Cold Comfort

Tunisia's first suicide bomber in decades managed to kill only himself. But that's little consolation to a people who are fighting to keep their transition on track.


TUNIS — A suicide bomber blew himself up Wednesday near a beach resort in the coastal town of Sousse, one of Tunisia’s top tourist destinations. The good news: the attacker didn’t kill anyone, and caused minimal physical damage. The security forces also announced that they had foiled another attempt to attack the mausoleum of Tunisia’s liberal president Habib Bourguiba, whose secular legacy has always fueled the anger of the country’s Islamists.

But that was the end of the good news. The fact is that these two abortive bombing attempts signal an ominous turn in Tunisia’s political development just as the country is attempting to reboot its democratic transition after two months of paralysis. Together with other recent, successful attacks attributed to hard-line religious groups, the incidents might put that fragile process at risk.

Nine national guard agents have been killed in confrontations across the country in the past two weeks. One of the most recent attacks, which claimed at least six lives, came on Oct. 23, the second anniversary of Tunisia’s first genuine elections, and the day when talks between the Islamist-led government and opposition parties were scheduled to begin.

The two sides have been at odds since the assassination of leftist politician Mohamed Brahmi on July 25, a few days before the country was to vote on its long-awaited constitution. The Ministry of the Interior has attributed both sets of attacks to controversial hard-line religious group Ansar Sharia, whose name means supporters of Sharia law.

The group was founded after the revolution by Abu Iyadh, a Tunisian jihadist and former al Qaeda militant who fought in Afghanistan. Iyadh has been on the run since the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Tunis in September 2012.

The timing of the attacks has led some analysts to think that these hard-line religious groups are intentionally trying to sabotage efforts to establish a stable, democratic government in Tunisia. "Their activities are all part of a plan to derail any political process in the future because it would be at their expense," said Alaya Allani, a political analyst and specialist in Islamism in the Maghreb. According to Allani, the ruling Islamist party has lately opted for cracking down on hard-line religious groups, depriving them of their previous status of "tolerated but not recognized."

For many Tunisians, though, that crackdown is too little, too late. The funerals of several of the slain security officers turned into spontaneous protests against the government’s handling of terror groups, which resulted in ransacking and burning several regional headquarters of the Ennahdha movement, Tunisia’s Islamist party that came to power in December 2011. (In the photo above, a woman mourns her son, a security officer slain during the recent violence.) The ruling party has been accused of being too lenient on some Salafist jihadist groups. Party leader and prominent intellectual Rached Ghanouchi seemed not take the threat of such groups seriously, referring to Salafists as a group of "reckless youngsters."

Ennahdha, however, in spite of its Islamist orientation, has sought to distance itself from jihadist ideology and long insisted that Tunisia is no place for jihad. The party rallied its followers for its own "anti-terrorism" protest on Thursday night.

Though most of Tunisian society is horrified by the recent attacks, there is a portion of the population that sympathizes with the accused terror group’s jihadist message. They view the individuals killed in retaliatory operations — at least 13 in the last weeks — as martyrs, like the slain security officers. Their funerals drew several hundred people.

The imam leading the funeral prayer in El Kram used fiery jihadist rhetoric to frame the fallen as the victims of a tyrannical state whose claims to democracy were of no significance."On judgment day, the martyr will say ‘they killed me for democracy,’" he said. "On TV they say, ‘We are doing this for democracy, or for France, or for the national flag.’ What nation? We have a flag that says ‘there is no god but God,’" he added, referring to the black-and-white shahada flag used by many jihadist and other Islamist groups.

Meanwhile, the Tunisian government did not hesitate to attribute blame for several of the recent attacks to a specific jihadist group: Ansar Sharia. "We know who is behind the attack," Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said, when asked about recent clashes in Gobellat that left two officers dead and another wounded. "It is the same group we have been at war with since we banned its annual meeting."

The relationship between Ansar Sharia and Tunisia’s government has deteriorated since last May, when the government banned its third annual meeting, saying the group had refused to abide by the law and apply for permission. Ansar Sharia responded by defying the authorities, referring to the security forces as taghout, a Quranic Arabic term for "oppressor" or "tyrant," and calling off its meeting. Instead, Ansar Sharia members resorted to organizing smaller, private rallies across the country.

In August 2013, the Interim Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh even announced that the government had decided to classify the group as a terrorist organization, after evidence implicated its members in the assassination of opposition politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.

The recent wave of attacks, and especially Wednesday’s suicide bomb, sets a new precedent not only because of their mounting frequency, but because some of the attacks appear to be spontaneous acts of aggression against security forces and even civilians. Previous operations were more commonly violent reactions to raids initiated by the security forces.

The exact significance of this new trend remains open to interpretation. Alaya Allani says that Ansar Sharia and the other jihadist movements might have grown stronger now: "They [jihadists] were unable to conduct such attacks before because the movement was weak. They were still in their first steps of formation, still gathering weapons and getting trained in Tunisia and in neighboring Libya."

Kamel Mraihi, a police officer who has extensively worked on religious extremists before and after the Tunisian uprising, had a different interpretation. For him, the recent surge of violence is a sign of desperation, and perhaps the last breaths of the jihadist movements in Tunisia. Their hardcore members cannot exceed one hundred, many of whom are already under arrest, he estimated. "They did not start the war," he said. "We started it when we started chasing them."

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