Tunis suicide attack resurrects terrorism shadow, memory of Ben Guerdane’s battle

The attack shows that jihadists are still irked by the memory of security forces winning the battle of Ben Guerdane.
Sunday 08/03/2020
Police secure the scene of bomb attack near the US Embassy in Tunis, March 6. (AFP)
Ben Guerdane’s anniversary. Police secure the scene of bomb attack near the US Embassy in Tunis, March 6.(AFP)

TUNIS - On the anniversary of a watershed battle in the south of Tunisia, suicide bombers struck a police checkpoint near the US Embassy in Tunis, jolting the country into realising that the fight against terrorism is far from over.

The March 6 bombing killed a policeman and injured five other people. The two attackers also died.

The terrorist incident occurred on the eve of Tunisia marking the fourth anniversary of the battle of Ben Guerdane in the south, where security forces with the help of the local population repelled an attempt by Islamic State-affiliated extremists to establish a foothold on the border between Tunisia and Libya.

A total of 55 extremists were killed in Ben Guerdane and 42 arrested, while 13 security troops and seven civilians died. The battle is commemorated each year by Tunisians as a triumph against terrorism.

“We will be celebrating the anniversary of the Ben Guerdane battle as a victory against terrorism,” minister of the interior Hichem Mechichi told Tunisian television.

The March 6 blast shocked the diplomatic and business enclave in the Tunis suburb but disrupted activity there only briefly. Soon afterwards, the high-end restaurants and coffee shops in the area were back to usual business.

“I heard a huge thud that I first thought was a tremor,” a private security guard, posted across the street from the embassy, said.

Sofiene Sliti, the spokesman for Tunisia’s counterterrorism crimes court, said the two attackers were carrying a large amount of explosives and that their motorbike was booby-trapped.

Local media said the attackers were Tunisian nationals who had recently been released from prison. Their identities were not released but media reports said they were from a working-class neighbourhood north of Tunis and that one of them had been imprisoned over charges of “glorifying terrorism” on social media.

The bombing was among a string of lone-wolf attacks in recent years but the trend is a far cry from jihadist activities in 2015, when Islamic State-claimed assaults on the Bardo National Museum and the Sousse beach resort caused scores of fatalities.

Terror-related concerns in Tunis in recent years have been limited to relatively small-scale attacks with limited casualties and clashes in the mountainous regions near Algeria between security troops and jihadist fighters.

“We have retaken the initiative against terrorists; that’s why they are opting for such desperate acts reflecting their confusion,” Mechichi said.

Others saw additional lessons from the suicide attack. Amel Grami, an expert on extremism, said the attacks could be a form of “retaliation” for the killing of Abu Iyadh, the head of Ansar al-Sharia of Tunisia, which has claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, as well as a “message to the West and US telling us they are still alive.”

Adding to Tunisia’s terror concerns is the return of hundreds of Tunisian citizens who fought with extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, many of whom are under surveillance, house arrest or in prison.

Instability in next-door Libya, where heavily armed militias and jihadist formations, including Tunisian militants, roam the landscape amid continued civil strife, is another source of concern for Tunisian authorities.

“The attack indicates that the security challenge remains a major challenge in Tunisia,” security analyst Ali Zeramdini told Reuters.

Incoming Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh released a statement calling on the country to “close ranks and reject any form of violence that could threaten Tunisia’s security and democracy.”

He praised security units that “have shown great courage and promptness in the fight against terrorism.”

As it battles a lingering terrorist threat, Tunisia remains under a state of emergency.