President convenes urgent meeting of his security council to discuss ‘terrorist attack’ in heart of capital
Tunisian PM says 17 of those killed in ‘cowardly attack’ were foreigners after two gunmen stormed Bardo museum and kept hostages for three hours
Tens of thousands of demonstrators have marched in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, calling for the resignation of the Islamist-led government.
The rally marked a 40-day mourning period since the killing of opposition MP Mohammed Brahmi in July.
His murder, along with the shooting of another prominent leftist politician in February, have sparked mass protests.
Talks between the opposition and the ruling Ennahda party have so far failed to achieve a major breakthrough.
The moderate Islamist government has blamed Salafist hardliners for the killings of Mr Brahmi and secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid.
The opposition coalition, led by the National Salvation Front (NSF), has accused Ennahda of failing to rein in radical Islamists and improve the faltering economy.
(Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Tunisians came out in a show of force for the country’s Islamist-led government on Saturday, one of the largest demonstrations seen since the 2011 revolution.
Shouting, “No to coups, yes to elections,” supporters of the ruling Ennahda party crowded into Kasbah Square next to the prime minister’s office in the capital, Tunis.
Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, called on supporters of the embattled government to join the rally to push back against a week of mass protests calling for the government’s ouster.
(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Peter Cooney)
(Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Tunisians turned out for the funeral of assassinated secular politician Mohamed Brahmi on Saturday, and called for the Islamist-led government to be toppled.
Military helicopters hovered overhead and hundreds of troops and police lined the route of a procession attended by Brahmi’s widow and son and several prominent politicians.
“The people want to topple the regime!” and “With our blood and with our souls we will sacrifice ourselves for the martyr!” people in the crowd shouted.
“Ghannouchi, assassin, criminal,” others chanted, referring to Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party that Brahmi’s family says was behind the killing.
FILE – In this Jan,14, 2013 file photo, a supporter of the ruling Islamic party Ennahda protests against another march during ceremonies marking the second anniversary of the Revolution, in Tunis. Long before Tunisia ousted its dictator and inspired the North African pro-democracy movement, the small, relatively prosperous country had the more dubious distinction of exporting Islamic militants. Now, as the country wrestles with the creation of a new government after the killing of a liberal opposition leader, experts say the flow of fighters is getting worse. (AP Photo/Amine Landoulsi, File) (The Associated Press)
TUNIS, Tunisia – The cradle of the Arab Spring is increasingly looking like the birthplace of jihadists.
Long before Tunisia ousted its dictator and inspired the North African pro-democracy movement, the small, relatively prosperous country had the more dubious distinction of exporting Islamic militants. Now, as the country wrestles with the creation of a new government after the killing of a liberal opposition leader, experts say the flow of fighters is getting worse.
The repressive measures of the old secular dictatorship fueled the anger that produced jihadi movements, but its ruthless security apparatus also kept them largely in check. The much more relaxed approach of the country’s new leaders is allowing extremist groups and their networks to flourish like never before, experts say.
Though no one knows for sure just how many Tunisian fighters have traveled abroad, evidence suggests it remains one of the top exporters of jihadists per capita. Tunisians have turned up on the battlefields of Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Mali. The 32-man militant strike team that seized a gas plant in Algeria and took dozens of foreign workers hostage was more than one-third Tunisian.
Because of its small, well-educated population, there were hopes Tunisia would transition relatively easily to democracy after the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. But it is now a battleground pitting secularists and Islamists against one another and in the confusion of creating a new state networks radicalized by the previous regime are flourishing.
The country has fallen victim to a faltering economy, high unemployment and the failure of its new leaders to keep track of extremists freed from prison during the revolution. The long-oppressed moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, won elections in 2011 and immediately sought to overturn the harsh security measures and intolerance for religion of its predecessor — opening them to accusations they are coddling violent Islamists.
“The high number of Tunisian jihadis is because of the lack of control of these people after they were freed following the revolution, by either state or society,” said Alaya Allani, an expert on these groups and author of numerous articles on the subject.
Tunisia is a special case. Largely middle class, Tunisians have more means to travel abroad than their poorer neighbors in Egypt, Morocco or Yemen. Its high unemployment, even under the relatively prosperous economy of the dictatorship, has also left a ready pool of militant recruits.
Experts say Tunisians turned to extremist forms of Islam as a reaction to Ben Ali’s heavy-handed secular rule. There was no freedom of expression under Ben Ali and many were imprisoned not just for having extremist ideas but practically any anti-government sentiment.
Allani blamed the “absence of a clear religious policy on the part of the new authorities” for the spread of jihadi networks, noting that more than a hundred mosques of the 2,500 across the country are under the control of radical preachers who advocate jihad in other countries.
The government has repeatedly promised to bring these radical mosques, which are believed to be a key part of Tunisia’s recruiting network, under control.
Much of the recruiting is done openly.
Tunisia’ most famous militant, Seifallah Ben Hassine or Abu Yadh, was released following the revolution — after which he formed a group known as Ansar al-Shariah that is believed to be behind an assault last year on the U.S. embassy in Tunis.
Ben Hassine regularly preached for joining jihads in Syria and elsewhere and is now on the run from Tunisian police in the embassy attack. In an interview on his organization’s Facebook page, the leader said many Tunisians were fighting in Syria and Mali.
“Tunisians can be found everywhere in the land of jihad,” he said, claiming that his organization actually urges them to stay in the country. “The ways of going are easy and we don’t stop our people from leaving.”
A suspect in the fatal Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three others had been released from a Tunisian prison during the revolution. Ali Harzi was question by Tunisian authorities, and even the FBI, but was released due to lack of evidence.
The records of around 600 foreign jihadis found in Iraq in 2007 showed that while the majority were Libyans and Saudis, per capita, Tunisians came in third.
In May 2012, the Syrian government presented a list of 26 foreign fighters it had captured — 19 were from Tunisia. The Justice and Equity association, which tries to help families find out what happened to their sons, estimates some 400 Tunisians are fighting in Syria alone.
Tunisia suffers from its location sandwiched between Algeria, the original home of al-Qaida’s North African branch, and Libya to the east, which is awash in guns with little central authority and a lot of heavily armed militias with extremist ideologies. The southern half of the country touches the Sahara Desert, which has become the extremists’ preferred area of operation, and several times Tunisian forces have clashed with armed men deep in the south.
Authorities also discovered in December what they described as two militant training camps near the Algerian border.
With al-Qaida suffering reverses in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terror network appears to be ramping up its activities in North Africa in hopes of taking advantage of the chaos and weakened governments brought on by the Arab Spring.
“Chaos and the lack of security is fertile ground for them,” said Jamel Arfaoui, a Tunisian journalist who closely covers extremist movements. He said that, according to his sources throughout Mali, there are some 150 Tunisians fighting there.
So far, the jihad has mostly been exported, but there are fears that could change. The assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid this month sparked days of rioting and speculation that his fierce criticism of extremist Islamists may have inspired a homegrown jihadi.
The Algerian press also published a purported confession from one of three captured militants from the Ain Amenas gas complex attack. The alleged Tunisian said that new attacks were being planned against Tunisia itself.
A report published Wednesday by the International Crisis Group about the rise of Salafi groups in Tunisia said for now, the jihadis were keeping the violence outside the country.
“Most jihadis seem willing to focus on proselytizing in Tunisia and, at least for now, are not prepared to engage in more serious violence on its soil,” it noted. “Yet this could get worse. Instability in the Maghreb, porous borders with Libya and Algeria, as well as the eventual return of jihadis from abroad, could spell trouble.”
Schemm contributed from Rabat, Morocco.
Tunisia’s Islamist prime minister on Wednesday night offered to dissolve parliament and form a unity government after the assassination of a leading secular politician set off the country’s worst crisis since the Arab Spring.
Thousands of protesters rampaged through cities yesterday after Shokri Belaid, 48, head of the small left-wing, anti-Islamist Democratic Patriotic party, was shot three times in the head and chest as he left his home in the capital Tunis.
A figure wearing the traditional Tunisian hooded robe, the burnous, was seen running away from the shooting.
Mr Belaid had been a vocal critic of Islamist violence, accusing the ruling party, Ennahda, and its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, of secretly sympathising with the perpetrators and not doing enough to tackle them.
His family quickly blamed Ennahda for his assassination, with his wife, Basma, saying he had received daily death threats.
“I saw his blood flowing, I saw his little smile. I saw that they want to kill democracy,” Mrs Belaid told France’s Europe 1 radio.
On Wednesday night, Hemadi Jebali, the Ennahda prime minister, adressed the nation on television, stating: “I have decided to form a government of competent nationals without political affiliation, which will have a mandate limited to managing the affairs of the country until elections are held in the shortest possible time.”
Mr Belaid’s death had shocked Tunisia, once judged the most successful of all the “Arab Spring” states, partly because of the greater prosperity and closer ties to Europe it enjoyed than neighbours like Libya and Egypt.
It held successful parliamentary elections, which saw a coalition of the moderate Islamist Ennahda and two centre-left secular parties take power.
However, its economy has failed to recover and it has meanwhile been plagued by low-level violence from radical salafi Islamist groups, which have disrupted secular political meetings, attacked sufi shrines and, following the posting online of the controversial Islam-baiting video in America last year, attacking the US embassy.
Mr Belaid was among many who claimed Ennahda and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi secretly sympathised with the salafists and did not do enough to tackle the violence. In particular, he accused a group called the League for the Protection of the Revolution, which he said was a militia tied to Ennahda, of joining in attacks.
Within hours of Mr Belaid’s shooting yesterday, crowds threw bottles and stones at the interior ministry in Tunis, demanding that Ennahda and its coalition partners stand down. Ennahda offices were attacked and set on fire in several towns. One policeman was reported killed after clashes in Tunis.
The wider grouping of opposition parties in parliament, which his party supported, said it was withdrawing in protest and called for a general strike.
“We demand the departure of the interior minister,” Nejib Chebbi, leader of the allied secular Republican Party, said. “The interior minister holds personal responsibility for the assassination of Chokri Belaid, because he knew he was threatened and he did nothing.”
“My brother was assassinated. I am desperate and depressed,” Abdelmajid Belaid told AFP. “I accuse Rached Ghannouchi of assassinating my brother,” Mr Ghannouchi condemned his murder. “The killers want a bloodbath but they won’t succeed,” he said. However, many protesters and Mr Belaid’s brother accused Ennahda of responsibility.
The Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, a secular figurehead from one of the secular parties allied to Ennahda, was in Strasbourg to address the European Parliament. “This odious assassination of a political leader who I knew well and who was my friend is a threat,” he said. “It is a letter sent that will not be received.”
At the weekend, militants had stormed one of Mr Belaid’s own rallies in the town of Kef.
“At the end of our meeting, a group of Ennahda mercenaries and salafists attacked our activists,” he said afterwards, accusing the authorities of failing to intervene. “Scuffles broke out and a dozen of our members were injured.”
The night before he was killed, he told Tunisian television: “There are groups inside Ennahda inciting violence. Rachid Ghannouchi considers the league to be the conscience of the nation, so the defence of the authors of violence is clear. All those who oppose Ennahda become the targets of violence.”
Mr Belaid was a lawyer who had been part of Saddam Hussein’s defence team in Iraq and had previously served terms of imprisonment for opposing both President Ben Ali and his long-term predecessor, Habib Bourguiba.
After the revolution, he became a vociferous critic of Ennahda, and his party helped found the Popular Front as a left-wing opposition coalition.