RABAT, Morocco (AP) — The attack on Tunisia's national museum and the nearby parliament on Wednesday, for which the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility, tops years of radical violence that has rocked the country after the 2011 revolution that overthrew the country's long-ruling secular dictator. The country's disparate radical elements appear to be increasingly drawn toward the banner of the Islamic State.
Rather than being overt Islamic State members, it is likely that perpetrators of Wednesday's attack came from the large mass of disaffected young people in the country, some of whom fought with extremists groups in Syria or were inspired by their radical rhetoric.
Years of uneven economic development, followed by a post-revolutionary downturn, have left a deep reservoir of disaffected and unemployed young people. Many have left for Syria — or even easier, neighboring Libya — to train and fight with radical groups.
The government says 500 Tunisians have returned from Syria, and one parliamentarian told The Associated Press after the attack that there could be as many as 2,000 radical sympathizers in the country.
Weapons smuggled from Libya or even further south from Mali have been plentiful in the south of the country and in the past year, a security crackdown has resulted in nearly a dozen firefights outside militant homes.
A tweet from a Twitter account that regularly posted radical material about Tunisia and Libya before it was shut down Thursday held the museum attack up as an example of the simple, low-cost operation that Muslims should be undertaking in their own countries.
SALAFIS TURNED JIHADIS
In the wake of the revolution, men with beards were suddenly everywhere in Tunisia as the fall of the secular dictator emboldened extremely pious Muslims known as Salafis to begin preaching across the country. The largest group was known as Ansar al-Shariah movement and in a bold showing of strength in 2012, some 4,000 group members of the movement gathered in Kairouan, Tunisia, one of Islam's most revered cities.
The group clashed with the state and in September 2012 mounted an attack on the U.S. embassy, prompting a crackdown on the group. Its leader, Seifallah Ben Hassine, fled to Libya where the group appears to have been absorbed by the local chapter of the Islamic State.
Ben Hassine's lieutenant, Ahmed Rouissi, was recently killed in fighting in Libya for the Islamic State.
In Tunisia, Ansar al-Shariah has since gone underground and its diffuse networks of support are believed to be behind isolated attacks over the years, including failed suicide bombings in October 2013 at Tunisian tourist sites.
In 2013, a band of fighters called the Oqba Ibn Nafaa brigade, named after the 7th-century Arab conqueror of Tunisia, pledged allegiance to al-Qaida's North African branch. It is based in the mountainous region in the southwest near the Algerian border and has stubbornly resisted army efforts to dislodge it.
The group has been linked to the assassinations of two opposition politicians in 2013 as well as clashes and ambushes with security forces that have killed dozens.
The group survives in part due to the dissatisfaction of the residents of these poor regions with the central government. While usually estimated to be just a few hundred fighters, it is believed to have links with cross border smugglers as well as the veteran Algerian jihadists across the border.
Statements from the group have surfaced online pledging allegiance to both al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb as well as to its rival the Islamic State group.