Anxiety mounts as Tunisia aborts poison-laced letters plot

Several media personalities received threats on social media before the letters containing poison were discovered.
Sunday 03/03/2019
File picture shows policemen searching civilians’ belongings in Tunis. (Reuters)
New danger. File picture shows policemen searching civilians’ belongings in Tunis. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisian authorities intercepted poison-laced letters before they reached 19 high-profile targets, including leaders of the Tunisian General Labour Union and media personalities, Interior Ministry spokesman Sofiene Zaag said.

The attempt to use poison sent in letters represented a change in tactics by jihadist groups in Tunisia, officials said. Security agencies stressed that the interception showed authorities’ vigilance and the effectiveness of their methods against terrorist plots.

“The seizure of the poisonous postal letters constitutes a qualitative operation and a pre-emptive action in the fight against terrorism,” Zaag said in a statement issued March 1.

The interception of the letters is likely, however, to fuel anxiety among Tunisia’s anti-Islamists ahead of the elections this year.

“The substance in the letters in the form of powder was analysed. The analysis proved it was a poisonous and deadly substance,” Zaag said, adding that the public should be vigilant should anyone receive a suspicious letter.

Authorities did not specify the nature of the substance. They also did not identify the targeted victims of the poisoned letters by name, saying only they were political leaders, trade unionists, journalists and other personalities.

Local media, however, published the names of journalists and media personalities known for anti-Islamist views, including the journalistic team whose investigative report led to the closing of a Quranic school in central Tunisia.

The extremist-style madrasa in Regueb was shuttered in February after it was suspected of subjecting children to mistreatment, sexual abuse and extremist indoctrination.

Local media said Hamza Belloumi, who led El Hiwar Ettounsi team investigating the school, was one of the targeted media figures of the poison plot. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi met with Belloumi to show support for journalists against radical Islamists.

Several media personalities received threats on social media before the letters containing poison were discovered.

Authorities also did not say which groups or individuals were behind the letter plot.

An al-Qaeda affiliate in the Maghreb has taken a position in the standoff between Islamists and secularists about education issues in Algeria, over the ban of prayers in public schools, and in Tunisia, regarding Quranic schools. Its statement implicitly threatened that it would not remain silent before what it described as “anti-Islamic” behaviour of governments.

“As regards the fight against it (Islam) in Tunisia, the minaret of knowledge and the fortress of conquests, virtue there has been fought in the meanest of ways. The most recent attack was what news reports exposed,” al-Qaeda of Jihad in the Islamic Maghreb said in a statement published February 12.

“A counter-Islam unit committed a terrible act towards innocent children, that insults the dignity of students and destroys them morally, without any regard to their young age and their psychological fragility,” it added in reference to the Quranic school in Regueb.

“After repeated media campaigns to incite against Quranic schools by the disgraceful media, a channel known to represent a media arm of one of the political currents that make up the government of perjury broadcast a television report followed by a large-scale media campaign that tried to show the public opinion in Tunisia that the cause of the problem in Tunisia is manifest in the Quranic schools,” al-Qaeda of Jihad said.

The statement, which was headlined “The war on Islam in Tunisia and Algeria… for how long the Silence?” told “honourable people in Algeria and Tunisia” that “silence to those rulers who oppress you, who do not have an atom of honour, pride or faith, is in itself a crime. How long will you be silent to those criminal scum who have no business other than fighting Islam and demeaning Muslims?”

Tunisia has not had a jihadist attack in its cities since 2015. Its strategy has included containment and pre-emptive actions against jihadists in the country’s rugged and mountainous north-western and central regions.