Stabbing of Tunisian police officers points to lingering lone-wolf threat

Sunday 12/11/2017
Lingering concern. Tunisian forensic police check the scene of an attack on two traffic policemen in Tunis, on November 1. (AFP)

Tunis- A suspected jihadist stabbed two Tunisian police officers, the first such attack since a sui­cide bomber targeting a bus of presidential guards killed 12 people in 2015.
While the November 1 stabbing attack pointed to a lingering con­cern of lone-wolf attacks, it is not thought to indicate a reversal in Tunisia’s security trends. Since 2015, there have been no major ter­rorist incidents and security agen­cies said they have dismantled numerous cells and pre-empted several potentially dangerous ter­ror attacks.
The November 1 attack, outside the parliament building in Tunis’s Bardo district, was quickly stopped by security services. One officer died of injuries from the stabbing and another suffered non-critical injuries to his forehead.
The attack came as a controver­sial police protection law was to be voted on by parliament. Titled “Prosecution of Abuses against the Armed Forces,” the measure reinforces penalties for acts en­dangering police or security forces, punishes “defamatory speech” di­rected at police and protects them from criminal liability for “injur­ing or killing anyone” in the line of duty if the force is ruled “neces­sary and proportionate.”
Civil society groups argued that the bill’s broad provisions could lead to abuse of power and the sti­fling of civil liberties.
Sofiane Selliti, a spokesman for Tunisia’s special anti-terrorism court, said the suspected assail­ant of the stabbing attack was Zied Gharbi, 25, of the working-class Et­tadhamen district.
Gharbi, who allegedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greatest”) and “taghout” (“despots”) during the assault, was unemployed and embraced a “radical ideological interpretation of Islam that con­dones violence and considers the death of police officers and soldiers a kind of jihad,” a statement by the Tunisian Interior Ministry said.
Security sources said Gharbi told interrogators: “I’m ready to kill any police officer I meet.”
Tunisia suffered a series of terror incidents in 2015, including attacks on the Bardo National Museum and a beach resort in Sousse.
Since then, the government embarked on an aggressive cam­paign against jihadists, arresting hundreds of terror suspects and dismantling dozens of cells. In the nine months leading up to Sep­tember, authorities arrested 694 terror suspects, dismantled 94 terror cells and detained 64 peo­ple suspected of involvement in transferring fighters overseas, In­terior Ministry spokesman Khalifa Chibani said.
Chibani noted that most threats stem from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb but security services dis­mantled cells of alleged Islamic State (ISIS) sympathisers. Among them was one in the central town of Kairouan that was allegedly plotting an attack in Sousse.
In an interview with local tel­evision, Chibani said the develop­ments illustrated the state’s ability to effectively combat such cells.
The latest attack, however, could represent a new “model of opera­tions for terrorists” in Tunisia, said former army Colonel Mokhtar Ben Nasr.
“Such an attack fits the profile of the lone and isolated wolves who do not need to receive orders and instructions from terror organisa­tions chiefs. When they feel the security net is tightening around them, they can act alone without being detected by the security forces,” he said.
Feeling pressure from Tuni­sia’s security apparatus, extremist groups have hidden in the coun­try’s mountainous and rugged are­as, mostly near the western border with Algeria. The most prominent of these is al-Qaeda affiliate Kati­bat Okba Ibn Nafaa.
The November 1 stabbing is a further indication that youth radi­calisation remains a major chal­lenge in Tunisia, experts said, adding that the government must formulate long-term strategies for youth empowerment to address the underlying threat.
“The terrorism scourge will not go away by denunciations,” wrote Nouri Essal in an op-ed in Al Chourouk daily. “It requires a le­gal, human, cultural, political and moral common stand as part of a national strategy.”
Sofien Lassoued, in another ar­ticle in Al Chourouk, cautioned that “Tunisians must know that terrorists who are hiding in the mountains and cities have found those who offered them weapons, money and ideological support,” a reference to leaders of the Islamist Ennahda party and their allies.
Mehdi Taje, director of the Tu­nisian think-tank Global Prospect Intelligence, noted that factors such as “mass unemployment, economic precariousness, a lack of future prospects, mainly for uni­versity graduates, the loss of trust in the state and its bodies and the rupture between disenfranchised youth and the economic and po­litical elites combine to make the terrorist threat virulent, mutating and sustainable in Tunisia.”