FIRST FEMALE SUICIDE BOMBER LEAVES TUNISIA TORN
Although casualties were limited and the attack remains unclaimed, the Tunis bombing has exacerbated divisions in the country’s establishment
Tunis is still coming to terms with the suicide bomber who detonated her device on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the capital’s busy city centre shortly before 2pm on Monday.
Although casualties were limited, and the attack remains unclaimed, its repercussions will be far reaching.
The bomber, a 30-year-old woman from the tiny settlement of Sidi Aoun, came to the capital where eyewitnesses claim to have seen her mingling with demonstrators in the city centre protesting over the shooting of Aymen Othmani, 19, by customs officers the previous week.
After the demonstration she made her way over to one of the many police patrols in the heavily militarised area, which is the site of the country’s Interior Ministry. There she detonated her explosives, killing herself and wounding 20 people, 15 of whom were said to be security officers.
Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, who heads an organisation liaising between the government and the families of Tunisian fighters abroad, was working near by. “I thought in the first place that it was a teargas bomb ... but then I told myself that the sound had been too loud,” he told The National.
After leaving his shop, only yards from the site of the explosion, Mr Iqbel was able to see the full scene. “I saw that there were people who had run away in panic, and I heard a person talking about a terrorist attack, so I went to the spot to see.” However, the security forces had already begun to respond to the incident.
“The police then started to gradually surround the location, before closing Avenue Habib Bourguiba and it became like a desert,” he said.
Although much is now known about the bomber, an unemployed graduate with an English degree who occasionally worked as a shepherdess, her motivation for travelling to Tunis and detonating a bomb remains a mystery.
“From the information we have now, the attack seems perpetrated by a lone individual with weak, if any, links to a militant group,” said Ludovico Carlino, a senior analyst for the Middle East and North Africa with IHS Markit.
“No one has yet claimed the attack and the woman was not known to Tunisian security services, which carry out dozens of arrests of suspected militants every week.”
The bomber’s method also raised questions.
“The dynamic of the attack, with only the perpetrator killed and dozens of people slightly injured, also suggests that only a small amount of explosive material was used or that the device was poorly constructed, indicating a rather amateurish attempt,” Mr Carlino said.
However, any rush to dismiss the significance of the attack on one of Tunisia’s most heavily guarded streets was probably premature.
“It’s relevant that the attack was carried out in such a high-security location in central Tunis aiming at the security forces, and I’d not exclude the possibility that the woman received support from someone else,” Mr Carlino said.
“The fact that it was a woman, a first in Tunisia, is also quite telling, as it leaves open the possibility that the perpetrator was influenced by the recent ISIS propaganda urging women to take a more active and militant role.
“This would be a quite strong indicator that the ISIS narrative is still able to radicalise individuals, even if its fortunes in Iraq and Syria appear to be declining,” he said.
The attack also came at an intensely sensitive time for Tunisia’s political establishment, with the governing parties seemingly fracturing by the day.
Further to the apparent conflict between the country’s prime minister, Youssef Chahed, and its 91-year-old president, Beji Caid Essebsi, is the splintering of the political consensus around the dominant role played by the moderate religious Ennahda party, and its support for Mr Chahed, the president’s main rival.
Speaking from Germany, where he was attending an investment conference, Mr Essebsi’s initial reaction to the attack was striking and in Tunis was widely interpreted as an attack on his political competitors, not least the prime minister.
“There is a rotten political climate,” Mr Essebsi said. “We are too fixated on positions and rivalries and forget the essential – the security of citizens.”
That the attack will become the staging ground for a new front in Tunisia’s endless political battle looks inevitable.
Tunisia’s media have already drawn links between Monday’s city centre suicide bombing and mounting accusations of Ennahda’s alleged role in the 2013 assassinations of leftist politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.
“Anti-Ennahda groups will use the attack against Ennahda, accusing it of complicity and calling for the prime minister to resign, because of his ‘failure’ – according to them – and for a new government to be formed, one without Ennahda,” Youssef Cherif, a political consultant said.
“This will, in turn, increase polarisation and open the way for pro-authoritarian elements in society to make more aggressive demands of the government,” he said.
The ISIS narrative is still able to radicalise individuals, even if its fortunes in Iraq and Syria appear to be declining LUDOVICO CARLINO Analyst
The mother and relatives of a suicide bomber who blew herself up in Tunis on Monday. The bomber, a woman aged 30, had a degree in English and was unemployed, prosecutors said AFP