sousse explosion

Wednesday morning Tunisia was in shock after a terrorist tried to carry out a suicide attack in hotel Riadh Palms in Sousse. Eventually the hotel’s security did not allow him to enter the resort and he blew himself up at the beach – next to the boulevard – nearby (see picture above). The same morning there was another attempt by a young Tunisian to blow himself up at former president’s Habib Bourguiba’s mausoleum in Monastir, which he was not able to after some people noticed his strange behaviour and were luckily able to overpower him. Those attacks happened only two weeks after terrorist gunmen killed six members of the Tunisian security forces in the southern city of Sidi Bouzid.

A profile of the terrorists

Today radio ShemsFM had an interview with the mother of the terrorist that tried to blow himself up at Bourguiba’s mausoleum in Monastir. Her son is only 20 years old and from Zaghouan (where the family lives), a city approximately 100 km from the capital Tunis. He is from a middle class family as his mother explained he did not have a lot of friends in his own city since becoming religious. She explained he actually disappeared a couple of months ago to call his parents from Benghazi, telling them he left to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Before he left – without informing his parents – he had regularly arguments with his parents that tried to convince him not to go. His mother mentioned that he became gradually “a salafist” after spending many time on the internet. Initially she did not have a lot of problems with him becoming religious, until the moment he told her that he wanted to go to Syria.

The profile is not an exception; most terrorists in Tunisia are between 20 and 38 years old. A common misconception is that it are only “the poor” that are easy to manipulate in becoming extremists ready to use violence. Although it is a fact that poor economic perspectives might contribute to extremists gaining support, it is not the sole reason.

Jihadi-salafism & its visibility after the revolution

ansar sharia

The young Tunisian that tried to blow himself up at Bourguiba’s mausoleum in Sousse and whose mother was interviewed by ShemsFM belongs to a jihadi branche within salafism: jihadi-salafism. Salafism is a literalist branch within Sunni Islam that claims to takes it religious interpretation “from the first pious forefathers”. It is sometimes also referred to as “Protestant Islam”, meaning it started as a religious movement in the 18th century that “wanted to go back to the original Islam, free of idolatry, innovations and impure philosophies”. Jihadi-salafism however, a subbranch of salafism, believes that anyone that does not rule with (their variant of) sharia law becomes an unbeliever (non-muslim) and should therefore be fought. Not only the politicians (or governments) that play an important role in the law-making process, but also the state and its institutions are perceived as the “helpers of the Taghout”. Taghout is an Arabic term they specifically use to denounce “everything that is worshipped besides Allah”. One might think: but what does the government or state institutions have to do with worshipping something besides Allah? According to their beliefs anyone or anything (government) that takes the “place of Allah” becomes a “Taghout”. Accordingly, the government that does not rule with (their interpretation of) sharia has taken the place of Allah, because “only Allah has the right to be the lawgiver, not human beings”. And anyone who helps “the taghout” such as security forces, the Tunisian army or even state officials are also “disbelievers that should be fought”. This ideology is not new as some people might think; the closest example in proximity is neighboring Algeria. Algeria has experienced in the 90’s many terrorist attacks against state institutions, with extremist groups having exactly the same line of reasoning.

After the revolution the Tunisian state has been significantly weakened. From a former police state that tracked every movement it considered to be suspicious and needed to silence political opposition, to a weak state that has experienced a revolution and is still in the transitional phase of becoming a democracy. Where the old Tunisian state was known to have an excellent secret service apparatus, the new state and its government lacks having a good secret service. Although many accuse the current government itself of having turned a blind eye to extremists, lacking professionalism and experience and (in some cases) consider them (for different reasons) to be part of the problem.

Jihadi-salafism has grown significantly after the revolution. Newfound freedoms such as the freedom of association, freedom of expression and religion has given these groups the chance to spread their message and openly proclaim their objectives. Some of them returned to Tunisia after having lived for years abroad, others used to be imprisoned by the previous regime and have been released. It was only a matter of time that things would get out of hand, extremist language such as death threats or takfir (declaring fellow Muslims to have become disbelievers) have been regularly reported, as well as increasing cases where violence was used to enforce their idea’s upon others. Ansar Sharia is an important jihadi-salafi organization in Tunisia that is recently deemed a terrorist organization. Although the top of the organization itself did not (yet) call explicitly and in public upon their followers to use violence, they did openly create a climate of hatred against the state, its security forces and army by calling them regularly “Taghout”. Some of its members have been linked to the planned attack on the American embassy in Tunis last year, and assassination of socialist politican Chokri Belaid last February.

Who is responsible?

mufti vs bourguiba                                                  The Mufti and former president Habib Bourguiba

For Tunisians the phenomenon of salafism and also it’s violent branch (jihadi-salafism) is new. Jihadi-salafism propagates “jihad” against whoever they consider to have become a disbeliever. Both branches however are in contradiction to Tunisian’s commonly held understanding of Islam; formed and shaped by the centuries old Islamic Zitouna University in Tunis and known for its moderation.

The current Mufti of Tunisia Hamda Said caused controversy when he said in a radio interview “that first president of the Tunisian Republic Habib Bourguiba is the primary responsible for terrorism that is gripping the country”. Arguing that having closed the famous Zitouna University after Tunisia’s independence has “turned eager youngsters that want to study Islam in the hands of people that are willing to teach them their extremist version of Islam”. After former president Ben Ali took power from Bourguiba in the late 80’s he increased the policy of restricting religious education and further oppressed any religious visibility such as having a beard for men or even wearing a headscarf (hijab) for women. The Mufti’s remarks were widely criticized and led to discussions about the role Bourguiba played in restricting the once prestigious Zitouna University. Contrary to popular opinion salafism is not new in Tunisia, neither is its violent branch jihadi-salafism. With the coming into existence of satellite television, religious tv channels and internet it has throughout the years gained visibility in the whole of North-Africa.

Although a lot of religious visibility was strongly oppressed by the former regime and salafists (as well as any type of Islamist) were by default imprisoned, in 2009 – before the revolution – security forces clashed with an armed group of terrorists hiding in the mountains. After the revolution many “prisoners of conscience” were released, among them salafists who have merely been imprisoned under the former regime for being salafist. Others came back to Tunisia after having lived abroad for years, among them jihadi-salafist and former Afghan war veteran Abou Iyadh. Who would soon create the jihadi-salafist organization Ansar Sharia, that is now designated a terrorist organization by the government. Many mosques that used to be under surveillance of the Ministry of Religious Affairs were not after the revolution. In some well-known cases this has led to mosques being taken over by extremists or preaching hatred and violence against other Tunisians or the state itself. Although the government has slowly gained many mosques back under its surveillance, there are still mosques left where it does not exercise any control over.

Whereas the Mufti of Tunisia blamed recently former president Bourguiba for the terrorism that has taken grip of Tunisia, others such as many of the opposition blame (partly) Ennahda and its government. They argue that Ennahda has turned a blind eye to extremists for way too long and in (some) cases some of its members contributed to the polarization between Islamists and secularists. Videos such as Ennahda president Ghannoushi talking to salafists in private while explaining them “they have to be patient because secularists control the most important places in Tunisian society” was for them a proof of Ennahda’s “double speak”. Although Ennahda has categorically denounced violence, it was only after the attack on the American embassy in Tunis last year (more than a year after the revolution) that its government became more active in taking stronger measures against extremists and their violence.

Some politicians and prominent figures of civil society have called upon a national dialogue and covenant against terrorism, where all parts of Tunisian society (including salafists and jihadi-salafists) come to a common understanding on terrorism and how to avoid it from spreading in Tunisian society. So far however this has not yet taken place, although slowly more politicians seem to support the initiative now. Despite the fact that there seems to be zero sympathy among mainstream Tunisian society for acts of violence carried out by extremists, there are serious intelligence reports that different extremist groups in North-Africa are trying to settle down in countries such as Libya or Tunisia. 

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