Turmoil in Libya Strengthening Extremism in Tunisia

Mohamed-Salah Omri analyzes the attacks in Tunis and why an estimated 3,000 young people fled Tunisia to join the IS

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

According to the CIA and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, it is estimated that at least 3,000 young men from Tunisia, mostly under the age of 30, has visited Syria to be trained by the Islamic State. This is critical information relevant to unpacking who is responsible for the attacks that took place in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.

The two gunmen in military gear rushed the Bardo National Museum in Tunis on Wednesday. They killed 19 tourists, and two dozen more were injured before security forces raided the building to end the siege, killing the two assailants.

Joining us now from New Orleans, Louisiana, is Mohamed-Salah Omri. Mohamed is an associate professor of modern Arabic language and literature at the Oriental Institute at the University of Oxford.

Thank you so much for joining us, Mohamed.

MOHAMED-SALAH OMRI, ASSOC. PROF., ORIENTAL STUDIES, UNIV. OF OXFORD: Thank you. Glad to be here.

PERIES: So, Mohamed, what do you know so far about the incident that took place? And who’s responsible?

OMRI: Well, first of all, my heart and condolences go to the victims and parents and friends and through the Tunisians who I think are in shock at this moment.

What actually seemed to have happened is that two people, possibly more, disguised in military gear, entered the Bardo Museum, which is a national institution and a world-renowned museum, which is adjacent to the parliament, and went on a shooting rampage. And the disastrous outcome is what you outlined in the news a minute ago.

PERIES: So the attack came days after the death of Ahmed Al-Rouissi, a Tunisian who’s also known as Abu Zakariya al-Tunisi, who led the contingent of Islamic State fighters in Libya. He was killed in clashes with the Libyan troops, I understand, in Sirte, which is a stronghold of the former president Gaddafi.

Now, what do we know about this kind of influence that’s going on in Libya and its relationship to what’s happening in Tunisia today?

OMRI: Well, the borders with Libya have been a source of concern ever since the revolution in Libya started, actually. But while the flow of people at the beginning was mostly refugees, and a lot of them still living in Tunisia, that particular border, as Libya’s situation went downhill and very violent, became porous for smuggled goods, but also for the movement of people across from Tunisia to Libya, and then on to other parts, like Syria, but also of Libyan, mostly, weapons coming in back from Tunisia, to Tunisia, or Tunisians go and train or run away. For example, answer Ansar al-Sharia, who were accused and their leader accused of the killing of the left-wing leader, Chokri Belaid, ran, basically, and took refuge in Libya, and Ahmed al-Rouissi, one of the key suspects in that killing, seemed to be part of that contingent.

So as long as–you know, basically, what happened to Libya has a direct effect on what happens in Tunisia.

PERIES: And so begin explaining to us what is happening in Tunisia that is causing such a exodus of young people to go to a place like Syria and to get trained by the IS.

OMRI: At certain level, the number is shocking, because really you don’t associate Tunisia–there were always [incompr.] with that high number of militants intent on taking part in this sort of quote-unquote holy war executed from Syria and Iraq. But the numbers are very high. And unemployment itself doesn’t explain it. There has always been a high level of unemployment. Social conditions do not explain it.

There was a lot of recruitment efforts, I think, made by radical elements, Salafists and others, at the beginning of the first few years of the revolution. There was a climate of freedom and movement for everybody. And I think a lot of people, including preachers who came from the Gulf region and other places–and a lot of money reportedly moved, in order to facilitate recruitment. So a lot of mosques in Tunisia turned into places where you’d actually recruit and indoctrinate young men, mainly (but also some women) and then send them off. And I think that can be explained by a lack of, if you like, political will and opening up of the security situation in a chaotic post-revolution situation, in addition to very hard organized work by the recruiters and their allies and a lot of money. That led, I think, to these numbers.

PERIES: Now, Tunisia is being held in high regard as a success story of Arab Spring having brought about democracy and having done it peacefully after the revolt and rebellion. Now, what are the conditions on the ground now? And is that a true story? Or is that a myth I just described?

OMRI: At the political level, I think, still believe that the process in Tunisia is very, very good and on track. Tunisia had witnessed a number of very successful and free and fair elections since 2011, unlike almost any other country in situations similar to that in that part of the world. There was several transitions between–and government, peacefully. The economy did not stop altogether. The social life continued, and a lot of opening up of the society. The economy was shaken, and continues to be shaken, I think.

So at the political level, I think the writing of the Constitution and a whole arsenal of laws have been enacted, and there is currently a permanent parliament that was [incompr.] elected and an executive branch also elected. And the other bodies that are emerging from the new constitution are underway. So I think in that sense the process has been successful.

Has Tunisia been able to contain the festering terrorism that started first in the fringes and directed itself at the military and the security services and then seem to have moved on now to the tourists for very specific reasons that we can come back to? I don’t think it has. But so that’s, I think, a picture as I describe.

PERIES: Elaborate on that point. Why the targeting of tourists?

OMRI: Well, I think that’s the lifeblood, more or less, of Tunisia, and its soft spot as well. Tunisia before 2010, I think it received about 7 million tourists. And there was a lull in tourist activity, but that–then that picked up. So tourism is a main source of foreign currency for the country.

The openness of the country continued, and the image of marketing, if you like, Tunisia as a place where you can come have fun has a cultural riches as well, succeeded, didn’t–there was no major setbacks. So what it was–in a sense, this was an expected target, because, remember, if people are intent, if people are intent on breaking an economy like Tunisia, what you do is you simply hit the tourism sector. We remember, there was a case like this one in Egypt, called Luxor, an attack on tourists, and that led to a hiatus, if not a almost complete shutdown of tourism, for about two years in Egypt.

PERIES: Right. And this is very clever in that sense, as the European and the rest of the Western world cannot just dismiss it as something that happened in Northern Africa. This really hits home. So in terms of targeted strategy of the IS, it’s a very clever one.

And finally, Mohamed, my last question to you before you go–I know you’re very busy today and probably has a number of other interviews to do–what do you think will be the response of the state to this incident now?

OMRI: Well, the response of the state at the public statements are strong and united. And there was, I think, even a public response in terms of demonstrations and so on. But my feeling and hope, actually, is that the government takes the question of terrorism more seriously than it has thus far. We know, for example, that the enactment of a legislation against terrorism has been slackened in the previous parliament and in this one. That’s for three years. But the action against terrorism has been there, but it has not been through a strategy. And I think that all led to a sense of confidence among the terrorists. So I hope that this will spell the end of that lax response and lack of strategy on the part of the government.

PERIES: Mohamed, thank you so much for joining us today.

OMRI: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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