Now Tunisia’s Government Is In The Crosshairs

The blast at the heart of Tunis yesterday was not just another terrorist attack.

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“I heard something explode, and it was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard,” a friend of mine said over the phone. He works as a banker in downtown Tunis, in a building on Avenue Mohammed V, close enough to hear the sound of the blast that rocked the center of the city yesterday just after five in the evening. As I tried to make my way close to the scene, I was bombarded by messages and calls from family and friends, checking in to see if I was okay. Twelve security agents, members of the presidential guard, died in the attack. 20 more were injured.

Today, life seems to be getting back to some semblance of normalcy — in stark contrast to the sense of panic that gripped Tunis last night. There are plenty of people walking around downtown, though many members of the security forces are also in evidence. A group of citizens approached the place of the attack with flags and flowers to show solidarity with the security forces. They all looked sad, but certainly not intimidated. “We’re not scared!” shouted an older man wearing a Tunisian flag.

Tunisia has experienced several terrorist attacks this year, but this one seemed calculated to provoke an aggressive response. “This bombing happened near the Interior Ministry, in the busiest part of downtown Tunis!” one eyewitness told me. He had seen the bus on fire after the explosion, followed by an influx of security forces, ambulances, firetrucks, and curious crowds. “This was a blow aimed at the heart of the security system. They need to get tougher on these terrorists.”

In an official statement the president’s media office sent me, they denounced the incident as a “cowardly terrorist attack.” President Beji Caid Essebsi has declared a state of emergency for the next month. And the security council announced a 15-day closure of Tunisia’s border with Libya, starting today. 

The incident took place on Avenue Mohamed V, near the clock tower — a well-known landmark. As my witness noted, this is just a two-minute walk from the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of Tunisia’s police and security services. This is the heart of Tunis, where the traffic never ends and pedestrians are always walking by. People near the site of the blast posted photos online showing that the bus burned out completely. It’s the kind of photo we sometimes see in the news elsewhere — but this time the horror has come to us.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main road to the entrance of the Tunis airport, and the small street near Avenue Mohamed V, where the bus was parked before it exploded, were all closed yesterday. On the day of the blast, the government announced a curfew from 9 PM until 5 AM. By 8:50 in the evening, all the streets downtown were deserted, with only vehicles belonging to the security forces still around. It reminded many Tunisians of the chaotic days during the 2011 revolution, after President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali fled the country — except that this time the situation was far more terrifying. As I finished up my reporting in the center of the city, I suddenly found myself in the frightening position of being stranded: it had become almost impossible to find a taxi as the night wore on. There were no people outside; most of the lights still on were from police vehicles.

It was a cold and rainy day in Tunis, weather befitting one of the darkest days in the city’s history. This is an unprecedented attack that nonetheless should have been anticipated. In the aftermath of the popular uprisings of 2011, Tunisia has witnessed significant security challenges, including two political assassinations and two major terrorist attacks which targeted tourists. Until yesterday, gunmen had only targeted security forces in isolated locations, somewhere out in the countryside. Now the jihadists’ war on the Tunisian government has come into the cities.

The rural insurgency won’t be going away any time soon, of course. Dozens of Tunisian soldiers have died from exploding mines in the mountains near the Algerian border. Gunmen have taken efuge in the rough, mountainous terrain of Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, and Kef. The security forces have managed to lead successful raids in these areas, confiscating arms, explosives, mobile phones, and supplies. The mountains have been declared closed military zones, where security forces have staged repeated security sweeps. The conflict in the cities will look different.

Tunisian authorities have already stated that the country is at war against terrorism. If anyone doubted this, yesterday’s attack offers a clear answer.

In the photo, Tunisian police and mourners gather around the coffins of the presidential guards who were killed in a bomb blast in Tunis.

Photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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