The significance of the Tunis attack
On November 24th, Tunisians were dealt another horrific blow that they are struggling to understand: A terrorist attack carried out by a suicide bomber named Houssem Abdelli, killing 12 presidential guards.
Abdelli, a 27-year-old street vendor, was a former member of the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia and was later recruited by Jund al-Khilafah (the Soldiers of the Caliphate), a militant group affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS). Members of the group had settled in Tunisia by the end of 2014.
The November 24th attack is of particular significance for a number of reasons.
First, it seems to be part of ISIS’s new strategy of it, or groups affiliated with it, carrying out bloody strikes throughout the globe with Tunis, Paris, Mali and Cameroon the latest locations. In showing off its long reach, ISIS scatters security and intelligence gathering efforts trying to stop the attacks.
The second significant aspect of ISIS’s Tunis operation lies in its choosing an avenue in the Tunisian capital where government ministries, the Central Bank and major international companies are located. By attacking there, the terrorist organisation probably intended to send the message that no location is safe from its reach.
Third, the November 24th attack has proved that the effort to protect sensitive locations in Tunis is not sufficient despite attempts to improve security measures since the June 26th attack in Sousse.
The fourth significance resides in the fact that ISIS wanted to relieve some of the pressure created by the many and recurrent campaigns by the Tunisian security forces against smuggling rings and their pre-emptive operations against extremist networks in the country.
These sweeps have led to the arrest of a number of members of dormant terrorist cells.
Fifth, by choosing the presidential guard as a target, ISIS wanted to strike at a powerful symbol of the Tunisian state. The intended message did not go unnoticed by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, as evidenced by his declaration of war on extremism following the attack.
The sixth significant aspect of the Tunis attack is that it took place during a time in which neighbouring Libya has been giving refuge to a large number of Tunisian terrorist figures who had previously benefited from the relative protection and safety of under the previous Islamist government in Tunisia.
The seventh significance is found in preliminary investigations into the attack, which revealed that the planning and the training for the operation took place in Libya and the execution was carried out by Tunisian hands from local dormant cells. The closing of the borders with Libya for 15 days, and possibly more, came as a result of these findings.
It is very likely that the latest attack in Tunis is part of ISIS’s strategy of laying the groundwork for moving its leadership from the Middle East to North Africa following the damaging blows it has incurred from US and Russian coalitions.
It is also worth keeping in mind that the local political context of the operation in Tunis is characterised by a weak presence of the state in the religious sphere and failure to impose its appointed imams in some mosques.
Many analysts have said the November 24th attack could greatly affect the country’s economy and future security operations. Once again, Tunisia has fallen into a cycle of curfews and martial law, which deepen the crisis in the tourism sector and the economic slowdown.