Tunisia struggling with Sousse’s aftermath
Tunis - Tunisia continues to struggle with the aftershocks of the June 26th bloody rampage that cost the lives of 38 foreign tourists in Sousse.
A lone shooter killed 30 Britons, three Irish nationals, two Germans, one Belgian, one Portuguese and a Russian. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group.
Tunisian authorities’ foremost priority since the attack has been to reassure foreigners — and Tunisians — that the country is safe, especially after speculation that dormant terror cells might be lurking, waiting to strike.
New measures include the deployment of more than 100,000 police, national guard and civil protection officers in addition to the army. About 3,000 security guards were assigned to protect beaches, hotels and archaeological sites in the country.
“Since the attack, the security forces have carried out more than 700 operations resulting in the arrests of 127 suspected members of terrorist gangs,” Tunisian Government Minister Kamel Jendoubi said.
With the July 4th declaration of a state of emergency, the Tunisian Army could play a more important role in cities and around key installations but authorities had to deal with concerns of human rights groups over possible restrictions to freedoms. “Imposing a state of emergency does not give the Tunisian government the right to gut basic rights and freedoms,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
For Jendoubi, such concerns are unwarranted. “When security is targeted and we face armed criminals… the first right is to ensure security and guarantee the right to life,” he said. The state of emergency “only raises the level of vigilance in the country… It has been put into practice but has never threatened freedom in Tunisia”.
President Beji Caid Essebsi insisted in parliament on July 8th that security measures were aimed “at preserving the democratic achievements” in the country.
A recent opinion survey by Tunisian polling company Emrhod showed that more than 78% of the Tunisian public supported the declaration of state of emergency.
The United Kingdom dealt a serious blow to Tunisia’s confidence-building measures when it decided on July 9th to warn against all but essential travel to Tunisia. Denmark and Ireland also warned against travel to Tunisia.
The negative signals from Europe made the economic toll of the Sousse attack even heavier. UK travel operators announced, right after the London advice to UK citizens to leave Tunisia, that they will stay away from Tunisia until end of the year.
Tourism Minister Salma Rekik had predicted that the Sousse episode would lose Tunisia about $500 million in revenue but that figure could be revised upward.
The economy overall is expected to slow. Finance Minister Slim Chaker said he expected economic growth to drop to about 1% in 2015, compared with 2.3% in 2014.
The North African country’s tourism industry represents about 7% of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Regional security concerns complicate Tunisia’s task. Speaking to parliament, Prime Minister Habib Essid said 15,000 people “have been prohibited from leaving the country to reach conflict zones”.
Although authorities describe the measure as purely precautionary, the huge number of Tunisians affected by the travel ban reflects the magnitude of the problem posed by the nation’s would-be jihadists.
The most serious terrorist attacks in Tunisia since 2013 have been perpetrated by Tunisian jihadists trained in Libya. On March 18th, 21 tourists and a policeman were killed in an attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. The two terrorists, like the June 26th Sousse shooter, were said to have been trained in Libya.
“Libya is our problem,” a Tunisian security source told Reuters.
“If Libya were stable, with one government and one army, then Tunisia would be safer. All the attacks were planned in Libya.”
The decision to prevent young Tunisians travelling coincided with a warning by UN experts who said on July 10th that about 5,500 Tunisians were fighting alongside jihadists abroad, urging Tunis to adopt a “national strategic plan” to curb the flow.
“The number of Tunisian foreign fighters is one of the highest among those travelling to join conflicts abroad such as in Syria and Iraq,” said Elzbieta Karska, head of a UN working group on the use of mercenaries.
“Sophisticated travel networks operate to take recruits across the porous borders,” Karska said after an eight-day mission to Tunisia.
She drew a clear picture of the itinerary followed by Tunisian jihadists. “Testimony has documented that the routes taken entail travel through Libya, then Turkey and its border at Antakya and then Syria,” she said.
Karska also pointed to possible links between mercenaries and foreign recruits to groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS).
“It was reported to us that recruiters in these networks are well paid. One figure given is that of $3,000 to $10,000 per new recruit, depending on the person’s qualifications,” she said. She said an estimated 4,000 Tunisians were in Syria, 1,000-1,500 in Libya, 200 in Iraq, 60 in Mali and 50 in Yemen. About 625 who returned from Iraq are being prosecuted, the expert said.
To stem the flow of fighters, Tunisians were specifically trying to prevent the movement of jihadists across the country’s southern border. The Tunisian Army and contractors are building a barrier along part of the border with Libya to keep out extremists.
Essid told Tunisian TV the barrier will cover 168 kilometres — about one-third of the border — and will include fencing, a sand wall, trenches and surveillance posts.
But even with fences erected, Tunisian authorities will have to deal with Salafists radicalised and recruited at home. Preventing them from committing acts of terror will be a priority every day and every minute of the day. The country cannot afford more mayhem.
Soumaya Sokkar and Yassine Halila are Arab Weekly correspondents in Tunis