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Tunisia Museum Attack: Is Arab Spring Beacon Losing Fight Against ISIS?

Tunisia was viewed as the success story of the Arab Spring, but is it losing a battle with Islamist extremism?
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Tunisia deployed troops to protect its major cities Thursday following a massacre in one of its showpiece museums, as the country grappled with the implications the deadly attack will have on its status as the Arab Spring's sole success story.

As the death toll from the siege at Tunisia's Bardo Museum climbed to 23 people on Thursday — including 20 foreigners, shows of unity and defiance were on display throughout the north African nation.

"Democracy will win and it will survive,” President Beji Caid Essebsi said after Wednesday's attack, as tens of thousands crowded the streets of the capital Tunis in solidarity. There were calls for a mass march on Friday to show public anger over the atrocity, and rival political leaders held a joint meeting to discuss a national response.

But amid the show of security and solidarity, fears were growing that the Mediterranean tourism hotspot might no longer be a beacon of stability in a region overshadowed by Islamist extremism. Costa Cruises said it had canceled all port stops in Tunis until further notice.

“Tunisia has been looked on fondly as an example of the Arab Spring gone-right, but it’s also been the biggest provider of foreign fighters to ISIS,” said Charlie Winter, researcher with the U.K. based Quilliam Foundation. “And there are a significant amount of Tunisians in neighboring Libya, fighting for ISIS and other groups.”

Tunisians overthrew the repressive regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, setting off a domino affect in the region which became known as the Arab Spring. In November, the country held its second free parliamentary vote — but it still struggles with economic problems and the rising threat from ISIS.

The attack "has come as a surprise to non-expert observers because Tunisia has higher standards of education and a bigger middle class than many of its neighbors,” said Imad Mesdoua, political analyst at Africa Matters, “but the country faces, like many other nations in the region, the challenge of youth unemployment and a lack of genuine stake in society for some marginalized sections of its population.”

A November 2014 report by intelligence analysts Soufan Group said 3,000 Tunisians — the largest number from any single country — were among the foreign fighters than make up half of ISIS’ core membership.

The attackers at the Bardo museum have not been formally linked to any particular terrorist group, though they wore military-style uniforms and wielded assault rifles.

Two assailants — identified by officials as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui — were shot at the scene by security personnel but authorities are still hunting up to three possible accomplices. Laabidi had been previously flagged to intelligence agencies — but not for "anything special” — Prime Minister Habib Essi told RTL Radio.

Legislator Bochra Belhaj Hmida, of the secular majority party Nida Tunis, told The Associated Press that about 2,000 suspected terrorists are believed to be in Tunisia, many of whom joined extremists in Iraq or Syria then returned home. "They are in a situation of being lone wolves, where each of them is free to do the actions they want," she said. "These are people who are let loose with weapons and wherever they can strike, they will not forgo the opportunity.”

"ISIS has been a powerful draw for a number of young people"

Tunisia has been aggressively pursuing suspected jihadis in recent months, making arrests. Its moderate Islamist government has also launched a widespread crackdown on Islamist groups, prompting al Qaeda to say Tunisia was no longer just a recruiting ground but a site for struggle as well.

ISIS supporters tweeted approvingly about Wednesday’s massacre, without claiming responsibility. However, Efriqia Media, a pro-ISIS media unit in north Africa, on Tuesday released an audio recording by Wannas Al-Faqih, a Tunisian extremist who was part of terror group Ansar Al-Sharia, threatening the government and acknowledging other recent attacks.

“ISIS has been a powerful draw for a number of young people, including opportunists for whom fighting with ISIS is the chance to get better social status and new economic opportunities,” Mesdoua said.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the attack was an alarm call. "It announces that the world has changed," he said.

However, Mesdoua said Tunisia was far from a hotbed of radicalism.

“Tunisia is still a very moderate nation overall and radical elements are, as they are elsewhere in the Middle East, a very tiny minority. That said, a number of areas in the region are perceived as dangerous by Western governments given the rise of lone wolf attacks against Westerners worldwide.”

— NBC News' Jamie Novogrod and The Associated Press contributed to this report.