As Tunisia copes with the fallout of a brutal attack on tourists, questions surface about the radicalization of Tunisians.
Tunisia, once hailed as a successful transition model in the wake of the Arab Spring, was recently hit by yet another deadly attack against tourists, leaving 38 people dead near the coastal town of Sousse. Just a few months after the Bardo Museum assault, the latest attack is likely to cast another shadow on the country’s success story, leaving many wondering how to counter the radicalization of Tunisian youth.
On June 26, Seifeddine Rezgui, a 23-year old Tunisian student from the town of Gaafour, walked along the beach of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel armed with an assault rifle and opened fire, carefully selecting his victims and apparently sparing Tunisians. The gunman left unharmed a group of hotel workers, who formed a human shield around the entrance of a building to prevent him from entering. The shooting spree ended when Rezgui was shot dead by security forces near the site of the attack.
Outrage spread quickly across and beyond Tunisia. This latest attack raises important questions about the radicalization of Tunisian youth, the country’s counterterrorism approach and the future of its economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism.
The radicalisation of Seifeddine Rezgui
Shortly after the attack, video footage of the young attacker breakdancing in front of a camera several years ago emerged. In a similar vein, the postgraduate student is reported to have been a fan of Real Madrid Football Club and hip hop music.
Shortly after the attack, Islamic State (IS)-related social media accounts released a picture showing Rezgui sitting between two guns, referring to him as Abu Yahya al-Qayrawani, a reference to the city of Kairouan, where Rezgui pursued his studies. Kairouan, home to the holy mosque of Uqba, is considered by many as Islam’s fourth holiest site. IS has also urged its followers to carry out attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Security forces said that Rezgui was not on their watch list and did not appear to have traveled abroad (at least legally). Authorities and observers are still working to puzzle together where he became radicalized. Forensic evidence indicates that he was the only gunman, despite some eyewitnesses describing another person having been involved in the shooting.
Rezgui’s hometown of Gaafour in the northwestern governorate of Siliana is an impoverished place, described by Zeineb Marzouk as an “epicenter of marginalization, poverty and strife” in an article for Tunisia Live.
Marzouk argues that the clue to his radicalization might only be 200 meters away from his home, referring to a Salafi mosque in the El Zouhour neighborhood. “The mosque in El Zouhour is dominated by Salafists who are radicalizing the young people. In their ideology, women are kept at home and the wearing of niqab is quite normal. But this is not Gaafour’s real image, they are the root of all the problems here,” a 65-year-old resident told Tunisia Live.
Many locals denied, however, that he was radicalized in the town and pointed to Kairouan, where he spent most of time. Locals told the Tunisian news site that Rezgui’s family was “moderate” and “balanced,” known for their good manners and kindness, with neighbors and family friends expressing shock about the 23-year-old’s actions.
In Kairouan, the God’s Mercy Mosque, a small house of worship in the old city near where Rezgui lived, has now come under heavy scrutiny by Tunisian security services. Investigators are also probing potential links between Salafists in Kairouan and Sousse, Grazia Longo wrote for La Stampa. The imam of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Taieb Ghozzi, warned of radicalization in the city’s mosques.
On June 30, several days after the attack, Dafer Neji, a spokesman for the Tunisian prime minister, told Reuters that Rezgui trained in a jihadist camp in Libya last year—at the same time as the two gunmen who attacked the Bardo Museum in March 2015. While Rezgui obtained a passport in 2014, it contained no exit stamps, according to officials, indicating that he might have made a clandestine journey to Libya.
Reports say that Rezgui gave few (if any) clues to family and friends about his radical views. After hearing the news of the attack, Rezgui’s father, Hakim Rezgui, said he could not comprehend what happened: “My God, I am so shocked … I don’t know who has contacted him, influenced him or who has put these ideas in his head. He has new friends who got him into this.” An aunt of the gunman said: “He was a blank page, he didn’t tell us anything about what he was planning. The first time we knew about it was when we saw it on the news.”
Tunisia’s reaction to the attack
Tunisian officials have heavily condemned the attack, and authorities arrested 12 people suspected to be linked to it. At the time of writing, security forces were hunting two men who trained with Rezgui in Libya. Standing alongside his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany, Tunisian Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli said: “We will find all those involved, whether it was just logistical support or not.”
On June 27, Tunisians and foreigners gathered for a march in Sousse denouncing terrorism and the attacks. Activists also came to the beaches of Sousse to show solidarity with the victims. “We, the Tunisian people, support the families of the victims with a heavy heart,” one Sousse resident told Tunisia Live. Some, however, criticized the government for not providing enough security and for reacting too slowly to the attack—some accounts say that it took over half an hour to stop Rezgui.
After the shooting, Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid announced a security clampdown, which would include more armed guards at popular archaeological sites and tourist zones. A key part of this strategy is to close around 80 mosques which, Essid said, spread “venom.” The mosques were supposed to be closed within a week.
Tunisia has a long history of secularism and is seen as one of the most secular countries in the Arab world. Tunisia’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, and his successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, enacted secular measures—in many cases forcibly. While a family code under then-President Bourguiba gave women equality with men in several areas, critics pointed to persecution of Islamist movements and the closures of mosques.
Tunisia’s foreign fighter dilemma
The question of radicalization does not only relate to Tunisia’s internal dynamics and domestic security. More than 3,000 Tunisians have gone to fight abroad in Syria, Iraq and Libya. By some estimates, there are more Tunisians fighting in Iraq and Syria than people from any other country.
Tunisia has experienced Islamist militant attacks on its soil in the past, including an assault on the US Embassy in Tunis in 2012 and the deadly bombing of a synagogue on the island of Djerba in 2002. Observers have noted a rise in Islamist militancy since the fall of President Ben Ali in 2011, while Tunisian security forces continue to fight militants, some of them linked to al-Qaeda, in the Chaambi mountains near the border to Algeria.
In June 2014, Tunisia’s interior minister said that at least 2,400 Tunisian jihadists are fighting in Syria. This number has only risen since, with many of those traveling abroad to join the Islamic State.
Dario Cristiani, an adjunct professor in international affairs at Vesalius College in Brussels, points out in an article for The Jamestown Foundation that in recent years, Tunisians have fought abroad in Somalia, Iraq and Mali. It was two Tunisians who killed the anti-Taliban leader in Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Massoud, just two days before 9/11. While the presence of Tunisians among jihadist organizations is nothing new, the scale of the problem has significantly changed, making it vital to look analytically at the path taken by young Tunisians to radicalization, Cristiani argues.
The president of Tunisia’s National Union of Imams, Fadhel Achour, told Middle East Eye about the way radical preachers tailor their recruitment: “These people aren’t stupid or naïve, their arguments are good. They explain everything—the bad economy, the lack of social values—through the absence of religion in Tunisia.” Simon Speakman Cordall, writing for Middle East Eye, stresses that “for young men living in Gaafour and hundreds of other remote Tunisian towns, the mosque’s radical messages help them make sense of a lifetime of poverty and crime.”
Achour argued that the planned mosque closures would only lead to people going “to fight jihad in Syria” or the Chaambi mountains. Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, the president of the Rescue Association for Tunisians Trapped Abroad, which mediates between the families of foreign fighters and state authorities, voiced similar doubts. “If we close mosques we’re sending a message to these young men that the government is fighting religion in the same way Ben Ali did,” he told Middle East Eye. “Instead, we should be controlling these mosques … making sure they have imams well versed in the Quran and known for their competence.”
Following the Bardo Museum attack in March, Tunisian state authorities promised to restrict militants’ access to funds and have pushed for strong counterterrorism laws that would, for example, increase the time during which suspects can be held without being charged from six to 15 days. Rights groups have said that such measures could undermine free speech and give too much power to the police, which under previous regimes has a history of abusive behavior.
In conjunction with the planned mosque closures, critics say there is a danger that Tunisia may return to its dark days of authoritarianism.
The deadly attack at the Imperial Marhaba Hotel is likely to harm Tunisia’s tourism sector, a crucial source of jobs and foreign currency in the North African nation, which is plagued by unemployment.
Tunisia earned $1.95 billion in revenues from tourism in 2014 and expects to lose at least $515 million this year, approximately a quarter of expected earnings, Tourism Minister Salma Loumi said on June 29. According to some estimates, tourism accounts for 7% of gross domestic product (GDP) and employs around 400,000 people.
The government has announced several measures to help the tourism industry survive, including a 4% VAT reduction, special loans for tourism-related ventures and compensation packages for unemployed tourism workers. Hotels have also vowed to take extra security measures.
The expected losses will make efforts to lower unemployment, which stands at around 15%, a lot more difficult for a government that is trying to grow the economy. While the two countries face somewhat different challenges, Egypt, once a thriving tourist destination, has still not recovered from losing visitors as a result of the 2011 uprising and the subsequent turmoil.
In the coming months, observers will keep a close eye on how Tunisia responds to the Sousse attack, including whether the government can keep a balance between preserving newly found freedoms and efforts to fight radicalism.
*[This article was originally published by The World Weekly.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.