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In Tunisia, Society 'Wasn't Quite Prepared' For Liberal Reforms

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tunisian authorities have arrested nine men in connection with this week's attack at Tunisia's National Bardo Museum - 23 people were killed there, most of them foreign tourists. Tunisia has been the country that's seemed most democratic and stable following the Arab Spring. Violence has been rare, but Tunisia is the largest supplier of foreign fighters to the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. William McCants is a fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy. He served at the State Department as a senior adviser for countering violent extremism. Thanks very much for being with us.

WILLIAM MCCANTS: My pleasure.

SIMON: Two gunmen were killed by security forces in the attack. What do we know about them?

MCCANTS: Not much; details are still emerging. They both seem to be from the provinces in Tunisia, possibly near the Algerian border. They seem to have had some sort of involvement with terrorist organizations prior to the attack. There are reports out that at least one of the gunmen traveled to Libya in order to get training either with the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, or possibly an al-Qaida-linked group.

SIMON: By some accounts, about 3,000 people - Tunisians - have left for the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Why so many?

MCCANTS: Well, there's a variety of factors that are driving people to go. One is that Tunisia has been a success story in the transition towards democracy. But with that came political liberalization that society wasn't quite prepared for. All of a sudden a lot of radical preachers, who had been kept under wraps by an authoritarian government, were allowed to preach their messages on the streets and in mosques. And that inspired a number of young men to go abroad and to fight. And then finally it's just because there's a lot of opportunities to fight. I mean, Tunisia is a relatively stable country despite the attacks, but it's surrounded by unstable countries, particularly Libya. And Syria is just a plane ride or two away, so it's attractive for a number of young men to go fight abroad. Their motives are various, but there's a lot of opportunities for them to go, so they're taking them.

SIMON: Do they return do we know?

MCCANTS: Some of them return. The Tunisian government says about 500 to 600 have come back, and they have some portion of them in prison. A number of them stay to fight either in Syria or Iraq or they go on to the next conflict, and, of course, some of them will die there as well. I mean, what's interesting now is that Syria had been a hot spot for travel, but a lot of the recruiters are beginning to turn young men away and direct them more towards Libya because now Libya is heating up as a new civil war and is becoming an attractive place for jihadists who want to fight under the al-Qaida banner or the Islamic State banner.

SIMON: What does Tunisia do?

MCCANTS: Well, it continues to do what it's already doing. I mean, it's the only bright spot in the Arab Spring. They had a successful political transition last year, and they need to continue along that path. It's the only long-term solution to this problem. There is an enduring problem in the state security services which continues to abuse detainees and to round up large numbers of young men who they accuse of being involved in terrorism of some sort. That kind of violent mass oppression tends to exacerbate the problem. So in the short term, the Tunisian government has to rein in its security services and reform them.

SIMON: William McCants, of the Brookings Institution, thanks so much for being with us.

MCCANTS: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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