Jihadist bombing in capital city centre stuns Tunisia
TUNIS - An explosion ripped through a bus carrying presidential troops in the heart of the Tunis, killing at least 12 members of the elite force and marking a shift in the battleground between government forces and jihadists from mountainous areas into cities.
The bombing, described by authorities as a terrorist attack, cast a pall of shock and sadness on a mostly deserted Tunis centre that was teeming with people minutes before the blast struck around 5pm November 24th.
Security experts said an attack of this nature was widely expected following Paris’s bloody rampage and Bamako’s hotel massacre as well as the dismantling of a terrorist cell that was readying bomb attacks in Sousse, 149 km south of Tunis. Tunisian police had recently detained a would-be suicide bomber in Tunis.
But few expected jihadists to target presidential guards tasked with protecting the country’s political leadership or the location they chose to carry out the attacks — close to the Interior and Tourism ministries as well as main banks, including the Central Bank, and few yards away from the landmark Bourguiba Avenue, which was crowded with people attending the Carthage Film Festival.
The blast in central Tunis came after two attacks earlier in 2015 in which 60 people, most of them foreign tourists, were killed and that wreaked havoc on the key tourism industry.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi declared a 30-day state of emergency across the country and imposed an overnight curfew on the Tunis metropolitan area. He convened an emergency meeting of the security council on November 25th, which decided to close Tunisia’s border with its southern neighbour, Libya, for a period of 15 days.
Speaking on national television, Caid Essebsi said Tunisia was at war against terrorism as part of global fight against jihadist groups.
Caid Essebsi did not repeat the grim assessment he made when he addressed his countrymen in June after the Sousse attack and said the Tunisian state would collapse if it were to face a similar attack. This time, he sounded confident the “fear will be brought to the terrorist camp”.
“I want to reassure the Tunisian people that we will vanquish terrorism,” he said.
The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing on November 25th.
The attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, according to a security union official.
“Based on the preliminary details, the attacker was wearing a bag on his back. He blew himself up just getting into the door of the bus with military explosives,” Hichem Gharbi, a presidential security union official, told a local radio station.
Police cordoned off the bombing site to keep back onlookers while ambulances rushed to the scene, evacuating the dead and wounded. Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid and Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli visited the scene of the attack amid tight security.
The attack came days after authorities increased security to shield patrons and foreign visitors during the 26th Carthage Film Festival, which is a showcase for the Arab and African film industry.
Festival Director Ibrahim Letaief said the event, which opened November 21st — about a week after jihadist attacks in Paris left 130 people dead — is an “antidote to violence”, as film “tears away the veil of darkness and is the guarantor of the greatest victory over terrorism”.
Culture Minister Latifa Lakhdar echoed that sentiment, saying: “Creativity is the greatest way to mark our attachment to life and our battle against those people who would destroy even the most elementary principles of life.”
The killing of the presidential guards comes just a few weeks before Tunisian civil society members were to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo for their role in facilitating a peaceful democratic transition.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Tunis earlier in November, pledged increased economic and security aid for Tunisia to help it ward off jihadist threats at home and from across the border with Libya, where ISIS is reportedly training Tunisian recruits.