Terrorist attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait kill dozens

The New York Times reports: Terrorists attacked sites in France, Tunisia and Kuwait on Friday, leaving a bloody toll on three continents and prompting new concerns about the spreading influence of jihadists.

In France, attackers stormed an American-owned industrial chemical plant near Lyon, decapitated one person and tried unsuccessfully to blow up the factory.

In Tunisia, gunmen opened fire at a beach resort, killing at least 27 people, officials said. At least one of the attackers was killed by security forces.

And the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in one of the largest Shiite mosques in Kuwait City during Friday prayers. The bomb filled the hall with smoke and left dead and wounded scattered on the carpet, according to witnesses and videos posted online. Local news reports said at least 24 people had been killed and wounded in the assault, which was extraordinary for Kuwait and appeared to be a deliberate attempt to incite strife between Shiites and Sunnis.

In a message circulating on social media, the Islamic State called the suicide bomber “one of the knights of the Sunni people.”

There was no immediate indication that the attacks had been coordinated. But the three strikes came at roughly the same time, and just days after the Islamic State, the militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL, called for such operations during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. [Continue reading…]

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‘If Tunisia fails, you can say goodbye to democracy in the Arab world for a century’

In the wake of last week’s attack at the national museum in the heart of Tunis, Nicholas Noe writes: Tunisia is, quite simply, a country unable to protect the real progress it has made over the last four years. Its people are not familiar with violent conflict, its army isn’t ready, and its body politic is deeply and often personally divided, despite the statements over the last 24 hours about national unity.

Most crucially, however, the security services in general — especially when it comes to the preponderant Interior Ministry — are ill equipped and ill trained for the kind of conflict that they are now likely to face. Perhaps the commanders directing today’s attack were betting on this. A heavy-handed response on the domestic scene (which is likely, largely as a result of the neglect of security sector reform over the past four years) will probably entail a violent counter-reaction within Tunisia, even though the real enemy lies in its strategic depth, waiting for the right moment, just beyond the country’s borders.

In one particularly prescient speech, the recently defeated president of Tunisia warned Europe and the United States about neglecting Tunisia and specifically about the core need for rebooting and building-out the security sector. “The military didn’t have any training or any arms for 30 years,” former President Moncef Marzouki told a conference last summer. “We need about 12 helicopters, Blackhawks, and we need them now. We also need devices for night vision and communications” to allow Tunisia to get through the upcoming elections. “If Tunisia fails,” he concluded, “you can say goodbye to democracy in the Arab world for a century.” [Continue reading…]

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Tunisian jihadis were always going to bring the fight back home

The Observer reports: When two gunmen who had trained in Libya opened fire on tourists and staff at one of Tunisia’s top museums last week, it shocked the country but perhaps not the Tunisian security forces, who had been working for years to try to stave off this kind of attack.

They had long feared that returnees from the region’s spiralling conflicts in Iraq, Syria and, more recently, neighbouring Libya would bring the fight home and choose a soft target to do it.

Nearly 3,000 young Tunisians are known to have travelled abroad to fight, the largest number from any Arab country, and thousands more were stopped from making the journey. Around 500 have returned, and although some are in jail for fighting abroad, others were released by judges, who decided they were not a danger.

The number of returnees, and the cost and manpower involved in following someone 24 hours a day, makes it almost impossible for the government to follow even those they know have spent time with extremist groups overseas. There may be other jihadis who manage to stay off their radar, slipping over the border to Libya in a flow of traders who are often young men of fighting age. [Continue reading…]

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Arrests made in attack on Tunisian museum

The New York Times reports: The Tunisian authorities have arrested more than 20 people in the investigation into Wednesday’s attack at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, including 10 the authorities say were directly tied to the deadly assault, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior said Saturday.

Some of those detained are relatives of the two gunmen who opened fire in the museum, killing 20 foreign tourists and three Tunisians before being shot dead by security forces.

The government and security forces have acted rapidly to investigate the attack and to present a determined and united front against terrorism, calling on all Tunisians and other countries to show solidarity. “There is a large-scale campaign against the extremists,” the ministry’s spokesman, Mohamed Ali Aroui, told news agencies.

Yet legislators and members of the public are already raising questions about security failures that allowed the gunmen to gain access to the museum so easily. [Continue reading…]

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Bardo Museum attack in Tunis

The New York Times reports: The massacre of tourists on Wednesday, scholars said, was in some ways a throwback to the tactics that older militant groups had relied on in the 1980s and ’90s. But the attack also comes at a time when some Islamist militants elsewhere, most notably in Egypt, are gravitating to the idea that economic interests may be a vulnerable point they can exploit to destabilize governments.

A statement about the attack posted by the Afriqiyah Media, a jihadi forum often used by Uqba bin Nafa, a Tunisian group linked to Al Qaeda, even included graphs and price charts to show the economic pain the museum assault had already inflicted.

Celebrating “the sharp collapse of the Tunisian markets after a simple operation involving only two individuals,” the statement asked: “What do you think would happen if an organized attack happened, and simultaneously on several military, vital, and tourist targets?”

Some analysts said they saw an ominous trend. “The shooting spree tactic is really catching on, and that is going to be a huge headache for security services around the world,” said Will McCants, a scholar of Islamist militancy at the Brookings Institution, noting the similarities with recent attacks on the Canadian Parliament and Charlie Hebdo.

Brian Fishman, a researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington, said he, too, foresaw more low-tech assaults, “because these attacks are easy.”

Tunisian officials said Thursday that they had not yet found evidence tying either of the two gunmen to any known terrorist group. Both men were killed by security forces in a gunfight at the museum, and the authorities identified them as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, both Tunisian. [Continue reading…]

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These terrorists in Tunisia were targeting democracy

Lina Ben Mhenni writes: Two days before Tunisia was due to celebrate its independence day, a horrible terrorist attack has shaken the country. The barbaric, bloody assault on the Bardo museum near the parliament, that claimed the lives of 19 people, seems to open a new chapter for terrorist operations in my country. It also looks set to be the worst for foreigners in Tunisia since the attack on Djerba’s synagogue in 2002.

The symbolism of such an attack occurring in Tunisia – the birthplace of the so-called Arab spring – is significant. It was here that the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in December 2010 spawned a series of street demonstrations that culminated in the ousting of longtime president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisia’s reputation as the Arab spring’s “model pupil” may be questionable given that the country contributes the highest number of jihadis to countries such as Syria.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that while chaos is reigning in other countries in the Middle East, Tunisia has succeeded in ensuring a relative stability despite two political assassinations and some terrorist attacks targeting members of the security and military forces in remote areas such as Mount Chaambi. This attack occurred a few months after successful democratic and transparent elections in the country. Furthermore it happened while MPs were discussing an anti-terrorist law not far away from the museum where everything occurred. The two buildings lie within the same fence. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS claims responsibility for Tunisia museum attack

The Associated Press reports: The Islamic State group issued a statement Thursday claiming responsibility for the deadly attack on Tunisia’s national museum that killed 23 people, mostly tourists.

The statement described Wednesday’s attack in Tunisia as a “blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia,” and appeared on a forum that carries messages from the group.

The statement said there were two attackers and they weren’t killed until they ran out of ammunition and it promised further attacks.

“Wait for the glad tidings of what will harm you, impure ones, for what you have seen today is the first drop of the rain,” the statement, which was also announced by U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group.

IS, which is based in Syria and Iraq, has affiliates in neighboring Libya, where many Tunisians have gone to fight and train with extremist groups.

Earlier this week, a prominent Tunisian field commander for IS was killed in fighting inside Libya.

Tunisia’s government, meanwhile, announced the arrest of nine people — four of whom were connected directly to the attack and five others who supported them elsewhere in the country, authorities said. [Continue reading…]

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Give democratic Tunisia the U.S. support it needs and deserves

Vance Serchuk writes: Tunisia is rightly hailed as the lone success story of the Arab Spring: the only country that has threaded a path from the uprisings of 2011 to genuine multiparty democracy today. Yet the future of freedom in Tunisia is far from assured. With the election of a new parliament and president in recent weeks, the most important experiment in Arab democracy is entering a difficult and potentially perilous new phase — one in which greater U.S. support and attention are urgently needed.

Tunisians are quick to cite a litany of challenges that could still derail their transition, including an unreformed economy that generates too few jobs and a persistent threat from terrorist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia. There’s also the failed state next door in Libya, a volcano of Syria-like potential that threatens to kick up a cloud of instability over its neighbors.

Yet easily the most significant question facing Tunisia concerns its new elected leadership and its commitment to democratic principles, human rights and inclusive, tolerant governance. [Continue reading…]

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Tunisia’s new president pledges reconciliation

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Tunisia is still a ray of hope for the Middle East

Berny Sèbe writes: Let’s face it: once a term laden with hope for the Middle East, the idea of an “Arab Spring” has become merely depressing.

Assorted humanitarian disasters have followed in its wake – think of the unspeakable violence by the so-called Islamic State, or the disintegration of Libya’s social and political fabric. In Egypt, the die-hard habit of letting the army choose the country’s rulers has returned. Elsewhere, as in Bahrain, revolts nipped in the bud – or repressed with the help of muscular police forces – have been silenced for good.

And yet, the cradle of the Arab Spring is once again leading the way. With the peaceful election of Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia, the first Arab country where popular protests proved to be enough to get rid of an autocrat, has just shown the world that an orderly management of a revolution was always an option on the table.

In four short years, Tunisia has gone through the entire cycle of ousting an apparently lifelong president, electing a constituent assembly, producing a new constitution, and organising a round of fully democratic legislative and presidential elections.

It has successfully navigated the murky waters of post-revolutionary instability, when the future of a country becomes so open that the temptation to use political violence can be much stronger than the discipline needed to bow to the verdict of ballot boxes. [Continue reading…]

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Tunisia: Cheers and doubts

Robin Wright writes: The celebratory honking and shouting on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the elegant boulevard that runs through Tunisia’s capital, began within seconds of the announcement that Sunday’s election had produced the country’s first democratically elected President—the culmination of an uneasy transition that began, in 2011, with the Jasmine Revolution. In a tight runoff, Beji Caid Essebsi, who recently turned eighty-eight, was declared the winner. He is Tunisia’s most experienced politician; he has served as defense minister, foreign minister, and interior minister. But these positions were held under Tunisia’s two most autocratic leaders, and Essebsi personifies the old guard—known by critics as the Remnants.

Tunisia has emerged as a model for Arab nations. Its three elections since October, held in unheated schools around the country, have been serious and well run—especially compared to the flagrant vote-buying and vote-rigging elsewhere in the Middle East. Tunisians “raised the bar of what is possible,” Ken Dryden, the former Canadian M.P. (and hockey star), who served as an international monitor for the election, said. “They have done their part.” Yet the country, with a population of eleven million, has also provided roughly three thousand fighters—more than any other nation—to the Islamic State and the Al Nusra Front as they sweep through Syria and Iraq. (Tunisia’s government says it has prevented almost nine thousand more from joining.) “Any time these people decide to go to their deaths, it’s because they don’t accept conditions of life. They believe they are rejected by society,” Karim Helali, of Afek, or Horizons, a progressive party favored by Tunisia’s young people, told me.

Essebsi defeated a human-rights activist, Moncef Marzouki, who was appointed to serve as interim President in 2011, while the country wrote a new constitution. The process took three years. During that time, Tunisia grappled with the assassination of two leading politicians, the rise of an extremist underground, attacks on the U.S. Embassy and an American school in Tunis, and thousands of labor strikes. [Continue reading…]

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Will Tunisia pass the transition test?

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The success of Tunisian secularists might not be advancing democracy

Monica Marks writes: A self-styled, secular, modernist party called Nidaa Tounes won against the Islamist Ennahda party in the Tunisian election this week. For many, the subsequent headline – “Secularist party wins Tunisia elections” – will seem more impressive than the fact Tunisia just completed its second genuinely competitive, peaceful elections since 2011.

Indeed, in a region wracked by extremism and civil war, the secularists’ victory will strike many as further proof that Tunisia is moving forward and is the sole bright spot in a gloomy region. Some may prematurely celebrate, yet again, the death of political Islam, arguing that Tunisians achieved through the ballot box what Egyptians achieved through a popular coup, rejecting the Brotherhood and its cousin-like movements once and for all. We should exercise caution, however, in labelling Nidaa Tounes’s victory part of a seamless sweep of democratic achievements, or seeing Sunday’s vote as a clear referendum against all varieties of political Islam.

Despite feeling kinship with the party because of its secular label, westerners understand surprisingly little about Nidaa Tounes, mainly because they’ve tended to hold the magnifying glass of critical inquiry up to Islamists but not secularists over the past three years. Counter-intuitively, Nidaa Tounes’s internal structure is noticeably more authoritarian than Ennahda, which boasts representative decision-making structures from its grassroots to national leadership. [Continue reading…]

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Young Tunisians think ISIS offers better life and reports on mass killings are ‘made up’

The New York Times reports: In interviews at cafes in and around Ettadhamen [a district in Tunis], dozens of young unemployed or working-class men expressed support for the extremists or saw the appeal of joining their ranks — convinced that it could offer a higher standard of living, a chance to erase arbitrary borders that have divided the Arab world for a century, or perhaps even the fulfillment of Quranic prophecies that Armageddon will begin with a battle in Syria.

“There are lots of signs that the end will be soon, according to the Quran,” said Aymen, 24, who was relaxing with friends at another cafe.

Bilal, an office worker who was at another cafe, applauded the Islamic State as the divine vehicle that would finally undo the Arab borders drawn by Britain and France at the end of World War I. “The division of the countries is European,” said Bilal, 27. “We want to make the region a proper Islamic state, and Syria is where it will start.”

Mourad, 28, who said he held a master’s degree in technology but could find work only in construction, called the Islamic State the only hope for “social justice,” because he said it would absorb the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies and redistribute their wealth. “It is the only way to give the people back their true rights, by giving the natural resources back to the people,” he said. “It is an obligation for every Muslim.”

Many insisted that friends who had joined the Islamic State had sent back reports over the Internet of their homes, salaries and even wives. “They live better than us!” said Walid, 24.

Wissam, 22, said a friend who left four months ago had told him that he was “leading a truly nice, comfortable life” under the Islamic State.

“I said: ‘Are there some pretty girls? Maybe I will go there and settle down,’ ” he recalled.

Leaders of Ennahda, the mainstream Islamist party that leads the Tunisian Parliament, said they had overestimated the power of democracy alone to tame violent extremism. Said Ferjani, an Ennahda leader who has often cited his own evolution from youthful militancy to peaceful politics, said in an interview that he now believed economic development would be just as important. “Without social development, I don’t think the democracy could survive,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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At birthplace of the Arab Spring, discontent opens a door to the past

The New York Times reports: Chaima Issa, a poet and the daughter of a former political prisoner, is determined to keep Tunisia’s revolution alive.

She is running as a candidate for a small democratic party in parliamentary elections next weekend in one of the most populous constituencies of the capital. A 34-year-old who wears purple-frame glasses, a tight white T-shirt and jeans, she is an outsider but a passionate one as she crisscrosses the old quarter of Tunis reaching out to voters.

Almost four years after a popular uprising that overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and set off the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunisians are grappling with price increases, unemployment and rising terrorism — and roundly blame their politicians for the mess. The frustration is such that people often say they wish for a return of the Ben Ali era.

Tunisia has been torn by ideological divisions between Islamists who won the first elections after the revolution in 2011 and secularists who led a protest movement against the Islamist government last year after the assassination of two members of Parliament. Now riding on the wave of discontent, former officials from the Ben Ali government, who are free to run for office for the first time since the uprising, are attempting a comeback.

It is a prospect that incenses Ms. Issa.

“It is horrible, shameful,” she said. “They are profiting from our revolution; they are picking our flowers. It is they who spilled our blood.”

In the capital’s old city recently, Ms. Issa found voters in an angry mood and vowing not to vote at all for the politicians, whom they clearly distrust. “All they want is a position, and then they never let go!” shouted one market worker striding past a group of workers from Ms. Issa’s National Democratic Alliance party who were wearing white party T-shirts and handing out leaflets and waving flags. “Long live Ben Ali!” shouted a vendor when he saw her party flags. [Continue reading…]

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Tunisia tweets its way to democracy

Noah Feldman writes: At the Philadelphia convention of 1787, James Madison alone took complete notes in a rapid shorthand, a self-appointed job that he said almost killed him. But today, constitutional debates are recorded in Twitter bursts — and in Tunisia, where the constituent assembly is compiling that nation’s new constitution, the children of the Arab Spring are using the full range of technological tools to ensure a degree of transparency never seen before in such political processes.

At the heart of the technological openness is a Tunisian nongovernmental group called Al Bawsala, which means, roughly, the Compass. Bawsala staffers are 20-something Tunisians dressed in the same skinny jeans and sweaters worn everywhere by young people too cool to be called hipsters. Their look alone marks a contrast with the formally dressed delegates of the National Assembly whom they supervise.

And supervise they do. From the balcony of the main chamber of the National Assembly, in the parliament building called the Bardo, the Bawsala posse keeps an eagle eye on every moment of the proceedings. When an assembly member speaks, at least one Bawsala member tweets a precis of the speaker’s comments in real time — translated into French. The speed and quality of the summaries are amazingly impressive. I’ve been sitting in the balcony myself, and whenever I’ve had trouble following the assembly members’ Arabic — sometimes speakers shift from formal standard Arabic into Tunisian dialect — I would look over a colleague’s shoulder at the Bawsala feed. Invariably, it was already posted and immensely clarifying. Everyone around me was following it, from journalists to international observers. It was the first draft of the first draft of history. It also meant that anyone outside the hall could follow the debates, even without access to Tunisian television. [Continue reading…]

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A political deal in a deeply divided Tunisia as Islamists agree to yield power

The New York Times reports: Compromise has been in short supply since Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring nearly three years ago. But this small North African nation has once again broken new ground with a political deal between longtime enemies among the Islamists and the secular old guard.

The deal, announced over the weekend, aims to put in place an independent caretaker government until new elections next year, marking the first time Islamists have agreed in the face of rising public anger to step back from power gained at the ballot box.

Tunisia had been careening toward chaos and political paralysis after two assassinations this year and an inability to finalize a new constitution, and it remains fragile and divided. But months of laborious back-room haggling led by two political leaders helped, at least for now, to avoid the kind of zero-sum politics that have come to define the post-Arab Spring tumult in Egypt, Libya and the battlefield of Syria.

Beji Caid Essebsi, a former prime minister who leads a new secular-minded political party, Nidaa Tounes, and Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, have starkly different visions of the country’s future. But since Tunisia’s political crisis flared this year, the two men have met one on one at least five times to try to find a political solution. [Continue reading…]

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Tunisia shows the way in the Arab world

Rami G Khouri writes: I have been going back and forth between the United States and Arab countries for my entire life, and every time I visit the United States I am shocked by the mainstream public sphere’s distorted and incomplete view of what is taking place in our region. This is happening again now, as the American media and public sphere in general write off most of the Arab world as a lost cause, having shed their initial interest and even some awe and respect for millions of ordinary Arab men and women (most of them Muslims) who fought for freedom, dignity and perhaps even democracy. In the past week that I have been in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, the only mentions of the Arab uprisings (the “Arab Spring,” as it is commonly called here) that I have heard have almost always been negative, and in the past tense, with special concerns voiced about the rise of Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in Syria. Iraq, with its daily killings of 50 or 100 people, is hardly mentioned. The point of such comments is that Arabs tried earnestly to remove dictators and establish democratic systems, but they failed, leaving the region in a state of deep turmoil, uncertainty and danger.

This superficial, incomplete and largely unfair assessment of what is actually happening in different Arab countries is contrasted by those pockets of sobriety and a more nuanced understanding that some hope actually exists in an Arab landscape of political turbulence and violence.

This is especially true for the two countries – Tunisia and Egypt – where the Arab uprisings began, and where citizens continue doggedly to grapple with the complexities of transforming autocracies into democracies in a relatively short period of time. Syria, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, on the other hand, remain mired in some degree of violence, turbulence or stalemate that will need years to be resolved.

It seems to me unfair and inaccurate to write off the possibility that some Arab countries can successfully achieve a democratic transition, especially given the short period of time since the uprisings began. I suspect the real problem is in the inability of most Americans to acknowledge those ongoing dynamics and real achievements that have been recorded, especially in Tunisia, rather than the actual inability of Arabs to democratize. [Continue reading…]

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