Tunis suicide attack brings security concerns to the fore

The attack fuelled acrimony and suspicion between political rivals.
Wednesday 31/10/2018
Policemen search civilians' belongings at the site of an explosion that occurred yesterday in Tunis, Tunisia October 30, 2018. (Reuters)
Policemen search civilians' belongings at the site of an explosion that occurred yesterday in Tunis, Tunisia October 30, 2018. (Reuters)

TUNIS - A female suicide bomber set off explosives on Tunis’s landmark Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the first terror attack in the city in three years.

Mouna Guebla, 30 an unemployed woman with a degree in business English, detonated a homemade bomb near a police patrol shortly before 2pm October 29, wounding 15 police officers and five civilians, the Interior Ministry said.

No deaths, other than that of the perpetrator, were reported and there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Interior Minister Hichem Fourati said the incident, on the same street as the French Embassy and the Interior Ministry building, was an “isolated act” and praised security services for their swift response.

However, the attack, during heightened tensions between secular groups and the main Islamist Ennahda Movement, fuelled acrimony and suspicion between political rivals.

International Crisis Group Senior Analyst for Tunisia Michael B. Ayari, in a posting on the group’s website, said that “beyond the dead and wounded, the most important impact may be political” as the attack may have “hammered a new wedge into Islamist-secularist political divides.”

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said: “We believed that we had succeeded in eradicating terrorism in our cities but this latest terrorist incident underlined that terrorism could still do us harm and it is present at heart of the capital.”

He warned that if the country’s leaders did not address underlying problems in Tunisia, then “terrorism will bring us all down.”

The attack was nearly three years after a suicide bombing in Tunis killed 12 presidential guardsmen, after which Caid Essebsi, announced a state of emergency, which is still in effect.

“Tunisia is at war with terrorism,” Caid Essebsi said at the time.

Earlier in 2015, there were attacks in Tunis and Sousse that killed dozens of tourists, mostly Europeans. Those shooting attacks devastated Tunisia’s tourism industry, a key foreign currency earner, compounding its economic woes.

Tunisia’s security services clamped down on terror, dismantling hundreds of alleged sleeper cells and arresting approximately 4,000 suspects, authorities said. This year, tourists returned to Tunisia’s beaches in record numbers, with some 8 million expected through 2018.

However, the October 29 attack raised concerns jihadists would instil fear to take advantage of the country’s lingering political crisis.

“This terrorist incident came amid a political climate that is very bad,” Caid Essebsi said. “Politicians are distracted from the needs of the people and the challenges of the country.

“This terrorist incident reminds us that Tunisia faces problems more grave than the interests of political parties and the ambitions of politicians.”

Observers said new tensions could affect the government’s ability to carry out reforms and hinder political dialogue ahead of next year’s general elections.

The Interior Ministry said the woman bomber was from the small coastal village of Sidi Alouane near Mahdia, 200km south of Tunis. She reportedly arrived in Tunis two days before the attack after telling her parents she was travelling for a job interview. She had been unemployed since graduating from university four years ago.

Tunisia’s overall unemployment rate is 15% but is as high as 30% for young university graduates in some areas of the country.

Police said the female bomber was among dozens of demonstrators gathered in front of the Interior Ministry to protest the recent killing of a teenager during a police raid. Her strategy, analysts said, showed that jihadists were becoming more “opportunistic” and that women were being encouraged to play a more central role in operations.

“The terrorist operation showed that the role of women in terrorism is changing from a role in the support network to a more active operational role,” said retired National Guard Colonel Ali Zeremdini.

Tunisia’s Assabah newspaper quoted an unidentified security official as saying investigations indicated that the explosives used in the bombing were made up of “ammonium nitrate mixed with nails.”

“It would be deadlier if the explosives were of the types of Simex or TNT,” the official said.

Other analysts said the plot might have been an attempt by jihadists to test the level of security before more attacks.

“It could be a terrorist test operation and the security authorities have to take the necessary measures against such attacks because terrorists seek to kill more people by this kind of operations carried out by lone wolves,” said Alaya Allani, a scholar who specialises in Islamist movements.

“Terrorist groups are pushed by tightened security and intelligence scrutiny to use lone wolves for attacks in the future.”

The day after the attack, life resumed as usual in Tunis, with residents saying they would not be intimidated. “We will stay here and will continue to live normally… We will shake them off (extremists),” Lamia Ben Omar told Reuters while at a cafe in Tunis.