Tunisian youths disillusioned with the post-revolution era have flocked to join extremists overseas.
About 3,000 Tunisians have gone to Syria since the war began more than three years ago – accounting for about one-quarter of the foreign fighters there, according to US-based intelligence consultancy Soufan Group.
Tunisian officials say they have managed to prevent a further 9,000 would-be fighters from travelling to Syria, a figure that cannot be independently verified.
One of those who fell on the battlefield is Salim Gasmi, according to his sister Latifa.
“We were shocked when we found out that my brother had gone to Syria.”
Salim, 29, was employed by a trader in Libya. Without telling his family, he packed up one day and left to join the ISIL group in Syria’s northeastern province of Deir Ezzor.
He was eventually captured by – and fought for – the rival al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syria franchise. He died in April.
“Once we spoke to him on Skype. We hardly recognized him. He had lost weight, his eyes had lost their sparkle and he cried saying he could no longer return home,” Latifa said.
Unemployed youths were not the only targets, with recruits hailing from diverse backgrounds, said Mohamed Iqbal Ben Rejeb, president of an association that helps Tunisians stranded abroad.
Ben Rejeb’s own brother Hamza, a student who was already paralyzed from the waist down, was lured by extremists and travelled to Syria for 10 days in 2013.
“My brother, who studies computer sciences, was manipulated through the Internet and by sermons delivered in mosques by members of Ansar al-Sharia,” he said.
“They persuaded him that he was a genius but Hamza is not a genius. These terrorists only wanted to exploit him and use him in suicide attacks,” he said.
The Tunisian government describes extremists coming home from Syria as one of the top two threats facing the country, along with unrest in neighbouring Libya.
“The only way to deal with these people is with the stick. We don’t want them to return to Tunisia,” said interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui.