Knife attacks add to security concerns in Tunisia

The assault October 14 was the second such attack in a month.
Thursday 17/10/2019
Tunisian police officers stand guard after an explosion in Tunis, Thursday June 27. (AP)
Tunisian police officers stand guard after an explosion in Tunis, Thursday June 27. (AP)

TUNIS - Mohamed Sahraoui, 28, known as "Kala" ("Muscle Man"), reportedly approached a Turkish bath at Zarzouna, a Tunisian coastal town near Bizerte, checking the entrance.

Wielding a knife and yelling "Allahou Akbar," Sahraoui allegedly attacked two patrons he saw exiting the bath, stabbing a French businessman to death and seriously wounding a Tunisian soldier.

The assault October 14 was the second such attack in a month. Three weeks earlier, a jihadist stabbed a senior police officer to death and gravely wounded a soldier in Bizerte.

The Interior Ministry said Saharoui, previously convicted of theft and robbery, was arrested as he attempted to enter in his family home early October 15.

Three Tunisian media outlets, citing unidentified security sources, witnesses and relatives, said the alleged assailant had been radicalised by a cousin who recently finished a prison term.

"Aspects of radicalisation appeared on him recently,” said the online outlet Assarih. “He was recruited to stage the attack by a takfiri (fanatical Salafist) who had just left prison.”

Authorities said the attacker in the September 23 attack in Bizerte was a member of a five-person cell that allegedly plotted attacks against security forces.

The attacks in Bizerte are seen as a new pattern for terrorism.

Tunisian authorities said they suspect the assailants to be members or sympathisers of Jund al Khilafa, the Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate in Tunisia. ISIS, which has lost its territory in Iraq and Syria after an international military coalition campaign, issued a global call for its backers to stage random attacks.

"If you are not able to find an improvised explosive device or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman or any of their allies," ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani said in a propaganda audio message released in 2014. "Smash his head with a rock or slaughter him with a knife or run him over with your car or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him."

On September 8, in the southern oasis town of Tozeur, an Islamist fanatic reportedly rushed a policeman, yelling "Enemy of God" before stabbing him with a knife. The suspect was arrested after a police chase. Authorities said he was a member of a "takfiri cell" of four members, who were all detained.

That incident followed a suicide attack in Tozeur province, where an extremist rammed a bulldozer into the fence of a National Guard outpost at the border town of Hazoua. The driver ignored warnings to stop after he passed through an outer fence and was killed just short of the station's main door.

A senior security official told Assabah newspaper the attack in Bizerte "underlined the presence of the terrorists around us."

"They received a fatwa for free initiative to allow lone wolves to plot and execute attacks without prior order and planning from the top command," the paper quoted the unidentified official as saying.

"The free initiative" was an apparent reaction to killings of top jihadists at bases in mountainous areas near the Algerian border and a siege of suspected hideouts in rugged areas of western Tunisia, the newspaper added.

"The profiles of the lone wolf, sometimes referred to as ‘single individual massively destructive,’ represent a major challenge to public security because of his unpredictable dimension and the impossibility of foiling the plot in time," said Tunisia's presidency-run think-tank the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies (ITES) in an analysis.

"The current terrorists seem to focus on staging terror acts of less symbolic value needing reduced logistics, less expensive in time and money and so less detectable by the intelligence services."

ITES's analysts concluded that there was a “feedback loop” between rising criminality and lone wolf-style jihadism.

"Most of lone wolves slid into criminality before turning to jihad," ITES said.

"It is the same violence but it is used for the service of another cause which is self-styled as more pure and therefore more rewarding in their eyes,” the report added.

ITES President Neji Jalloul warned that “Tunisia's society is now threatened by banditry and crime. This frightening phenomenon must be tackled with the greatest seriousness."

He said the major drivers of such crime were a lack of education and youth unemployment. “This is a thorny problem to resolve,” Jalloul said.