As fighters return from Libya, Tunisia faces growing challenge

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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.

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As fighters return from Libya, Tunisia faces growing challenge

RNPS: YEAREND REVIEW 2014 - HEADLINE MAKERS Militant Islamist fighters hold the flag of Islamic State (IS) while taking part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province in this June 30, 2014 file photo. 2014 saw the rise of the Sunni militant group Islamic State, which has seized swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq.

(REUTERS/Stringer)

A man purported to be Islamic State captive Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh (in orange jumpsuit) stands in front of armed men in this still image from an undated video filmed from an undisclosed location made available on social media on February 3, 2015. Islamic State militants released the video on Tuesday purporting to show Kasaesbeh being burnt alive, and Jordanian state television said he was murdered a month ago. Reuters could not immediately confirm the video, which showed a man resembling the captive pilot standing in a black cage before being set ablaze.

(REUTERS/Social media via Reuters TV)

Smoke rises over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 18, 2014. A U.S.-led military coalition has been bombing Islamic State fighters who hold a large swathe of territory in both Iraq and Syria, two countries involved in complex multi-sided civil wars in which nearly every country in the Middle East has a stake.

(REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

This handout image provided by the Iraqi Prime Minister office shows Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki holding photographs of a man identified by the Iraqi government as al-Qaida leader in Iraq Abu Omar al-Baghdadi at a news conference on April 19, 2010 in Baghdad, Iraq. Nouri announced the deaths of Abu Ayyub al-Masri along with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. US Military oficials confirmed U.S. and Iraqi forces killed the two al-Qaida figures in a nighttime rocket attack on a safe house near Tikrit.

(Photo by Iraqi Prime Minister office via Getty Images)

BAGHDAD, IRAQ, FEBRUARY 21: An Iraqi security officer patrols the grounds at the newly opened Baghdad Central Prison in Abu Ghraib on February 21, 2009 in Baghdad, Iraq. The Iraqi Ministry of Justice has renovated and reopened the previously named 'Abu Ghraib' prison and renamed the site to Baghdad Central Prison. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Justice about 400 prisoners were transferred to the prison which can hold up to 3000 inmates. The prison was established in 1970 and it became synonymous with abuse under the U.S. occupation.

(Photo by Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images)

An Iraqi soldier guards the site where allegedly top Al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, were killed in a joint Iraqi-US military raid in Al-Dhahiriya in Salaheddin province, 280 kms north of Baghdad, on April 20, 2010. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the US military said on April 19 that Baghdadi and Masri were killed in a raid on a safehouse, which yielded computers filled with emails and messages to bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD SALEH (Photo credit should read Mahmud Saleh/AFP/Getty Images)

A shrine for Iraqi Christians who were killed in Al-Qaeda siege is erected at the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) Church in Baghdad on December 23, 2010 as Christmas for Iraq's Christian community will this year be a time of fear and cancelled celebrations instead of rejoicing following renewed threats by Al-Qaeda and the church massacre.

(ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)

An Iraqi woman walks past destroyed shops on the ground floor of a building the day after twin car bombs in the Karrada area of the capital Baghdad on August 1, 2012, in which some 12 people were killed. July was the deadliest month in Iraq in almost two years, with 325 people killed in attacks, and included the deadliest day here since December 2009, official figures released showed.

(AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/GettyImages)

A lorry drives past a sign welcoming people to the 'Islamic State of Gao' at the entrance of the northern Malian city of Gao, on March 9, 2013. After nine months of occupation by Islamic militants, and subsequent liberation by French troops, Gao is slowly shedding its hardline Islamic way of life, with bars serving beer making a long awaited comeback. AFP PHOTO / JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

A fighter of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fires an anti-aircraft weapon from Tel Tawil village in the direction of Islamic State fighters positioned in the countryside of the town of Tel Tamr February 25, 2015. Kurdish militia pressed an offensive against Islamic State in northeast Syria on Wednesday, cutting one of its supply lines from Iraq, as fears mounted for dozens of Christians abducted by the hardline group. The Assyrian Christians were taken from villages near the town of Tel Tamr, some 20 km (12 miles) to the northwest of the city of Hasaka. There has been no word on their fate. There have been conflicting reports on where the Christians had been taken.

(REUTERS/Rodi Said))

German alleged jihadist Kreshnik B (R) listens to his lawyer Mutlu Guenal (L) as he arrives at the higher regional court in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on September 15, 2014 on the opening of his trial on charges of fighting for Islamic State (IS) in Syria, in Germany's first court proceedings involving the militant group. The defendant was arrested in December 2013 at Frankfurt airport in western Germany on his way home from Syria.

(THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP/Getty Images)

An image grab taken from an AFPTV video on September 16, 2014 shows a jihadist from the Islamic State (IS) group standing on the rubble of houses after a Syrian warplane was reportedly shot down by IS militants over the Syrian town of Raqa. The plane crashed into a house in the Euphrates Valley city, the sole provincial capital entirely out of Syrian government control, causing deaths and injuries on the ground.

(AFP/Getty Images)

Smoke rises in the distance behind an Islamic State (IS) group flag and banner after Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters reportedly captured several villages from IS group jihadists in the district of Daquq, south of the northern Iraqi multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk on September 11, 2015. An Iraqi officer said that the operation was launched in the morning with support from international coalition aircraft, and has succeeded in retaking ten villages from IS.

(MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitaries drive a T-72 tank as they advance near the town of Tal Abtah, south of Tal Afar, on November 30, 2016 during a broad offensive by Iraq forces to retake the city Mosul from jihadists of the Islamic State group.

(AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., Joint Staff Director of Operations Director of Operations, shows before and after photos as he speaks on the airstrikes in Syria during a briefing at the Pentagon September 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. Mayville briefed the press about US and Arab nation joint airstrikes against Islamic State(IS) group targets in Syria and unilateral airstrikes against an al-Qaeda group in Syria.

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Men in orange jumpsuits purported to be Egyptian Christians held captive by the Islamic State (IS) kneel in front of armed men along a beach said to be near Tripoli, in this still image from an undated video made available on social media on February 15, 2015. Islamic State released the video on Sunday purporting to show the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians kidnapped in Libya. In the video, militants in black marched the captives to a beach that the group said was near Tripoli. They were forced down onto their knees, then beheaded. Egypt's state news agency MENA quoted the spokesman for the Coptic Church as confirming that 21 Egyptian Christians believed to be held by Islamic State were dead.

(REUTERS/Social media via Reuters TV)

A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, June 23, 2014. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held crisis talks with leaders of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on Tuesday urging them to stand with Baghdad in the face of a Sunni insurgent onslaught that threatens to dismember the country. Picture taken June 23, 2014.

(REUTERS/Stringer)

Members of the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), a group formed by Iraqi Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, march in Iraq's holy city of Najaf as they prepare to reinforce government forces in the fight against the Islamic State group for control of Fallujah, east of the capital, on May 17, 2016. Iraqi security forces and allied fighters have regained significant ground from the jihadists, securing the Ramadi area earlier this year and retaking the town of Heet last month. But parts of Anbar -- including Fallujah -- are still under IS control, as is most of Nineveh province, to its north.

(HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)

An Iraqi Policeman watches a drone hover near the village of Arbid, on the southern Mosul front, on November 12, 2016 during the ongoing military operation to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) group. Iraqi forces launched a massive operation to retake the country's second city from the Islamic State group on October 17, and the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) special forces have pushed the jihadists back from some Mosul neighbourhoods.

(ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

A MI 28 provides aerial support as Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), enter the village of al-Tofaha, southeast of the city of Tal Afar, on November 25, 2016, during an ongoing operation against Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. The Popular Mobilisation have focused their operations on Tal Afar, a large town still held by IS west of Mosul and this week announced they had cut the main road between it and Syria.

(AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Shiite fighters stands near a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba, near the town of al-Alam, March 7, 2015. Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militia fighters struggled to advance on Saturday into the two towns of al-Alam and al-Dour near Tikrit, their progress slowed by fierce defence from Islamic State militants.

(REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani)

F16 fighter jets from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) arrive at an air base in Jordan February 8, 2015. A squadron of F16 jet fighters from the United Arab Emirates arrived in Jordan on Sunday a day after the Gulf state announced it was being sent to bolster the coalition's military effort against the Islamic State. It will conduct joint air strikes with Jordanian colleagues against the Islamic militants, Jordanian officials said on Saturday.

(REUTERS/Petra News Agency)

Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr. speaks about the Syrian bombing campaign September 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. Mayville talked about the U.S. and Arab air strikes in Syria against the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A girl holds up a poster with pictures of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians beheaded by Islamic State in Libya, as they gather in a gesture to show their solidarity, in front of the Egyptian embassy in Amman February 17, 2015.

(REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed)

Shi'ite fighters, from the brigades of peace loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), take part in field training in Najaf, August 23, 2014.

(REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani)

A Kurdish fighter keeps guard while overlooking positions of Islamic State militants near Mosul in northern Iraq August 19, 2014. Sunni Muslim fighters led by the Islamic State swept through much of northern and western Iraq in June, capturing the Sunni cities of Tikrit and Mosul as well as the Mosul dam, which controls water and power supplies to millions of people down the Tigris river valley.

(REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal)

AL-QARYATAYN, SYRIA. APRIL 7, 2016. The Mar Elian Catholic monastery burnt by Islamic State (IS) militants. 

(Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)

Shi'ite fighters look at smoke rising from clashes during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq November 18, 2016.

(REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani)

Indonesian soldiers from the 2nd Airborne Division patrol after parachuting from a transport aircraft near Masani village, Poso, Central Sulawesi March 31, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Indonesia has launched military exercises in the eastern island of Sulawesi, a haven for radical Islamists, as part of broader efforts to crack down on militants with suspected links to the Islamic State group, officials said on Tuesday. The drills come amid heightened government concerns over a rising number of Indonesians pledging loyalty to Islamic State (IS) and trying to join the group fighting in Iraq and Syria.

(REUTERS/Antara Foto/Zainuddin)

An Iraqi soldier holds an Islamist State flag, after pulling it down during a military operation against Islamic State militants in Al-Qasar, southeast of Mosul, Iraq, November 29, 2016.

(REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani)

A man walks in a street with abandoned vehicles and damaged buildings in the northern Syrian town of Kobani January 30, 2015. Sheets meant to hide residents from snipers' sights still hang over streets in the Syrian border town of Kobani, and its shattered buildings and cratered roads suggest those who fled are unlikely to return soon. Kurdish forces said this week they had taken full control of Kobani, a mainly Kurdish town near the Turkish border, after months of bombardment by Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that has spread across Syria and Iraq.

(REUTERS/Osman Orsal)

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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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