Killing of drone expert with Hamas connections jolts Tunisia
Tunis - The killing of a Tunisian drone specialist with ties to the militant Palestinian movement Hamas jolted the small North African country at a time when it seemed headed towards increased calm and stability.
The Tunisian Interior Ministry said eight Tunisian citizens have been arrested in connection with the December 15th killing of Mohamed Zouari, who was shot multiple times in his car near his house in the coastal town of Sfax.
The ministry said Zouari’s ties to Hamas were previously unknown and that its investigation indicated suspected foreigners had been tracking him since June when they set up a media company as a cover to shadow his whereabouts.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, said in an online statement that Zouari had been a member of the group for ten years and had been supervising its drone programme.
“Qassam Brigades mourns the martyr of Palestine, martyr of the Arab and Muslim nation, the Qassam leader, engineer and pilot Mohamed Zouari, who was assassinated by treacherous Zionist hands,” a statement posted on the group’s website said.
Tunisian Interior Minister Hedi Majdoub said during a news conference in Tunis that Zouari had returned to Tunisia after the 2011 uprising that overthrew anti-Islamist president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to set up an avionics association to manufacture unmanned aerial vehicles.
“Tunisian security services had no information about his links to Hamas or other groups while he was abroad and when he returned to Tunisia,” Majdoub said.
Authorities in Tunis, which have not had to deal with a major terrorist incident this year after two attacks that left 60 people dead in 2015, have not tied Israel to Zouari’s killing, only saying that “foreign elements” were involved.
Zouari had left Tunisia early in the 1990s to escape arrest when he was a leading student figure in the then-illegal Islamist Ennahda party, whose leaders had been accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
Rafik Chelly, Tunisia’s former secretary of State for Security Affairs, described Zouari’s killing as a “hurting blow”.
“It jolted the country to the core,” he said. “There are a lot of unclear activities by foreigners and we do not know the full extent of all such activities on our land.”
After leaving Tunisia, Zouari lived in Libya and Sudan before settling in Syria where he studied engineering at an aviation academy.
After his return to Tunisia, he travelled to Libya, Sudan, Lebanon and Turkey where he kept a business connection with a technology company, Majdoub said.
Ennahda, which is in a coalition government with secularist Nidaa Tounes, has kept a low profile over the killing as its leaders want to convince their opponents at home and abroad they gave up “Islamist ideology” for “Muslim democracy”.
However, around 200 Ennahda sympathisers joined 300 nationalist and leftist activists to march against the “Zionist entity” on December 20th to urge the government to act against Israel. Activists called on parliament to pass a bill against any normalisation of ties with Israel.
Hamas is classified as a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and much of Europe. Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 after routing troops loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in bloody street battles. Palestinians have since been divided between Gaza under Hamas and Abbas governing parts of the West Bank.