Cross-posted from View from the Left Bank.
The idea that Tunisia represents something of an Arab Spring success story in contrast to the turmoil experienced elsewhere in the Middle East, has been an integral part of the Western media narrative about the region. Yet, from the outset, the post-Ben Ali Tunisian transformation has been a bumpy and frankly, fragile affair in many ways. True enough, the Ben Ali repressive yoke has been lifted. That much has changed for the better. However, the recent massacre of foreign tourists in Sousse underlines many of the thorny structural problems that remain. I mention this, by the way, as one who has confidence – boarding on faith – in the Tunisian people’s ability to overcome these difficulties in the long run. — RJP
A number of themes have converged to make Tunisia more of a target of terrorist attacks from ISIS-like radicals than in the past, much of it blowback from the NATO attack on Libya that brought an end to Khadaffi’s rule.
- At the heart and soul of the crisis is the continuing socio-economic crisis, now nearly five years after Ben Ali and his entourage were expelled from the country which nags at the social fabric of the country.
- High unemployment rates especially for youth and in the interior regions of the country continues unabated. A number of sources claim that more Tunisian youth – more than 3,000 – have signed up to fight with Islamic groups in Syria and Iraq, returning to the country with new military skills.
- In yet another consequence of the ill-conceived NATO military operation there, the collapse of the Khadaffi rule in Libya has led to an anarchistic situation in which Islamic militias have come to the fore. All indications are that an enormous store of all kinds of weaponry and military equipment was stolen. It wound up in Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Egypt, and much of it in Tunisia as well in the hands of newly energized militant Salafist and Wahhabist type groups.
- Adding to Tunisia’s current instability were the policies of the previous Ennahda-led government which turned a blind eye to Islamic fundamentalist militant excesses, permitting these groups to establish bases of support in many of the country’s mosques, pre-schools and in some cases, and perhaps, it appears, the country’s security apparatus. When finally – after the February 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy – the Tunisian government began to reign in these elements, it was already too late. They had wormed their way into the fabric of Tunisian life, a kind of social ebola.
Just after coming to power in 2011, the Ennahda-led government pardoned hundreds of Salafist militants previously imprisoned by Ben Ali. One of them was Seifallah Ben Hassine, also known as Abu Ayadh al Tunisi, an associate of Osama Bin Laden who became one of Osama Bin Laden’s main assistants and is credited with supplying Al Qaeda with the two Tunisian suicide bombers who assassinated Afghan commander Ahmed Shah Massoud two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Once pardoned from prison “in an effort to promote reconciliation” a blunder of no small dimensions, Abu Ayadh al Tunisi founded Ansar Al-Sharia, the radical Salafist movement deeply implicated in different political assassinations and large scale massacres that have plagued the country since. According to the N.Y. Times, the Obama Administration claims to have killed al Tunisi in an American airstrike in Libya in mid-June, just prior to the Sousse massacre (which could have been, in part, in revenge for Washington’s air strike). As with Osama Bin Laden, the fact that al Tunisi has been “taken out” means little to nothing to the network in Tunisia he carefully set up. It will go on – and possibly thrive – without him.
Unprepared to deal with Islamic guerrilla counterinsurgency for which the country has had little to no experience, besides depending heavily on international lending institutions like the World Bank and IMF with their structural adjustment criteria, Tunisia finds itself more and more caught up in the US-French North African security web. In response to each terrorist attack – in Tunisia and elsewhere – Washington and Paris continue to create what is referred to as “the new normal” in terms of their military penetration of the continent. So – like in Afghanistan and Iraq – it goes.
Seifeddine Rezgui’s Last Break Dance
If there is such a thing, Seifeddine Rezgui certainly did not fit the prototype for an Islamic suicide mass killer, which only made his actions that much more of a surprise. Landing in a small boat just south of Sousse’s main beach area, Seifeddine Rezgui, a 23-year-old aviation student, originally from the village of Gaafor where he was known as the town’s best break dancer, took out a Kalashnikov sub-machine gun from underneath an umbrella and proceeded casually – in a manner that can only be considered chilling – to systematically kill 38 people and wound another 40 or so, first on the beach and then in a hotel pool area and lobby before he was finally brought down in a hail of fire by local security forces. (There a some reports, unverified to date, that as many as three assassins were involved; more recently, allegations of up to eight plotters have been identified).
Virtually all the casualties were foreign tourists, many of the British, in Sousse to enjoy the city’s fine beaches along a hotel strip that compares with South Beach in Miami in many ways. Although tourism is an essential element in the Tunisian economic mix, it has long been controversial, representing a clash of cultural values. (I remember many discussions with Tunisians – in Sousse as a matter of fact – a half century ago, where, repeatedly, Tunisians expressed their distaste for some of its less savory consequences.)
The responses of Tunisians to the carnage were typical: throughout the country, they showed their disgust and anger at the perpetrators.
For sure, the attack did not go unchallenged by local Tunisians. Showing a degree of courage and human decency, local Tunisians – including some employees at the hotels, others, just Sousse residents – formed a human shield between Rezgui and foreign beachcombers, protecting them and undoubtedly saving many lives. Calling out to Rezgui, one of the human shield members called out to him, “You’re not going to get past us, you’ll have to kill us.” A British tourist fleeing the scene of the carnage added her appreciation, “…on beach at Palm marina – whilst we were running to hide, hotel staff were running out to help, very brave.”
As Juan Cole notes in his daily column, Informed Comment,
More and more stories reveal how Tunisians tried to stop the killer by creating human shields on the beach and how a 56-year-old builder, Moncef Mayel, threw tiles from a roof top at Rezgui, screaming “You terrorist, you dog.” Rezgui, temporarily stunned took a few moments to recover his senses, allowing many possible victims to escape unharmed. When asked why he did it, Mavel replied, “It was my duty as a Muslim.” In a similar vein, footage circulating online shows a woman beating one of the suspects whilst he is escorted away by police.
As they did right after the assassinations of Chokri Belaid (February, 2013) and Mohammed Brahmi (July, 2013) were assassinated and in the aftermath of the terrorist attack against (mostly) foreign tourists visiting the Bardo Museum in March of this year, Tunisians once again took the streets to protest the Friday, June 26 cold-blooded murder of 38 tourists in the seaside resort city of Sousse, some 75 miles south of the capital, Tunis. Carrying banners which read “Non au Terrorisme” and “Why,” the day after the slaughter, crowds of mourners and demonstrators gathered in both Sousse and Tunis to protest the killings.
There were also posters “rebuking some political parties which have been encouraging the ‘takfiri’people” (salafists and wahhabists) – an oblique reference to the policies of the Ennahda party which had effective political power in the country for several years after Ben Ali was forced from the country. Under their political watch, besides the pardon of Abu Ayahd al Tunisi, radical Salafists were able to take over many of the country’s mosques and thousands of young Tunisians were recruited to fight for radical Islamic groups like Daesh and ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In fact, no Arab country provided more young recruits for radical Islamic causes than Tunisia during this period, policies to which Ennahda’s leadership at the most generous turned a blind eye, and at the worst, facilitated the recruitment efforts.
Two Terrorist Attacks in Three Months
It was the bloodiest terrorist attack in Tunisia’s history, the second in three months. Both of them appeared to target foreign tourists. A March, 2015 terrorist attack targeted the country’s Bardo Museum, one of the finest museums anywhere in the entire Mediterranean, with Roman mosaics, among other items, better than many found in Italy. In that attack, conducted by a young Tunisian travel agent, Yassin Al Abidi, and his accomplice, killed 22 museum goers while the local security guards were having coffee across the street in a café.
In both the Bardo Museum and Sousse beach attacks, the perpetrators were well-chosen. Despite a certain move towards conservative Muslim stances, neither gave indications of being part of terrorist sleeper cells. The families of both greeted the news that their sons and brothers had participated in the mass murder of civilians with great shock and grief. Both were radicalized over the past few years. Al Abidi, it seems, got some training in nearby Libya but Rezdui, it appears never left the country, although he spent the past four years studying in Kairouan, Islam’s third holy city after Mecca and Jerusalem, and there became influenced by radical Salafist tendencies. Al Abidi was characterized by his mother: “He couldn’t hurt a fly.”
Rezgui’s psychological portrait is quite similar.
He was known in his hometown as an extremely polite and gentle soul, the town’s best break dancer. Neither fulfilled the caricature of a militant Islamic radical (and thus made effective killers.) Rezgui’s father, Hakim Rezgui, a labor who works on farms and railroads for $15 a day, was stricken by both grief and bitterness, commented;
“These people ruined my son’s brain with horrid thoughts and ideas, they broke him.
“People keep asking me for information and I don’t know what to tell them, I was completely taken aback by the news of what my son had done. I had just got back from work at 11.30am, I work on the railway lines. I went to sleep as it’s Ramadan and I was fasting, then at 4pm the police came to my house and said they needed me to come with them.”
Expressing the deep psychic pain he and his family are experiencing, Hakin Rezdui went on:
“I wish there had been no victims, no one hurt. I wish it had never happened. Because when I see the victims I think it could have been my own family. I had no idea and I am really sorry. I am upset to see those victims. I feel the loss of the families so strongly. I feel like I have died along with the victims. I am so ashamed for me, for his mother, for all our family.”
The brazenness of both the Bardo and Sousse attacks – the casual way that a small group of killers could walk into a museum or a popular tourist beach and mow down people – was a terrible embarrassment to the ruling government, headed up by the Nidaa Tounes Party, made up in large measure of former Ben Ali- and even Bourguiba-era bureaucrats with their clear anti-political Islamic bent. The “secularists” and “bureaucrats” have returned to the halls of power, and Salafist-ISIS like elements see them as mortal enemies that need to be taken down. Certainly some of this attempt to embarrass and destabilize the ruling government is at play. The fact that the government is clearly working in tandem with both the French and U.S. governments – (the past colonial and current imperial governments ) – only intensifies the grassroots opposition that much more.
Another factor has come to light – the failure of the Tunisian security and intelligence – to have the prior knowledge capable of neutralizing such threats. The terrorists seem to strike with impunity. Besides these more spectacular terrorist attacks on tourists, there is a radical Islamist guerrilla movement based in western region of the country near the Algerian border – around Mount Chaambi – which has repeatedly given the Tunisian military authorities bloody noses in armed confrontations. With little knowledge of counter-insurgency warfare – most Tunisian military and police experience had little experience in this type of conflict – the Tunisian military has had to rely increasingly on foreign support (from France and the United States) to help stem these rebellious elements and as such, get further and further drawn into to U.S. and French regional security plans.
Another consequence of these two attacks, is to have provoked the Algerians into action. The collapse of the Khadaffi government – the result of the NATO-led offensive to topple it – has resulted in a flood of weaponry and radical Islamic groups radiating from Libya to the surrounding areas, destabilizing broad swaths of the Maghreb and Sahara regions. The echoes have been felt in Mali, Southern Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Burkina faso…and in Algeria — all of which have porous borders. As a result, the Algerians have considerably militarized their border with Libya. In the aftermath of the Sousse terrorist attack, the Algerian government has announced it will send an additional 12,000 troops to the Algerian-Tunisian border area to monitor border crossings in an effort to stop Islamic elements from strengthening their position in Eastern Algeria.
The Algerians have also publicly suggested that the Tunisian intelligence and security apparatus is probably infiltrated by radical Salafist elements and has offered the Tunisian government its assistance in identifying and purging those elements. 24 hours after the Sousse attack the infamous DRS (Algerian intelligence agency) issued a report underlining the deficiencies of Tunisian intelligence, insisting that the attack was not the work of one individual, but a coordinated attack. The report further suggests the complicity of Tunisian security apparatus with the radical Islamic elements. All this is made that much more curious by the fact that Tunisian jihadists killed by Tunisian security forces in the region of Mt. Chaabi, it turns out, had telephone connections, which at least one source suggests, linked to the Algerian security apparatus (DRS) in Algiers. Curious coincidence, no? – the sense of which, at this moment is far from clear. It is also somewhat surprising the speed with which the Algerian government issued a report critical of Tunisian security almost immediately after the Sousse attack. More on this line of thinking later.
Targeting Tunisia’s Tourism Industry
As many commentators have noted, the goal of both the Bardo and Sousse attacks was to undermine Tunisia’s tourist industry, and in so doing add to the country economic crisis. No doubt the combined impact of the double whammy will hurt. Even in the unstable conditions of the past few years, last year, income from tourism nearly approached $2 billion, making up 7% of the country’s gross national product and employing 15% of its workforce. Tunisian government sources estimate that the attacks will result in at least $515 million in lost revenues for the year. The union representing France’s tourist agents estimates that 80% of package holidays booked for Tunisia have been cancelled.
Based upon the two attacks in three months, the Fitch Ratings predicted that Tunisia’s gnp growth rates would shrink from its 2014 2.3% to a 1.9% level. It also lowered the ratings for Tunisian sovereign bonds to BB-, making them less attractive to foreign investors and thus, more difficult for the country to raise needed funds. These growth levels are far below the 4.4% growth rate the country enjoyed, 2005-2010, prior to the beginning of the Arab Spring. Fitch is one of the three nationally recognized statistical ratings organizations designated by the Security and Exchange Commission, 1975, together with Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s. The three together are considered “the big three credit rating agencies.”
In a press release, Fitch commented:
The attack revealed that security risks still weigh heavily on the country after a successful political transition towards political democracy. The risks are aggravated, in part as a result of the common border between Tunisian and Libya where terrorists who committed the attacks at the Bardo Museum and in Sousse got their training, this according to the Tunisian government.(1)
How many Tunisian hotels will close shop, how many employees to join the unemployment lines remains to be seen. The bigger question looms: can the Tunisian tourism industry ever recover from this blow? Short run prospects are grim, medium and long-term possibilities, at least at the moment, unknown.
1. « L’attaque met en évidence les risques d’ordre sécuritaires qui pèsent encore sur le pays après une transition réussie vers un régime politique démocratique. Ces risques sont aggravés, vu les frontières communes de la Tunisie avec la Libye, où les terroristes, qui ont commis les attentats du Bardo et de Sousse, ont été formés, selon des affirmations du gouvernement tunisien », développe Fitch dans son communiqué. (Translated from the French by RJP.)