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Tunisia: Tragedy Strikes – 1 – “He Couldn’t Hurt A Bird”

March 22, 2015
Bardo Museum Mosaic

Bardo Museum Mosaic

(Note: This piece was also published at Foreign Policy In Focus)


(Part Two)


“He couldn’t hurt a bird.”

Well maybe “he” couldn’t. After all, a mother knows her son. But over  a short period of less than a year, he changed, didn’t he? And then he could, and did…and it wasn’t birds he hurt but people he killed. Thus spoke Yassine Al-Abidi’s mother shortly after her son, who had just participated in the mass murder of foreign tourists, had died in a shoot out with Tunisian security forces at the Bardo Museum  in Tunis this past Wednesday (March 18, 2015). The Bardo is a block away from the Tunisian Parliament which was said to be discussing “combating terrorism at the time. Who knows, perhaps her characterization is on the mark, or was, until something obviously in the young man snapped. How else to account for the murderous rampage that followed resulting in the deaths of so many, Al-Abidi’s included.

The Bardo is one of the entire Mediterranean basin’s most important museums, the second only to the Egyptian Museum on the African continent. In a manner similar to how ISIS is systematically and wantonly destroying Syria and Iraq’s Assyrian and Babylonian cultural heritage, more than likely the Bardo itself was a target of this recent Tunisian terrorist attack, having an extensive collection of Tunisia’s rich and diverse cultural history – Carthegenian, Roman, Byzantine and of course Islamic (Arab and Ottoman), French colonial pieces, suggesting that the country’s culture, while today, largely Sunni Islamic, still remains a synthesis of these different traditions, and one that overwhelmingly, the people of Tunisia are quite proud. Particularly considered valuable, is the museum’s sizable collection of Roman-era mosaics covering over 400 years of Roman occupation of the country.

True enough Al-Abidi, like so many other Arab youth, showed few outward signs of hard-line Islamic radicalization. A Tunisian youth with a baccalaureate degree in French and a job as a travel agent, he was an unlikely candidate to become a casual mass killer. Nor could his family understand how it was “that a lively popular youth with a taste for the latest imported clothes could have done such a thing.” Still, Al Abidi’s transformation from what all appearances was a gentle, soft-spoken Tunisian youth to a terrorist who could kill with impunity, appears to follow a pattern of radicalization of many thousands of other Tunisian young men recruited through the country’s mosques who, after a short education/indoctrination, wind up fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

According to a number of sources, post-Ben Ali Tunisia has been one of the main sources of jihadi recruits – more than 3000 have left to fight particularly in Syria, Iraq and Libya with some 500 having returned to the country, now trained and many battle-hardened from their foreign experience. How many others, like Al-Abidi have slipped across Tunisia’s border into Libya to get military training there is difficult to tell but the-recently-removed-from-power Ennahdha Party had cooperated closely with more radical Salafist elements, permitting them in large measure to take over the mosques and to openly preach their messages of intolerance, hatred and jihad to the country’s largely unemployed youth, ripe for recruiting.

The Salafist Education of Yassine Al-Abidi

It is known that over the past year, Al-Abidi had begun to spend more time at the local mosque where frequently ultra-conservative Salafist gave talks urging Tunisian youth to enlist for jihad in Syria, Iraq and Libya. From all appearances he’d already made his commitment. Last summer, while telling his family his company had sent him to work in the coastal Tunisian city of Sfax,150 miles south of Tunis, Al-Abidi had instead gone to Libya where he received military training and then became a part of what is referred to a “sleeper cell” in Tunis, activated for the terrorist attack on Wednesday. According to an article in the British Guardian, the attack on the tourists might have been revenge for a government seizure of weapons from a jihadi group the day before.

Al-Abidi might not have been able to hurt birds but during his two month training period in Libya, he learned how to kill people. The morning of the attack, Al Abidi had breakfast of figs and olives with his family and left for work. At 10:00 am in the morning, he asked to take a break and was granted permission by his supervisor and quietly walked away to commit mass murder. There are some indications that the security around the museum – and frankly in much of the country – is particularly lax, making Al-Abidi’s mission that much easier.

• According to the deputy speaker of Tunisia’s parliament, two security guards who should have been at the front gate of the Bardo museum when the gunmen showed up were, instead, across the street in a cafe having a cup of coffee. It’s not clear whether those guards were armed or not.
• According to an article that appeared on the award-winning Tunisian website, security guard coffee breaks are not the half of it. According to Nawaat, a jihadi website had issued a communique prior to the attack, announcing both the time and place, giving details of both the preparations and the attack itself. Ridiculing both Tunisian police and security personnel, the website goes on to ask, “what more do the police want, the satellite coodinates.” (Nous avons même donné des indices quelques heures avant l’opération. Que veulent de plus les policiers ? Une géolocalisation)
• The website goes on to claim that Al-Abidi and fellow assailant, Hatem Khachnoui, made their way to the Bardo on public transportation carrying arms and explosives in their valises, that arriving at their destination, that they stopped at a nearby café, imbibed in a coffee each, while they calmly went over the attacks details one final time.

Then along with fellow assailant Hatem Khachnoui and four other assailants, Al Abidi willingly participated in the worst terrorist attack in Tunisian more than a decade and one of the bloodiest in the country’s modern history, which, at last count left 23 dead and 47 wounded. Khachnoui and Al-Abidi were also killed in the confrontation; four other assailants involved in the attack initially escaped but were later captured. The overwhelming majority of the victims were tourists whose two cruise ships had made a stop at Tunis, which included a visit to the Bardo Museum. As they departed their buses at the museum entrance they were surprised, ambushed by the assailants and forced into the museum at gun point where the summary slaughter unfolded. A stand-off with Tunisian security forces lasted three hours before the museum was stormed and the incident ended. According to the initial reports among the dead were 5 from Japan, 2 from Colombia, two from Spain, 1 each from Australia, Poland and France as well as one Tunisian security force member. 13 Italians, 7 French, 4 Japanese, 3 Poles and 1 Tunisian were among the wounded. A hundred more mostly European tourists were freed at the end of the siege. Yet, two Spaniards, caught up in the initial kidnapping, Cristina Rubio Benlloch, who was pregnant, and Juan Carlos Sanchez Oltra, a young couple traveling on board MSC Splendida, spent the night in hiding at the Museum only to emerge from hiding the next day, although the siege was long over.

Three days later, a number of others accused of having been in on the plot had been arrested. A number of Islamic militant groups claimed credit for, or suggested having some connect to, the attack, making it difficult to discern whom exactly was behind the attack; among them were the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and a jihadi media site called Afriqiyah Media, often used as an outlet by Ubqa i’bin Nafi, a Tunisian group set up in the Kasserine region, according to the New York Times, loosely associated with Al Qaeda. Both groups predicted more attacks in Tunisia in the future. That this is far from the last of such attacks is a view shared by Tunisian mainstream commentators as well. In claiming responsibility for the attack – the claim has not been verified – In claiming responsibility for the attack, the Islamic State group issued a statement and audio on jihadi websites applauding the dead gunmen as “knights” for their “blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia.”

Libya - exporting arms, military equipment, money and Islamic fundamentalism throughout the northern half of Africa

Libya – exporting arms, military equipment, money and Islamic fundamentalism throughout the northern half of Africa

The Roots of the Problem

Needless to say one of the main goals of the attackers was to undermine the country’s tourism, which was slowly recovering from a four-year decline. Tourism is an important element of the Tunisian economy accounting for  7.5% of gnp and employing some 400,000 people. Minister of Economy and Finance, Slim Chaker claimed that the incident has already inflicted more than $700 million in damages to the Tunisian economy and 3000 reservations canceled in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Unfortunately, although I don’t particularly enjoy pointing it out, incompetence on many levels played a role. Historically, a dip in tourism after such event is likely although temporary. It remains to be seen if this pattern is repeated here or not.

At the same time, horrible events such as these have a way of bringing the country together in a strong show of national solidarity and rejection of this Salafist-Wahhabist trend. So it was after the assassinations of Belaid and Brahmi after which militant Islamic support diminished and tens of thousands of Tunisians came to the streets in protest. So it is now. In the same manner, the night of the assassinations, thousands took to the streets of Tunis and other cities mourning for the victims and expressing their rejection of Salafist barbarism.

The killers – or their handlers – had another goal, to embarrass the regime and expose its weakness in countering the militant Islamicist threat. As a number of western sources have noted, despite glowing press reports of “the Tunisian miracle”, the country has been involved in a low-level war with militant Islamicists based in the western region of the country – around Mt. Chaambi – that its military, for a half century trained essentially to do crowd control, has not been able to crush. In fact, the Islamic rebels have on several occasions given the Tunisian military, not well-trained in counter-insurgency type warfare, a very bloody nose. As mentioned above, the day prior to the Bardo attack, the government announced the capture and confiscation of a large arms cache, an attempt to suggest to the public that the armed conflict was winding down. Perhaps the Bardo attack was the Islamicist response, making it clear that they remain a potent threat to the country’s well-being.

If, in fact, the Tunisian public has repeatedly over the years shown its contempt for Salafist extremism, how then can this movement’s persistence be explained?

Often missing from the explanation is what amounts to a radical interpretation of Koran. Like other sacred texts, the Koran can be interpreted essentially any way any one wants. The same can be said of the Old and New Testaments both of which can be a guide either to a peaceful, tolerant approach to life, or the opposite. So no doubt can statements in the Koran be cherry-picked to manipulate different viewpoints. In the Muslim world today the more radical Salafist or Wahhabist trends are often exported by imams whose travel and other expenses are paid for by the Saudis (either the government or private donors), Qatar and the like. Over the decades Saudi money and religious influence can be felt in mosques far and wide. This is as true for Tunisia as it is for the United States. It works well for the Saudis. They rid themselves of their own most radical elements who go on to proselytize abroad. As in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so it is in Tunisia that the recruits for Islamic militancy are gathered both from mosques and Koranic schools, the  medrasahs.  Yes, today, some of it takes place on-line as well. When, in 2011, after Ben Ali was removed, Tunisia’s mosques were taken over in many cases by extreme Salafist imams (some, it has been noted, without any religious training), it would not be long before the jihadi message would touch many in the country, especially its swelling population of disenfranchised youth.

Certainly one factor is the fall out from the collapse of Khadaffi’s government in Libya as a result of the NATO-led military offensive there. Khadaffi’s klepto-dictatorship might be gone but what  resulted is the near collapse of the Libyan nation, a process foreseen and predicted by many observers at the time. In the chaos that ensued, huge caches of arms, military equipment, money and drugs were confiscated by various local elements and have made their way into armed groups throughout Africa and the Middle East. The Malian Islamicists, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Libyan fanatics who beheaded Egyptian Copts were all energized by their new supply of high-tech military equipment and money. Some of those arms and money – a good deal of it, it appears, made its way across the extraordinarily porous Tunisian-Libyan border as well and into the hands of Tunisian radical Islamicists, themselves enjoying new mobility and public presence, at least for as long as Ennahdha was in power. In the chaotic state in which Libya finds itself today, certain regions of the country today have become bases for training Islamic militants as well, among them Yassine Al Abidi.

If Libya has become the source of much regional instability, including in Tunisia, there are still domestic considerations which come into play as well which have only added to the problems. In October, 2011, Ennahdha – the moderate Islamic Party with ties to the Moslem Brotherhood  won a plurality in the October, 2011 elections and was swept into power. Yes it ruled with two so-called secular parties, but these were little more than paper organizations with no base and no history as political movements in the country. If formally, Ennahdha was in alliance with secular parties, informally it struck a deal with radical Islamicist elements of the country, given them an open door literally seize many of the country’s mosques, which they did. Militant Salafism, whose base in Tunisia has long been very weak, was given an opening of which it took full advantage. One must add here that a great deal of foreign funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other conservative bastions flowed freely (and continues to).  A new “Taliban-like” environment took hold, a very un-Tunisian precedent.

By the time that Ennahdha more symbolically than real “declared war” on Tunisia’s Islamic fundamentalists, the damage had been done, part of which included the assassination of two democratic leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, and an assault on the U.S. Embassy outside of Tunis, this latter event in February 2012. This latter event brought the wrath of the Obama Administration down on Ennahdha’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, and marked the beginning of the end of Ennahdha’s short but not particularly sweet rule of the country, a rule that was marked by an unprecedented growth of religious sectarianism and an almost complete absence of an economic and social vision to bring the country out of the crisis which had triggered the Arab Spring in the first place. The outbreak of the Arab Spring in Tunisia was much more about youth unemployment than what kind of Moslem a person might be. Yet that elephant in the living room, as the saying goes, remains to be addressed now more than four years after Zine Ben Ali was forced to make his unceremonious exit from the country – stopping by the country’s national bank and looting it and the Tunisian people one last time before fleeing to Saudi Arabia.

It is hard to tell how a new economic vision, one that addresses the country’s chronic imbalance between the coastal cities and the mountainous and desert interior might have stemmed the Salafist tendency in the country, but the fact that virtually nothing was done to address the economic and social crisis Tunisia faced, was and remains a serious aggravating factor leading to Islamic radicalization of the country’s youth. This is such a well-known fact that it would hardly even merit mentioning if not for the fact that nothing has been done to address this crisis. And crisis it is. Overall unemployment remains above 30% with youth unemployment even higher. Most of those who have jobs, have low paying work that hardly make ends meet. Among those who rebelled to overthrow Ben Ali in late 2010, early 2011, were a considerable number of youth, youth wanting a future and like, Mohammed Bouazizi, seeing none. What more do they have to look forward to today?  And so they sit in the nation’s cafes all day long drinking subsidized coffee, playing cards until the frustration and anger of their empty lives, once again, overwhelms them to take desperate measures – get on a boat to nearby Lambedusa, an island formally a part of Italy, knowing there is a good chance they will drown rather than making it ashore or, join the jihad in Syria whose message becomes more appealing each day their country offers them a future filled with words, but not deeds.

It is still not too late to turn Tunisia around. Those who say that Tunisia is not Libya, Syria, Iraq or Yemen are right. But this is not a country that has pulled itself out of crisis because it has had a peaceful and successful election. Tunisia is walking on a tightrope. The Bardo Massacre reminds us that the rope can still snap before it reaches firmer ground.

Demonstrations against the Bardo Museum attack

Demonstrations against the Bardo Museum attack

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2015 5:52 am

    The author’s self critique of this article…it is not a “bad article” but…Amidst all the depressing news – much of which I publish on these pages – it is easy to forget the incredible resilience of humanity…of its ability to come back from the worst tragedies, more humane, more “civilized” (not in the elitist, racist sense of the term is used but in the sense of socially aware, creative – ie, not limited to one group but to the whole species) than ever…that thought came back to me this morning, thinking of the latest tragedy, the terrorist attack in Tunisia…although there are so many, many other examples to draw from


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