighters it had captured — 19 were from Tunisia. The Justice and Equity association, which tries to help families find out what happened to their sons, estimates some 400 Tunisians are fighting in Syria alone.
Tunisia suffers from its location sandwiched between Algeria, the original home of al-Qaida's North African branch, and Libya to the east, which is awash in guns with little central authority and a lot of heavily armed militias with extremist ideologies. The southern half of the country touches the Sahara Desert, which has become the extremists' preferred area of operation, and several times Tunisian forces have clashed with armed men deep in the south.
Authorities also discovered in December what they described as two militant training camps near the Algerian border.
With al-Qaida suffering reverses in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terror network appears to be ramping up its activities in North Africa in hopes of taking advantage of the chaos and weakened governments brought on by the Arab Spring.
"Chaos and the lack of security is fertile ground for them," said Jamel Arfaoui, a Tunisian journalist who closely covers extremist movements. He said that, according to his sources throughout Mali, there are some 150 Tunisians fighting there.
So far, the jihad has mostly been exported, but there are fears that could change. The assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid this month sparked days of rioting and speculation that his fierce criticism of extremist Islamists may have inspired a homegrown jihadi.
The Algerian press also published a purported confession from one of three captured militants from the Ain Amenas gas complex attack. The alleged Tunisian said that new attacks were being planned against Tunisia itself.
A report published Wednesday by the International Crisis Group about the rise of Salafi groups in Tunisia said for now, the jihadis were keeping the violence outside the country.
"Most jihadis seem willing to focus on proselytizing in Tunisia and, at least for now, are not prepared to engage in more serious violence on its soil," it noted. "Yet this could get worse. Instability in the Maghreb, porous borders with Libya and Algeria, as well as the eventual return of jihadis from abroad, could spell trouble."
Schemm contributed from Rabat, Morocco.