- Associated Press - Sunday, June 24, 2012

TUNIS, TUNISIA — Sometimes it’s a muffled call from Turkey or Lebanon by a son saying he’s off to fight in Syria when the family thought he had gone abroad to study.

Other times, it’s just an anonymous phone call to say the son is now a martyr.

Some Tunisian families only learn of their son’s fate upon seeing him on Syrian TV, apparently confessing to be part of al Qaeda and seeking to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The cradle of the Arab Spring, Tunisia also has a long history of frustrated youth heading off to fight in foreign jihads.

Now, according to figures released by the Syrian government, they may make up a large percentage of Arabs who have gone to join the struggle against the Assad regime.

And that has raised alarm both about radicalization in the Syrian rebel movement and rising extremism within newly democratic Tunisia.

It is an awkward situation for the Tunisian government, which has to rely on international groups to follow up on the fate of its citizens arrested in Syria, since it was one of the first countries to cut ties in protest of the regime’s brutal crackdown on the opposition.

It is not known how many Tunisians have gone to fight in Syria, where the violence has grown increasingly chaotic in recent months. An uprising that began with mostly peaceful protests has now evolved into an armed insurgency.

Al Qaeda-style suicide bombings have become increasingly common in Syria, and Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, some associated with the terrorist network, have made inroads in Syria as instability has spread.

But the main fighting force looking to oust Mr. Assad is the Free Syrian Army, a group made up largely of defecting Syrian soldiers.

The Syrian government maintains that they are fighting foreign jihadis, and in mid-May issued a letter to the United Nations giving the name of 26 arrested jihadis and reputed members of al Qaeda . Nineteen of them were Tunisian.

Tunisia has long had a reputation for being one of the most secular states in the Arab world, under the iron hand of a regime that savagely repressed Islamists.

But underneath a shiny exterior of beach resorts and an espresso-sipping French-speaking elite, there has always been a strong current of hard-line Islamists.

“The extremism is the fruit of dictatorship,” said Sami Brahim, who studies such Tunisian Islamic movements and said that many became very religious or turned to jihadi thought amid the despair and repression of the old regime. “These youth are victims of the dictatorship.”

A cache of documents discovered by the U.S. military in northern Iraq showed that many Tunisians traveled there to fight alongside al Qaeda .

The records of about 600 foreign jihadis found in Iraq’s Sinjar region showed that while the majority of foreign fighters were Libyans and Saudis, per capita, Tunisians came in third.

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