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Tunisians Worry Militant Attacks Threaten Country's Shaky Democracy


The Arab Spring started in Tunisia in 2011. And that country remains one bright spot in the fitful march to reform. It has a functioning democracy. But it also has a militant problem which threatens that democracy. Estimates show more Tunisians than any other nationality have joined extremist groups like the Islamic State. One reason they're able to do it is the largely open border between Tunisia and neighboring Libya. NPR's Leila Fadel was just on that border and she joins us now from Casablanca, Morocco. Good morning, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What has it meant for Tunisia to share a border with such an unstable place like Libya?

FADEL: Right, it has a border of almost 300 miles between Tunisia and Libya. And what that has meant for Tunisia is that there is a bunch of weapon smuggling and people smuggling going on. And so people are able to go back and forth across this border where there's a security vacuum, plan attacks and come back into Tunisia and carry those out. So last year we saw an attack at the Bardo Museum, an attack on tourists at the beach, an attack on security forces on a bus and then most recently this border town that the extremist group, the Islamic State, tried to take over, which is the town that I visited.

MARTIN: So we said in the intro that more Tunisians than any other nationality are joining the ranks of ISIS. Why? What's motivating them?

FADEL: This is a place, like many in the region, where people came out of this revolt in 2011 and they really had a sense of hope that now things would get better. And in some cases they have. But for the average person, a lot of young Tunisians who thought they could have a better life in the sense of job security and economic prosperity haven't really seen that. And so this is how one Tunisian analyst, Yousef Cherif, described it to me...

YOUSEF CHERIF: There is the relative deprivation where people are not very poor - not dying of hunger - but they are not very rich. When they go to school, they get education. They have high expectations. But they don't find the job they want. And that creates a lot of anger in them.

MARTIN: He says that anger, that frustration, is something that groups like ISIS are exploiting. They're saying, listen, we can give you all the stuff that these corrupt, dictatorial regimes can't give you.

MARTIN: All right, so how is the Tunisian government reacting to the fact that so many of their citizens are leaving to join ISIS?

FADEL: Well, they're rolling out a major propaganda campaign to try to tell people why they shouldn't go join ISIS. But there's a lot of people that are worried that the government is and will continue to overreact, to treat people badly, to conduct torture in prisons as a way to stop terrorism. And that's something that human rights defenders and analysts say is an even bigger threat to Tunisia's democracy if this police state is reconfigured and all of the things that people fought for in 2011 go to the wayside.

MARTIN: How has the U.S. reacted? I mean, I imagine that they've been tracking what's been happening in terms of the radicalization in Tunisia.

FADEL: Right, the U.S. is concerned. Right now Tunisia is building a wall on the Libyan border. It's a little over a hundred miles. And that's something that both Germany and the U.S. are helping with when it comes to electronic equipment. And also, if you remember, there was an air strike recently in Libya that targeted ISIS fighters and the targets were actually mostly Tunisian, especially that main target of the U.S. airstrike was a Tunisian ISIS fighter.

MARTIN: NPR's Leila Fadel, speaking to us from Casablanca, Morocco. Thanks so much, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.