SEEMA MUSTAFA | 24 MARCH, 2015
“What you Have Seen Today is the First Drop of Rain”: Islamic State to Tunisia
Demonstrators with the Tunisian national flag
First of a four part series from Tunisia
TUNIS: It is always true of this part of the world, it seems much worse from the outside than the in. And despite the major attack on tourists by the Islamic State, life is as always in this beautiful Mediterranean city with the flight from Doha packed with crying babies, young students and many foreigners.
The airport of course was poorly staffed, and the wait at the immigration clearance seemed endless but tempers improved as just after that they were giving out free SIM cards to anyone who wanted these. Chaos in airports here is reassuring---it is the silence that is often disconcerting---and it was business as usual with the airport bearing no sign of heightened security alerts in the form of heavily armed grim looking men, wearing ‘paranoia’ on their sleeves.
The taxi driver---the tribe who have a feel for the pulse of their respective cities as most journalists firmly believe---was barely perturbed about the IS attack on tourists at the national museum in which 20 were killed. In his view the government had taken good action, and the attack was carried out by these indoctrinated men, and that they would be dealt with sooner than later. He was not worried that it would happen again, and felt that his country that had escaped the violence till now would be able to block the extremists.
The Tunisian government has sacked two police chiefs after the incident. The IS has claimed responsibility for it now, and according to the government here at least two of the assailants had been trained at a jihadist camp in neighbouring Libya that remains in turmoil after the US military intervention to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. Interior Ministry official Rafik Chelli was quoted in the media as saying that these two men had been recruited at mosques in Tunisia and travelled to Libya for the indoctrination and the training last September. The Islamic State on the other hand, praised the two militants in a video recording as “knights”.
The Tunisian government has been cracking down on extremism, and before the Museum attack, had arrested several persons on suspicion of working with the Islamic State and extremist groups There is deep worry of course in government circles about the attack, that has broken a hiatus of 13 years--- a record for a country in North Africa surrounded by nations going through rough and very violent times. Tiny Tunisia was taking credit for ushering an era of peace through levels of democracy that had turned it into an oasis of sorts until this act of violence that has the government cracking down, in the hope that it will beat it back.
Ironically, the largest number of foreign fighters in Syria, Iraq and Libya are from Tunisia where the government has been adopting a zero tolerance for militancy. It thus was a matter of time for it to become a target with the audio tape released by the Islamic state saying in Arabic:"We tell the apostates who sit on the chest of Muslim Tunisia: Wait for the glad tidings of what will harm you, o impure ones, for what you have seen today is the first drop of the rain."
Despite this warning the signs of panic that usually appear first at airports across the world are not visible. Security was minimal, or to be honest, not visible at all. The streets too remain ‘unmanned’ with no armoured cars, and armed security personnel on the roads as public signals of a government in control. However, a decision to entrust the security of the larger cities to the Army has been taken and it is expected to be visible on the streets soon.
Fom all accounts, arrests are taking place with the police under instructions to break the ring that had supported the attack at the museum. Relatives of the militants have also been arrested, as have others that the government is tightlipped about.
Tunisia's Prime Minister Habib Essid has said that one of the dead militants Yassin al-Abidi had been under surveillance but “not for anything special.” Local newspapers said that Abidi had spent time in Iraq and Libya but the source for this information was not clear.
Tunisia has been a success story of sorts in this troubled region. After the fall of the Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali regime it was able to write a new Constitution and hold free elections in what is widely recognised as a transition to democracy marrying the secular and Islamist schools without giving in to fundamentalism. But the fight against Salafists and al Qaeda elements has been relentless, with the government determined not to bend before militant groups like Ansar al Sharia and Okba Ibn Nafaa which operates along the Algerian border. The first has been designated a terror group by the US as well. These groups have been hit hard by the Tunisian security forces, and clearly are on the look out now for revenge. Tunisia will need support it can get to tackle this effectively at this stage.
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