The life and death of a Tunisian suicide bomber

Friday 04/12/2015
Street vendors in Douar Hicher where Houssem Abdelli lived.

Tunis - Houssem Abdelli was a 27-year-old high school dropout selling almond cakes from a cart, try­ing to eke out a living just like dozens of other young men in his working-class neighbour­hood of Tunis.
That is until he killed himself by setting off a bomb on a bus carry­ing Tunisian presidential guards on November 24th, killing 12 and wounding 20 others.
It was the latest in a series of ter­ror attacks carried out by young Tunisians turning to an interpreta­tion of Islam seemingly only bent on destruction.
The two highest profile attacks in Tunisia targeted foreign tour­ists at the Bardo National Museum in March and the beach resort of Sousse in June. But Abdelli’s sui­cide bombing killed only Tunisians.
Adbelli was known in his Douar Hicher neighbourhood as some­one who used to crack jokes, play football and go on drinking binges with friends, sometimes in a haze of hashish smoke. But after radical imams descended on the area, Ab­delli quickly changed from a rowdy youth to an Islamic State (ISIS) sui­cide bomber.
“He was my next-door neigh­bour. He was good football player. He was joyful and quite talkative. He would connect readily with oth­er people,” said Noumen, also 27.
Noumen asked to not be fully named for fear of reprisals.
“His death as a suicide bomber is the obvious life outcome for many young people here. They led life with no hope to get a decent job, get married and have their own home. Other similar tragedies are in the pipeline,” said Sabri Hamdi, another neighbour of Abdelli and a local official of the main ruling Nidaa Tounes (Tunisia’s Call) par­ty.
Sabri, the 32-year-old owner of a small enterprise, said he strived with other residents to alert au­thorities to the pervasive unem­ployment, drugs and crime that leave few alternatives for youths such as Abdelli to stay away from radical Islamists.
“With no jobs, no bride, no future to look forward to, radical imams stamped tightly on their torment­ed minds that they will win big in heaven,” he added.
Noumen said Abdelli was among the first of his neighbours to be swayed by Salafist imams who ad­vocate an extremely puritanical vi­sion of life.
“The preachers came from other parts of town early in 2011. Their ranks swelled the following year as they were joined by recruiters, charity organisers and sharia police groups,” he noted.
Economic disenfranchisement and frustration with government policies led many youths in the neighbourhood to drugs and crime. Others headed to the mosques.
At first, the stricter religious life­style brought positive effects to the area.
“The imams stepped up their sermons in mosques but also in the street and during social events. They led volunteers to collect rub­bish,” Noumen said.
“Gangs performing sharia police work cleaned the streets of crimi­nals and drug dealers. Mothers, fathers and most people — myself included — were grateful.”
Providing a personal example, he said: “One night, I was walking home from work. Young criminals beat me and took my computer. There were no regular police to turn to but the sharia police were quick to act. Through connections, in­cluding criminals and former crimi­nals, they brought my computer back within hours.”
The imams and the converts around them from the neighbour­hood handed out food, clothing and other aid to the poor.
“They appeared to dominate the streets and the hearts and minds of the population as no one else did. The vacuum left by the state was glaring. And political elites were embroiled in new power struggles,” noted Noumen, who was among the few young men in the neigh­bourhood to earn a university de­gree and obtain a decent job.
The newcomers’ power in the neighbourhood was made plain when thousands of youths from Douar Hicher joined a violent march towards the US embassy in Tunis in September 2012.
Salafist-inspired mobs set fire to the embassy and the nearby Ameri­can school. As in other Arab coun­tries, protests against a film trailer seen as disparaging to Muslims turned violent when demonstra­tions were hijacked by radical Is­lamists.
The events were viewed by Tu­nisians as a sudden escalation of Salafist violence from thuggish at­tempts at imposing a puritanical moral code. The Salafists’ strategy changed and they launched a total jihadist onslaught, including at­tacks on tourist sites and the mur­der of security forces.
Tunisian Defence Minister Farhat Horchani told parliament recently that Abdelli, by killing presidential guards, had “brought a new mes­sage that must be well understood”.
“The attack targeted the state and its powers at the heart of the capital, not far away from the Inte­rior Ministry headquarters and hit presidential guards,” he said. ISIS claimed responsibility for Abdelli’s bombing, as it did with the Bardo and Sousse attacks where some 60 people, most of them foreign tour­ists, were killed.
All three attacks were carried out by Tunisians apparently radi­calised at home and trained in ji­hadist camps in Libya. More than 3,000 Tunisians are fighting for ISIS or other militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya. About 500 have returned to the country where the government said they were being closely monitored.
Authorities said Abdelli had been arrested before on suspicion of ji­hadist ties but was released for lack of evidence. The missed oppor­tunity to stop the suicide bomber shows how delicate the task of se­curity agencies is as they struggle to prevent attacks and try to stem the jihadists’ gradual encroachment.
“They are a normal family. Their son appeared nice and well-man­nered with a soft voice and never cursing or uttering hoarse words unlike many youths here. He is gone leaving his mother and fa­ther suffering,” said Naima Mejri, a housewife and a neighbour of the Abdellis.
Local analysts argue that radi­cal Islamists took advantage of the upheaval that followed the 2011 popular uprising which toppled the regime of Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and built support networks in Tunis and other cities.
They also launched an armed insurgency in the country’s moun­tains close to Algeria’s border with the help of seasoned Algerian Is­lamist rebels.
“A friend met Abdelli just days before the bombing. He found him behaving strangely. He was talk­ing like a disturbed man about the afterworld and life in heaven,” said Noumen. He noted Abdelli’s life followed the same pattern as many former friends and neighbours who first joined the Salafists and then the jihadists.
“They would disappear for months without telling you lat­er where they had been. When pressed, they try to change the sub­ject of the discussion to something else. But for most of us, it was an open secret since we guessed they had been either in Libya or in the Tunisian mountains for training,” Noumen said.
Most of there young men do not pray anymore in the same mosques. Many meet and live in safe houses scattered across Tunis to avoid po­lice detection.
“The money flow also points to another pattern common to most new Salafists during the past five years. They change from being penniless to leading high-income middle-class lives. They then can af­ford to marry and pay upfront the wedding expenses. You can see eas­ily they are receiving good money from somewhere,” Noumen said.
Abdelli’s family had moved from Douar Hicher to the nearby Mni­hla area in recent months, Noumen said. Since the attack, they have moved again, leaving the onlookers and television crews outside their old house.