As fighters return from Libya, Tunisia faces growing challenge

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Tunisia faces challenges from Islamic State
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As fighters return from Libya, Tunisia faces growing challenge
A minaret, that was damaged during fighting between Islamic State jihadists and government forces, is seen in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Household items lie on the ground at a house that was squatted by Islamic State jihadists and damaged during fighting with government forces in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
People stand where their neighbour Abdel Atti Abdelkabir, a policeman, was killed by Islamic State jihadists in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A Tunisian security forces tank is seen through a car window at Dhiba by the Tunisian and Libyan border crossing, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A house which was damaged during fighting with government forces stands in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A road sign shows the direction of Libya near the border crossing at Dhiba, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The father and son of Abdel Atti Abdelkabir, a policeman who was killed by Islamic State jihadists, pose for a picture in Ben Guerdane, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A municipal worker adds the finishing touches in Martyr's Square to a memorial to those recently killed by Islamic State's fighters in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 12, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Hamid Ishi stands in his house, which was squatted by Islamic State jihadists and damaged during fighting with government forces, in Ben Guerdane, Tunisia April 10, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People are seen at a Radio Web studio during training at a youth centre in Ben Guerdane, Tunisia April 12, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man who's brother,Tarak Slimi, is suspected to have joined Islamic State in Libya, shows how the family managed to board up a door after it was damaged during a police raid in El Kef, Tunisia April 14, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Fethiya Charni holds a photograph and the passport of her son Tarak Slimi, who is suspected to have joined Islamic State in Libya, at her house in El Kef, Tunisia April 14, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Fethiya Charni, weeps as she holds a photograph and the passport of her son Tarak Slimi, who is suspected to have joined Islamic State in Libya, at her house in El Kef, Tunisia April 14, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mohamed Slimi, whose son Tarak Slimi is suspected to have joined Islamic State in Libya, sits at his house in El Kef, Tunisia April 14, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Photographs of Rahma (L), the wife of Noureddine Chouchane, a jihadist who was killed during a U.S strike in Libya, and her sister Gofran (R), are seen in a newspaper in Tunis, Tunisia April 14, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Yarusi Kadi, 21 (C), an unemployed graduate, smiles as he poses for a photograph with his grandmother at his house in the town of Remada, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A woman walks past a truck loaded with containers in the town of Remada, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A woman sits outside her house, which was damaged in fighting between Islamic State jihadists and government forces, in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 12, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Yahya, father of Bechar Zongya, gestures during an interview with Reuters journalists in the town of Remada, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A sign is seen at the edge of Remada, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
People inspect a burnt room inside their house, which was damaged by fighting between Islamic State jihadists and government forces in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, Tunisia April 12, 2016. After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane. In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir metres from his home. Residents including the colonel's brother say they recognised some of the attackers as former neighbours and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault. The battle was further evidence of how Libyaâs chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbour. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants â not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Men play soccer at a pitch in the town of Remada, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee. At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "ZOHRA REMADA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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BEN GUERDANE, Tunisia, May 24 (Reuters) - After a U.S. air strike killed a Tunisian jihadist commander in western Libya in late February, dozens of Islamic State fighters sneaked across the border into Tunisia and attacked an army barracks and police bases in the town of Ben Guerdane.

In the battle that followed, Islamic State militants shot dead local Tunisian anti-terrorism chief Colonel Abdel Atti Abdelkabir meters from his home. Residents, including the colonel's brother, say they recognized some of the attackers as former neighbors and classmates who had left to train with Islamic State in Libya. In all, more than 50 militants died in the assault.

The battle was further evidence of how Libya's chaos has spilled over into its more stable neighbor. Tunisia, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, is trying to nurture the nascent democracy that grew out of its 2011 uprising against the government of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. But it also faces an intensifying battle against Islamist militants - not least Tunisian fighters now based just across the border.

"We're sitting right next to a nation that has no peace," Abdelkabir's brother Hussein told Reuters in the family home. "My brother was directly targeted. He said they would come to attack one day and they came for him."

Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilized, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia, and forcing many militants to flee.

At first the jihadists mostly headed to Syria. But now Libya is more popular with them - many Tunisians have become key figures in Islamic State there. In all, officials estimate that between 4,000-6,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups, among them university graduates and professionals recruited online.

The flow continues. Since last summer, for instance, nearly 80 young Tunisians from Remada, a town two hours south of Ben Guerdane, have crossed into Libya, according to residents there, spirited along the same desert scrubland tracks used by traffickers to ferry cheap Libyan fuel into Tunisia.

Related: See the history of the Islamic State through photos:

31 PHOTOS
History of Islamic State
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As fighters return from Libya, Tunisia faces growing challenge
FILE - In this Monday, April 19, 2010 file photo, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki holds a paper displaying photographs of a man the Iraqi government claims to be al-Qaida leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi at a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq. U.S. and Iraqi forces killed the two top al-Qaida in Iraq leaders on April 18, 2010, allowing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to become the leader of a terror group weakened by a concerted campaign aimed at ending a Sunni insurgency in the country.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2009 file photo, guards stand at the entrance of a renovated Abu Ghraib prison, now renamed Baghdad Central Prison and run by Iraqis, in Baghdad, Iraq. A military-style assault by al-Qaida leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s fighters on two Baghdad-area prisons in July, 2013 freed more than 500 inmates.(AP Photo / Karim Kadim, File)
FILE - In this Wednesday April 21, 2010 file photo, an Iraqi military helicopter flies over the site of a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid that reportedly killed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, two top-ranking al-Qaida figures, about six miles (10 kilometers) southwest of Tikrit. U.S. and Iraqi forces killed the two top al-Qaida in Iraq leaders on April 18, 2010, allowing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to become the leader of a terror group weakened by a concerted campaign aimed at ending a Sunni insurgency in the country.(AP Photo/Karim Kadim, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2010 photo, pictures of slain Iraqi Christians are displayed during Mass at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s al-Qaida militants attacked the church on Oct. 31 during Sunday night mass, killing 58 people in the deadliest assault targeting Christians since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion there. The militants reportedly demand the release of Muslim women they claim were held by Egypt’s Coptic Christian church.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 file photo, Iraqis inspect the aftermath a day after a car bomb attack in a shopping area in Karradah, Baghdad, Iraq. In his first purported online message on July 21, 2012, al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi promised to regain lost ground in Iraq and calls on militants to “chase and liquidate the judges, the investigators and the guards.” Within days, his group begins a campaign of attacks, car bombings and other assaults killing hundreds.(AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)
FILE - In this April 23, 2013 file photo, a suspected Yemeni al-Qaida militant, center, holds a banner as he stands behind bars during a court hearing in state security court in Sanaa, Yemen. In a competition with the Islamic State group for recruits and prestige across the Middle East, al-Qaida has sought to distinguish itself from its rival's bloodthirstiness, taking an approach that in jihadi circles would be considered pragmatic. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)
A sign on the northern road exiting the town of Gao, Northern Mali, Wednesday Jan. 30, 2013, reads "welcome to the islamic state of Gao". Islamist extremists fled the city Saturday after French, Chadian and Nigerien troops arrived, ending 10 months of radical islamic control over the city.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
FILE - In this Sunday, March 30, 2014, file photo, Islamic State group militants hold up their flag as they patrol in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces swept into Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar province, which Iraqi security forces had abandoned weeks earlier. That came after security forces killed demonstrators during a Sunni protest, effectively turning the unrest into an uprising.(AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this June 23, 2014, file photo, fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road at the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s fighters took over Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul in June, 2014, followed by Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and smaller communities in the Sunni heartland as government forces melt away.(AP Photo/File)
German Kreshnik B. waits for the beginning of his trial at a higher regional court in Frankfurt, Germany, Monday, Sept.15, 2014. He is accused of having been a member of the Islamic state group in Syria. He was arrested when he came back to Germany in December 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
FILE - In this Monday, June 16, 2014 file photo, demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. The IS declaration of a "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria inspired a stream of thousands of foreign fighters to join it and earned it pledges of allegiance by individual militants around the region. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, file photo, smoke billows behind an Islamic State group sign during clashes between militants from the Islamic State group and Iraqi security forces during a military operation to regain control of the town of Sadiyah, 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq in Diyala province, Iraq. In a competition with the Islamic State group for recruits and prestige across the Middle East, al-Qaida has sought to distinguish itself from its rival's bloodthirstiness, taking an approach that in jihadi circles would be considered pragmatic. (AP Photo, File)
A photograph on a television screen shown by Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, Jr., Director of Operations J3, while he briefs the news media on operations in Syria, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
This image provided by the Department of Defense shows a image that was shown by Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, Jr., Director of Operations J3, during a briefing on operations in Syria, at the Pentagon in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Department of Defense)
This image provided by the Department of Defense shows a image that was shown by Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, Jr., Director of Operations J3, during a briefing on operations in Syria, at the Pentagon in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Department of Defense)
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 24, 2014 file photo, Iraqi army soldiers deploy in front of a court run by the Islamic State group after a military operation to regain control of the town of Sadiyah in Diyala province, 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo, File)
Iraqi security forces prepare to attack Islamic State extremist positions in central Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, March 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Black flags used by the Islamic State group are seen over their combat positions in the Rashad Bridge, which connects the provinces of Salah al-Din and Kirkuk, 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Sept. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Syrian Kurdish fighter Delkhwaz Sheikh Ahmad, 22, checks a picture on his mobile showing Islamic State group fighters killed in fighting with Syrian Kurdish fighters, as he prepares to leave for Kobani, Syria, to rejoin the fighting, at his brother's house in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. The father of two is a member of the People’s Protection Units, also known as YPG and is fighting against militants of the Islamic State group in Kobani, Syria. Every few weeks, he takes a couple of days to cross the border into Turkey to visit his family that had evacuated. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2014 file photo, an aircraft lands after missions targeting the Islamic State group in Iraq from the deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf. Combined U.S.-Arab airstrikes at the heart of the Islamic State group's military strongholds in Syria achieved their strategic aim of showing the extremists that their savage attacks will not go unanswered, the top American military officer said Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)
In this image made from video broadcast on Egyptian state television on Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, a fighter jet leaves the hangar in preparation to launch airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya after the extremist group released a grisly video showing the beheading of several Egyptian Coptic Christians it had held hostage for weeks. (AP Photo/Egyptian State Television via AP video)
In this image released by the Egyptian Presidency in the early hours of Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi makes a statement after militants in Libya affiliated with the Islamic State group released a grisly video showing the beheading of several Egyptian Coptic Christians it had held hostage for weeks. Egypt said Monday it has launched airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya following the release of the video, marking the first time Cairo has publicly acknowledged taking military action in neighboring Libya, where extremist groups seen as a threat to both countries have taken root in recent years. (AP Photo/Egyptian Presidency)
A man is comforted by others as he mourns over Egyptian Coptic Christians who were captured in Libya and killed by militants affiliated with the Islamic State group, outside of the Virgin Mary church in the village of el-Aour, near Minya, 220 kilometers (135 miles) south of Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Feb. 16, 2015. Egyptian warplanes struck Islamic State targets in Libya on Monday in swift retribution for the extremists' beheading of a group of Egyptian Christian hostages on a beach, shown in a grisly online video released hours earlier. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Iraqi security forces participate in a drill as U.S. forces train them in Taji, north of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, March 21, 2015. U.S. military officials have said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul, Iraq's second largest city held by the Islamic State group, will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis are not ready, the offensive could be delayed. Iraqi officials have backed away from setting a timeline. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
Iraqi security forces participate in a drill as U.S. forces help train them in Taji, north of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, March 21, 2015. U.S. military officials have said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul, Iraq's second largest city held by the Islamic State group, will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis are not ready, the offensive could be delayed. Iraqi officials have backed away from setting a timeline. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
A bombs, seen top left, falls on an Islamic State position in eastern Kobani, during an airstrike by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
This picture released late Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, by an Islamic State militant-affiliated website, shows a bulldozer, background, of the Islamic State militants destroying the Saint Eliane Monastery near the town of Qaryatain which IS captured in early August, in Homs province, Syria. A priest and activists say the Islamic State group has demolished an ancient monastery in central Syria. A Christian clergyman told The Associated Press in Damascus that IS militants also wrecked a church inside the monastery that dates back to the first Christian centuries. The priest, who spoke Friday on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the monastery included an Assyrian Catholic church. (Islamic State militant website via AP)
Mourners carry the coffins of victims of Saturday's Ankara bombing attacks, during a funeral in Istanbul, Monday, Oct. 12, 2015. Turkish investigators are close to identifying one of the suicide bombers in Turkey's deadliest attacks in years, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday, adding that the Islamic State group was the "Number one priority" of the investigation. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Armoured police vehicles patrol as they block a road leading to the site of armed clashes with militants in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Police raided a house used by a suspected cell of the Islamic State group triggering a clash that killed up to seven militants and two policemen, Turkish media reports said. It was not immediately clear if the operation was linked to suicide bombings of a peace rally in the capital Ankara earlier this month that killed 102 people. (AP Photo/Mahmut Bozarslan)
From left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Francois Hollande and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo hold a white rose as they pay their respects to the victims of the attacks of the 13th November on the Place de la Republique prior to a meeting at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015. Merkel's visit to Paris is part of president Hollande's diplomatic offensive to get the international community to bolster the campaign against the Islamic State militants. (Etienne Laurent, Pool Photo via AP)
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Over the past year or so, some militants have begun to return. Security forces say recent attacks on a beach hotel and a museum were carried out by Tunisian gunmen who had trained in Libya. Earlier this month, more than 20 suspected militants were arrested in Tunis. They are believed to have brought explosives from Libya for attacks on the capital, the government said.

RECRUITMENT

The Tunisian jihadist commander killed in the U.S. air strike on Sabratha was Noureddine Chouchane. He trained gunmen in his Libyan camps to kill foreign tourists in Tunisia, according to U.S. and Tunisian officials. A former senior member of Ansar al Sharia, Chouchane had also become a key recruiter for Islamic State.

Among those who joined him were his wife, Rahma, 17, and her sister, Gofran, 18, the girls' mother told Reuters. She said the two were typical music-loving teenagers. But after meetings with local Ansar al Sharia recruiters in 2013, they became more conservative, demanded a ban on television at home and harassed their mother to wear more modest headscarves.

Last year, they both left for Libya. They are now held in Maitiga prison in Tripoli, after being arrested by local forces there.

"Rahma always told me she was proud of what she was doing," her mother said in the family home in Tunis, where two younger sisters still live. "After the Sabratha strike, she said she wanted to come back."

Why IS Is Striking in Unexpected Places

NEW FRONTLINE

Ben Guerdane, a dusty town of one-story buildings, has a long history of supplying jihadists going back to the 1980s, when Tunisians fought in Afghanistan. Later it sent fighters to Iraq where they fought U.S. troops.

Its inhabitants now feel a kind of war has come to them. A mosque minaret used by jihadists as a base during the attack is pockmarked by dozens of bullets fired from a helicopter, and several white villas have been damaged by grenade explosions.

"Libya is just there, 30 kilometers away, it's easy for them to come here, and they knew exactly where they needed to go when they came," said Hamid Ishi. His home is charred by bullets and has a gaping hole from a tank shell.

Security sources say several arms caches were in place before the March attack. Some militants arrived in an ambulance and then used Ishi's home as cover to fire on the barracks. Others set up roadblocks and demanded documents.

"They asked for my papers and told me to go home, saying they were from Islamic State, here to free us from tyrants," said Hedi Grisia, a telecoms worker. "I recognized one of them. He hadn't been around for a few years."

Hussein, the counter-terrorism chief's brother, said he recognized at least one of the gunmen who came to his home.

He also went to school with militant commander, Meftah Ben Hassine Ben Mohamed Manita. A Ben Guerdane native and former Ansar al Sharia member, Manita was jailed in 2007 after an Al Qaeda insurrection and released in 2011 along with other Islamists during the amnesty, a security source said.

"He joined Daesh after being a member of Ansar al Sharia," said the Tunisian security source, using one of the Arabic names for Islamic State. "He fled to Libya after the government made Ansar al Sharia a terrorist group."

MILITARY ADVANCES

To stop its jihadists returning, Tunisia is reinforcing its border. The army has built a 200-km earthen berm and trench along part of the frontier. British and German troops are also training Tunisian forces in border protection and surveillance.

Under a state of emergency declared last year and since extended, hundreds of suspected militants have been rounded up, leading rights activists to worry that repressive tactics may fuel more militant recruitment.

Tunisian security officials, analysts and diplomats say that since the first attacks early last year, the army has progressed in counter-terrorism and special forces operations. Intelligence networks are growing, if slowly.

"Today we are more worried about suicide attacks, and sleeper cells and lone-wolf style attacks that could strike at any time," a senior Tunisian security source said.

The ministry of religious affairs last month started a program to promote moderate imams. The European Union has promised funding for deradicalisation programs, though they are still in their infancy.

Officials say that border towns need moderate messages, economic development and jobs.

Sitting in parched flatlands, Remada, one such town, has a short main street with an army barracks, houses and a few stores. Small plantations of olive trees surround the town and disperse into the desert and hills beyond.

Two ministers flew into town last month to talk to young men about economic development. Many locals dismissed the visit as more promises from northern politicians who have abandoned the south.

"There is nothing for young people here, they just look for an alternative, something to do," Yarusi Kadi, an unemployed 21-year-old said of those who join Islamic State. "It's almost like a revenge against themselves - to prove something, some worth."

Bechar Zongya, a former smuggler who police say became an Islamic State commander in Sirte, grew up on an olive tree plantation. His father Yahya still works there.

Last summer, police and residents say, Zongya helped lead a group of 30 people, including an air force pilot, two soldiers and an oil engineer, across the border into Libya to join Islamic State. Since then, other groups have left, too.

Yahya denies his son is a jihadist commander but said he had long been harassed by police for wearing his beard long and for his conservative views.

"If you put yourself in his place, with the arrests and the abuses, the treatment he got, what do you think would be the result?" his father said of his son. "You might find yourself joining one of these groups, too."

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