Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Terrorism and tourism: the two faces of Tunisia

Terrorism and tourism: the two faces of Tunisia

Thursday 19 March 2015, by siawi3

The deadly attack on the Bardo Museum shows why this birthplace of the Arab Spring has exported up to 7,000 fighters to the Islamic State


By Mark Almond
5:55PM GMT 18 Mar 2015

Until the murderous attack on the Europeans visiting the Bardo Museum’s priceless collection of Roman mosaics, Tunisia seemed safe from Isil-inspired violence against both Westerners and Western civilization. Unlike other Arab Spring states, it has chosen between secularists and Muslim-inspired parties with elections rather than violence.
Heavily dependent on mass tourism for foreign currency, and lacking the oil and gas reserves of its neighbours Algeria and Libya, even its mainstream Muslim politicians had avoided too much hardline rhetoric which might frighten off the infidel cash cows from north of the Mediterranean.
Yet away from the country’s French restaurants, Roman ruins and the beach resorts, an underworld of Islamist discontent has been simmering.

At least, 3,000 jihadis have gone to Syria and Iraq according to the Tunisian Interior Ministry. Others put the figure as high as 7,000. A couple of years ago I travelled on a plane from Tunis to Turkey with such a group of young men. They had an older sheikh to guide them. Strangely enough, given their deadly purpose, they were in high spirits, like schoolboys on their first trip abroad. Probably for some of them it was their first and last foreign journey.
And over the last couple of years there has been a steady uptick in violence on the fringes of Tunisia itself. The Islamists recognise no borders so it is natural for them to flit across to and from Algeria despite efforts by both governments to control them. With Libya in chaos, the radicals have even more leeway.

Of course, Libya is so violent that it can hardly be called a safe haven for terrorists. Only yesterday one of Tunisia’s most wanted terrorists was killed in a firefight near Sirte in central Libya. Ahmed Rouissi was accused of murdering two secular politicians in Tunis before he fled south to join Isil fighters based in Gaddafi’s hometown, Sirte. Maybe the attack on the Bardo complex was revenge for his death. But probably his jihadi soulmates had already planned an atrocity at the museum: it has the perfect mix of Westerners and their cultural heritage for an Isil onslaught.

Killing nineteen innocent people might serve Isil’s purpose of trying to frighten away Tunisia’s tourist trade. But such murders seem to disgust all sections of Tunisian society. They may well reinforce the strong, secular forces which came back to power in last year’s elections.
The new Prime Minister had been Interior Minister under the old order ousted in 2011. Then the regime lacked public support for its crackdowns on Islamic groups. Now, it looks as though Isil will provoke a popular backlash against radical Islamists. Maybe the killers think that Tunisians will soon forget the murders of tourists and sympathise with the terrorists as freedom fighters. Still, that looks unlikely.

Photo: Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda Party march prior to elections (FADEL SENNA/AFP)

So even though Tunisia has a well of support for radical jihadis, it might not be as deep as people fear. It is one thing to go abroad in search of a heroic death in Syria on the way to paradise. It is quite another thing to make life a misery at home for your own people. Tunisians know that terrorism threatens their livelihoods as well as the lives of tourists.

Mark Almond is a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford.