Tunis, Tunisia – On Wednesday morning, October 30, a suicide bomber blew himself up on the beach outside a luxury hotel in Sousse, one of Tunisia’s major tourist destinations.
The same morning, a second man was arrested while carrying explosives in the nearby city of Monastir – just outside the mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president and independence-era hero.
Nobody but the bomber was killed in the Sousse explosion, but the tactics employed shocked the country. While a string of violent incidents between security forces and armed groups have taken place throughout the year, the suicide attack was the first since 2002, when a synagogue was targeted on the island of Djerba, home to Tunisia’s largest Jewish community.
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The Ministry of Interior announced later on Wednesday that five people were arrested in connection with the two incidents, and released the photos of two young men, one aged 20 and the other 22, wanted for involvement and still on the run.
The government was quick to categorise the perpetrators as members of a conservative religious group, with spokesperson Mohamed Ali Aroui saying the suicide bomber and the man captured in Monastir were subscribers of Takfiriyya Salafism, a branch of Salafism that allows the killing of non-believers.
The government has regularly attributed violent incidents to Salafists, and specifically to Ansar al-Sharia, a religious group that the government has linked to armed activity in the country’s interior regions and two assassinations of opposition politicians. It has also drawn connections between this group and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Until this week, violent incidents in Tunisia were primarily focused in the country’s less-developed interior regions, far from the urban coastal areas.
In April, clashes began between security forces and armed groups on Tunisia’s largest mountain, Mount Chaambi, which lies near the Algerian border. Landmines planted there killed two security officers on patrol in June, and, in late July, eight soldiers were killed in an ambush.
The government has sought to drive armed groups from Mount Chaambi through frequent patrols, artillery fire, and aerial bombings, and has coordinated with Algeria to patrol the porous border. At one point, fed-up citizens living near the mountain asked the government to simply set it on fire.
Rising waves of violence
The government has tied the latest unrest to the murders of prominent politicians this year.
In February, opposition politician Chokri Belaid was killed in front of his home in Tunis. In late July, opposition National Constituent Assembly member Mohamed Brahimi was murdered in similar circumstances, an act that threw the country into political chaos. Around 60 other opposition members withdrew from the assembly and called for the resignation of the government.
The Ministry of Interior says that both men were killed with the same gun, and that the suspects are linked to Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the armed groups on Mount Chaambi.
There's been so much ideological exploitation of the event that we don't know what happened.
Arrests followed, but violence continued. Recently, National Guard personnel and police officers have been the victims of attacks. On October 17, two National Guard officers were killed at a traffic checkpoint in Beja. A week later, six National Guard officers and one police officer were killed in two separate attacks.
Thursday’s events, however, mark the first time since bombings in Sousse and Monastir in 1987 that such violence has come to Tunisia’s tourist-friendly coast. Concerns have been raised that Tunisia’s tourism sector, which employs around 400,000 people, will be seriously harmed by ongoing security problems.
While the government has linked Wednesday’s events to “religious extremists”, analysts are more cautious.
“There’s been so much ideological exploitation of the event that we don’t know what happened,” said Michael Ayari, Senior Tunisia Analyst at the International Crisis Group. He thinks many secular Tunisians have been quick to agree with the “religious-militant narrative”, while the attackers’ motives are in fact still unclear.
Ayari sees a strong link between Tunisia’s political uncertainty and its security problems.
“Each time there are security problems, it leads to political polarisation,” he said.
He believes political negotiations currently underway are key to stopping the violence.
“They need to discuss and depoliticise security issues,” Ayari said. “Currently, without the end of national dialogue, we could see more deaths.”
Hardline armed religious groups may be working to damage Tunisia’s ongoing political negotiations because they do not want the ruling Islamist Ennahdha party to cooperate with the secular opposition, he said. However, other actors, not necessarily “jihadists’, could also benefit from a weak government and thus seek to sow tension in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
Mokhtar Ben Nasser, a retired colonel in the Tunisian military, who until recently served as a defence ministry spokesperson, blames all violence on “Islamic militants”. He said what happened in Sousse and Monastir – and earlier incidents between armed groups and security forces – are all connected to Ansar al-Sharia.
“This is a first because they were using explosives, but they failed,” he said. “This is hasty operation. These guys were not specialists or professionals.” Ben Nasser believes the lack of civilian casualties on Wednesday demonstrates the success of the government’s tactics.
“The failure of what happened in Sousse and Monastir is proof that security officers are being vigilant,” Ben Nasser said.
He sees the violence in the country as closely linked to its difficult-to-control borders with Libya and Algeria.
Smuggling and terrorism are related. Smugglers provide terrorists with different goods, food, logistics, and medicine. Terrorists in turn provide protection for smugglers.
“Smuggling and terrorism are related. Smugglers provide terrorists with different goods, food, logistics, and medicine. Terrorists in turn provide protection for smugglers,” Ben Nasser said.
Mehdi Taje, a Tunisian security analyst and director of Global Prospect Intelligence, also stressed border security as the key to stopping violence.
“I believe that the danger in the future will be coming from Libya,” he said.
Tunisia’s eastern neighbour has seen a breakdown in the authority of its central government, and weapons, people, and illegal goods have been able to evade Tunisian border authorities. Taje says ultimately the desire to control smuggling is more important than religion in motivating criminal groups in the region.
“The main goal is to control the smuggling road. For centuries this has been the main goal and those claimed jihadists and Islamists essentially want to control the roads for trafficking, whether human trafficking or other types of trafficking,” he said.
On Thursday morning, gruesome images from Sousse appeared on the front pages of Tunisian newspapers. But while previous acts of violence had increased divisive rhetoric between political parties, that did not appear to be the case after Wednesday’s attack. The long-awaited national dialogue proceeded as planned, and the National Constituent Assembly, its withdrawn opposition members back in attendance, continued to work long hours to achieve its daily goals under the plan outlining negotiations.
Even tourism in Sousse seemed to weather the storm. Hotels contacted there reported no cancellations of reservations.
Now, eyes are on political talks. Tunisians are weary of the almost three-year-long transition and hope improved political stability will lead to greater security.
Youssef Gagi, Robert Joyce and Asma Smadhi contributed reporting to this article.
Follow Tristan Dreisbach on Twitter: @TheOnlyTristan