Tunisia struggles to find answers to terror attacks
Tunis, Tunisia — Tunisia has reason to fear a terror attack. The only democracy that emerged from the turmoil of the 2011 Arab Spring has seen more of its young men join the Islamic State group than any other nation, and many have returned, battle-hardened, to spread radical ideologies back home.
It’s also a country full of vulnerable targets, with an economy that depends on welcoming European tourists to its warm Mediterranean shore.
Despite having so much at stake, the shocking slayings of 22 tourists at the national museum in March failed to persuade lawmakers to resolve their debate over an anti-terror strategy proposed more than a year earlier. Only now — after a single jihadi from a gritty Tunisian town was able to kill 38 tourists at a seaside resort — does the government appear ready to launch a comprehensive response.
“We decided today to pass the counter-terrorism law before Republic Day on July 25,” Parliament President Mohamed Ennaceur said while visiting survivors of Friday’s attack at a hospital. “We will be after the government to take the necessary measures in all areas to fight against terrorism.”
The new anti-terrorism law would increase police powers and provide for harsher penalties, moves that worry human rights activists. It also would create a commission to devise a strategy to tackle the roots of terrorism by addressing terror’s economic and social causes, and creating “de-radicalization” centers to change minds through persuasion, not prison.
The law has been stuck in committees since it was first proposed in January 2014 as leaders of the coalition government sought to balance reform and repression. That’s a difficult challenge in any democracy, even more so in a country that knew only one-party rule for 50 years before the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
In the security vacuum that followed the fall of his police state, ultraconservative Islamic groups flourished, and when their demands were denied, they began attacking politicians and police.
With technical help from the U.S. and other countries, Tunisia’s security forces have slowly been rebuilt and are becoming more effective in hunting down terror cells and ramping up arrests of alleged extremists. But none of this stopped a 24-year-old attacker from pulling an assault rifle and three grenades out of a beach umbrella and hunting down tourists at a resort hotel.
Even before this latest attack, Tunisia’s point-man on terrorism, Rafik Chelli, acknowledged that tougher policing alone can’t do the job.
“Only the security approach has been really implemented and it has not been sufficient on its own,” Chelli told the Associated Press recently.
Immediately afterward, Prime Minister Habib Essid said armed guards would be placed at tourist sites, and that mosques outside control of the government would be closed. Essid also announced financial rewards for information leading to arrests.
The new law promises a more holistic response, but lawmakers have to get it right, Chelli said. The key “is to ensure that these measures respect freedoms and human rights and the security of the country.”
On Monday, top European security officials paid a somber homage on Tunisian sands to the 38 people killed last Friday at on the beach in front of the Imperial Marhaba hotel in the Mediterranean resort of Sousse, as Tunisian authorities announced the arrest of seven alleged accomplices of the gunman.
British officials confirmed that most of the dead were British, and Prime Minister David Cameron said it was time for his country to become “intolerant of intolerance” and crack down on the ideas that fuel Islamic State group-inspired terrorism.
Cameron’s office said that 18 Britons have been confirmed dead, and the total is expected to rise to around 30.
Tunisian Interior Minister Mohamed Najem Gharsalli on Monday announced the arrests of several Tunisians allegedly from a network behind attacker Seifeddine Rezgui, who was killed by police near the scene of the attack.
Authorities say he acted alone during the rampage but had accomplices who supported him beforehand, providing him with weapons and logistical support. A person close to the investigation told the Associated Press that seven people were arrested in at least three different cities and were being interrogated in the capital Monday.
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