The life and death of a Tunisian suicide bomber
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.