More than 1,000 “terrorists” have returned from conflict zones to Tunisia, according to one of the country’s top security officials.
Mokhtar Ben Nasr, head of the National Commission on Counter-Terrorism, said the figure accounts for the number of terror suspects who have come back since 2011, according to Mosaique FM radio.
The news comes as the UK and other European countries are debate how to deal with its citizens who were captured abroad on suspicion of being members of Isis.
Thousands of men and women left Europe to join the Isis caliphate when it was declared in 2014. At that time, it stretched across two countries for thousands of miles, but over the past few months Isis territory has been reduced to a tiny pocket in eastern Syria, and all but a few hundred of its former members have been killed or ended up in the custody of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
More than 800 Europeans are currently being detained in northern Syria, but their governments are refusing to repatriate them over fears they would present a security risk.
The fate of British Isis suspects held in Syria has been thrown into the spotlight in recent days following the discovery that Shamima Begum, a 19-year-old British woman who left the UK to join Isis four years ago, was among those detained in the country.
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, has previously said that he would move to block any British citizen suspected of joining Isis from returning.
Mr Javid said of her case: “My message is clear: if you have supported terrorist organisations abroad I will not hesitate to prevent your return.”
But the Kurdish forces holding British Isis suspects and their families have called on their home countries to bring them home and prosecute them there. US president Donald Trump has also piled the pressure on European allies.
“The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 Isis fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial. The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them,” he wrote on Twitter this weekend.
Tunisia has also struggled to find a solution to the issue. The country’s already overcrowded prisons are filling up with convicted terrorists. The president, Béji Caïd Essebsi, has in the past floated the idea of a pardon for returning jihadists, but the idea was met with fierce opposition and protests.
Following the return earlier this month of four “extremely dangerous terrorists” – in the words of a court spokesperson – security officials have been forced to defend the policy of bringing them home.
Judge Naila El Faqih, the deputy head of the National Commission on Counter-Terrorism, told parliament on Monday that bringing terror suspects home was “an international obligation, in addition to the fact that the Tunisian constitution provides for the right of all Tunisians to live in their own country”.
The North African country represents something of a paradox. In 2011, a successful revolution saw the overthrow of long-term dictator President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and a transition to democracy. It has often been referred to as the Arab Spring’s only success story.
But it has also earned the dubious title of being the biggest exporter of jihadists per capita in the world. The United Nations estimates that some 5,500 Tunisians left the country to join Isis and Al Qaeda in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The revolution did not bring economic change with it, and so jihadist recruiters found fertile ground in a young and impoverished population.
By comparison, UK intelligence services estimate that around 900 Britons left for Syria, and around 40 per cent of them have returned. Most have been placed on government rehabilitation schemes, while only a handful have faced prosecution.