Suicide bombers in Tunisia, from one decade to another

Oussama Romdhani
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For the first time in more than 11 years, the peace and quiet of Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast was shattered by a suicide-bomb explosion. But, from one decade to the other, Tunisia is a changed country. And the terrorism threat it faces has also changed.

The first time around, on April 11, 2002, a 25-year-old al-Qaeda affiliated suicide-bomber detonated a propane-gas tank near the Ghriba synagogue on the southern island of Djerba. The French-Tunisian’s misdeed caused the death of 21 persons, including 14 German tourists, 5 Tunisians and 2 French nationals.


Last week, the cities of Sousse and Monastir, on the Tunisian Riviera, were targeted by two suicide-bombers on the same day. In one case, a 22-year old Tunisian blew himself up outside a 4-star hotel in the beach-resort of Sousse, about 140 kilometers from Tunis. In the other, an 18-year-old young Tunisian was caught trying to detonate a conspicuous suicide -bomb vest at the Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum, a national monument honoring Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, in the sea-side city of Monastir (about 25 kilometers from Sousse).

Lingering similarities

Although more than 11 years apart, the three incidents had a number of similarities. As in 2002, there is concern these days in Tunisia about the possible fallouts of tourism. A concern not without reason, since the tourism sector directly employs more than 400,000 people, and indirectly provides revenue for two or three times that number. It is also the source for no less than 7 percent of the GNP and is the second hard currency earner. Tourism operators are still scrutinizing the confirmation and cancellation charts for clues, hoping the country manages to weather the storm. But no reason panic to panic; at least for now.

The Ghriba explosion, 11 years ago, was quite a blow to the Tunisian tourism industry. The terrorist act caused an irreversible dent in the flow of German tourists to the country. A great part of the disaffection was caused by the loss of confidence in “the destination” as the authorities under the former regime tried to conceal the occurrence of the suicide bomb attack which contradicted the untenable narrative of invulnerability to terrorism.

The “chickens coming home to roost” pattern has been in motion from a decade to the other. But in 2002, there was not enough awareness or willingness to acknowledge the risk of returning terrorists doing harm to their own country. The fact that the Djerba suicide-bomber, Nizar Naouar, had training in Afghanistan before coming home to perpetrate his crime was surprising to many Tunisians. Two young Tunisians were involved before that in the assassination of Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan, on the eve of the Sept. 11t attacks. But the silly “common wisdom,” then, was that Tunisian “jihadists” would never dare commit such misdeeds at home. But last week the public was not surprised anymore to hear that the failed bombers and their presumed accomplices had probably traveled to Syria, the current “Jihad magnet.”

Participation in foreign Jihad activities has in fact attracted disproportionate numbers of Tunisians and North African radicals throughout the years; and still does. The Sinjar Records, al-Qaeda documents captured by U.S. forces in in Iraq October 2007, surprised many observers. It showed Tunisians to be the third per-capita nationality among fighters in Iraq. They ranked behind Libyans and Saudi Arabians. In proportion to the overall number of enrolled Jihadists, they constituted 5.5 percent of the fighters. The Saudi Arabians (41 percent), Libyans (18 percent), Syrians and Yemenis (8 percent), Algerians (7 percent) and Moroccans (6 percent) came first. North Africans were also among the first volunteers for suicide-bomb missions. According to the al-Qaeda, “sign-in” sheets seized in Sinjar, 91 percent of Moroccans, 85 percent of Libyans and 41 percent of Tunisians preferred to die as suicide-bombers to another al Qaida –related activity in Iraq.

Today, there are still many Tunisian jihadists in various hotspots, including Mali, Iraq, Chechniya and Afghanistan. But the largest contingent remains in Syria. At least a few hundred have gone to fight (and die) there since 2011. Tunisian Minister of the Interior Lotfi ben Jeddou revealed that the authorities have in recent months prevented more than 6,000 Tunisian would-be-Jihadists from traveling to Syria; and arrested scores of “Jihad organizers.” Tunisians are reported to be fighting in Mali, after having constituted the largest national contingent during the In Amenas attack, south of Algeria last January. There is also speculation that terrorists fighting Tunisian forces in Mount Chambi near the Algerian border include former Tunisian and North African fighters in Mali. Tunisians are also reported to be part of the new al-Murabitoun alliance, formed last August by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and The signers-in-Blood or Mulathameen brigade. The concern today, among experts, is about what might happen once these jihadists start drifting back-home. Tunisian jihadism expert Alaya Allani has called for a “preemptive strategy” to deal with Tunisian Jihadists who might be returning to Tunisia from abroad, especially the hundreds of them currently fighting in Syria.

A fundamentally changed threat

Despite the enduring similarities between then and now, Tunisia faces today a fundamentally changed threat.

The most crucial new factor which has affected terrorism dynamics in North Africa in this decade has been the new conditions created by the Arab Spring revolts.

In Tunisia, the old security doctrines and rules of engagement have been essentially scuttled after the revolution. Legal amnesties were extended to hardline salafists who took advantage of the new freedoms to widen their reach throughout the country.

According to Alaya Allani, there are today three types of jihadist formations likely to be present in Tunisia: First, Ansar al-Sharia of Tunisia; second, the dormant cells of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); and third, member-cells of the recently-formed al- Murabitoun. Not much is known of the extent of presence of the two latter formations in the country nor of the way the three organizations collaborate.

The only formation to have operated publicly in Tunisia since the revolution is Ansar al-Sharia. This jihadist-salafist formation had ostensibly used the post-revolutionary environment to organize and establish networks of active sympathizers, through “charity work” and “Dawa.” Last August, the authorities ended up designating Ansar al-Sharia of Tunisia a terrorist organization, and accused it of carrying out most of the terrorist attacks; including the murders of two opposition leaders and the failed suicide-bombings in Sousse and Monastir. Ansar al-Sharia seems to have in common an uncanny sense of political timing but a limitesd level of tactical sophistication. Retired colonel and former Ministry of Defense pokesman Mokhtar Ben Nasr described the Sousse suicide attack, for instance, as “improvised, hastily perpetrated and haphazardly executed”. His description was not different from “IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly’s assessment that the “the low attack capability suggests it was not directed by an established group such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or al-Mourabitoun, although it is feasible the attackers had trained with such a group.”

Another major Arab Spring related factor was the quick deterioration of the security environment in North Africa following the fall of the Gadhafi regime in 2011. Daniel Byman, director of research at the Brookings Institution, explained that not only borders became more porous. But “the biggest problem,” he said, “is government weakness. So even if one country is adopting policies that make it stronger, it can still suffer violence emanating from its neighbors.”

Precarious border control has facilitated the outflow of weapons from Libya’s open-air arms depots to all countries of the larger North Africa region. It has also made possible all types of cross-border trafficking which has provided jihadists with a steady source of revenue. During recent months, the authorities intensified their border control measures in order to stem arms smuggling and other forms of trafficking. Among the drastic measures taken, there was the setting up of “buffer zones” in the border areas.

An additional factor was the change of attitude of al-Qaeda towards the region’s political dynamics since the Arab Spring. Al-Qaeda Central and its regional spinoffs, especially al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have adjusted their discourse to the changed landscape. They moved from total confrontation with former regimes to more nuanced attempts at influencing the new political alliances. If their hostility to “secularists” remained unmitigated, they continued to send conflicting messages to Islamists taking part in the transition. Although often stressing the bonds of commonality with “all Islamic currents,” they continued to disparage any attempts by ruling Islamists to cooperate with the West or to forge alliances with “secularist politicians.”

Last month, al-Qaeda’s chief, Ayman al-Zawaheri, called on Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt to steer away from any compromises with “secularist forces,” and to keep in mind that “the current struggle is against Islam.” Comparing situations in Egypt (after the fall of Mursi) and that of Tunisia’s, he said that “the same tragedy is occurring in Tunisia. The search for agreement with the enemies of Islam at the expense of Islam’s doctrines, rules and legislations has met with an abysmal failure and seen a horrendous fall.” Zawaheri was clearly referring to political dialogue between secularists and Islamists in Tunisia; and was not obviously wishing it well. Many analysts in Tunis see at least some connection between the progress of political dialogue (or lack of it) and the occurrence of terrorist incidents. Several politicians have even speculated that terrorist acts are perpetrated every time the political process seems to be moving ahead.

In the highly polarized political environment of Tunisia, the understanding of terrorist dynamics can at times be blurred as terrorist incidents are discussed in terms of who stands to politically “gain or lose” from them. This particular prism helps create a climate of conspiracies and “false flag” theories. In any case, it does not allow for the discussion of the terrorist threats on their own terms, a much needed perspective in Tunisia today.

New environment

The contrast between the political and social environments surrounding terrorist incidents now and a decade ago could not be starker than in terms of public and media attitudes towards terrorism.

Back in April 2002, the authorities were busy repairing and repainting the damaged synagogue only a few hours after the suicide-bomb. They even tried in vain to claim the explosion was “accidental.” But the misleading talking points could not hold water, especially since German and French investigators, who were brought in into the enquiry, were quickly assembling the pieces of the puzzle.

In October 2013, the scene was totally different, however. In fact, it was almost the opposite. The severed torso and the strewn body parts of the Sousse suicide bomber, remained in public view for many hours. The graphic pictures of the terrorist’s blown-up body were widely shared on social media. It was eerily reminiscent of what Joseph Conrad referred to in The Heart of Darkness as “the fascination of the abomination.” Even online and print publications picked up the unedited photographs prompting a justified outcry by the Tunisian journalist’s union a few days later.

Without calling for cover-ups of terrorist incidents, experts have warned against the undiscerning and rash exposure given in the press and social media to the blood and gore caused by terrorists, especially when the main objective behind some of the acts seems to be to “make an impression” on domestic and international public opinion. Mokhtar Ben Nasr opined that the Sousse incident was aimed at “influencing public opinion by spreading fear in the hearts of civilians and creating a diversion for security and army efforts.” The undiscerning dissemination of graphic pictures and video footage can amplify the psychological impact sought by terrorists. No legitimate right to information is served when a television channel broadcasts in prime time (as it happened last July) long unedited frames of soldiers with throats slit after a terrorist ambush in Mount Chambi; or when the dismembered body of a would-be bomber is displayed in high-resolution photographs.

A couple of months before the last terrorist incidents, a Pew survey already showed the mounting concern of the Tunisian public about “Islamic extremism.” 71 percent of respondents were fearful, last September, against only 42 percent a year earlier. Were it to be conducted this month, the poll would have shown even higher figures. Lotfi Ouenniche, a commentator with French language daily “Le Temps” observed that, “Tunisians are going through moments they never went through in the past. But it is particularly vital not to succumb to the sentiments of fear and panic.”

Balancing the legitimate propensity towards fear in the face of terror, there is a relatively serene wide public discussion of the problem with the participation of officials, politicians and pundits. In 2002, the issue was only discussed in the closed door sessions of the “sovereign” with his senior security officials. Today, experts outside officialdom can raise fundamental national security issues. Security expert Faisal Cherif called for the creation of an “independent national security agency” to make up for what he calls the current “lack of strategic vision of national security”. Interestingly, too, former military and police officials have no problem expressing their views, without being bothered by the old “obligation de reserve” (i.e. obligation not to comment on issues which were part of any civil servant’s prerogatives).

The country’s media outlets are still learning learn how to deal with terrorist events. But over-reporting on such events is still less harmful than ignoring them altogether. Censoring the facts and images of terrorism could undercut the confidence of the public in authorities without necessarily better addressing the deep-roots of the problem. In Tunisia and elsewhere, a terrorist occurrence by itself does not put the interests of a nation in vital jeopardy, for terrorism can and does happen anywhere. What matters however is the degree of awareness by the elites that the terrorist threat is a greater risk to all than the victory of their ideological and political rivals. Such a threat can bring out the best in a country’s citizens, politicians included. It can also be a catalyst for international empathy and support. French daily “Le Monde” wrote after the suicide attacks: “To abandon Tunisia to its difficulties, as frustrating as they might be, would be a grave error. To help Tunisians stand up on their feet and build their future is to their interest but also to ours.”


Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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