Tunisia suffers bloodiest day in 50 years as terror strikes border

The attack on July 16 that claimed the lives of 14 soldiers in Tunisia has increased pressure on parliament to pass the anti-terrorism bill still being debated.

al-monitor Tunisian soldiers gather around an armored vehicle near the border with Algeria around Mount Chaambi, western Tunisia, Aug. 2, 2013. Photo by REUTERS.

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tunisian military, tunisian revolution, tunisian parliament, tunisian islamists, terrorist organizations, terrorist attacks, terrorism

Jul 21, 2014

One can never be sure when the worst has come. But on July 16, 14 soldiers were killed in Mount Chaambi, where terrorists have been attacking over the last several months. The latest attack, which also wounded 20 people, was claimed by an affiliate of the terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Since 2011, Tunisia has witnessed many attacks, causing dozens of deaths in the ranks of the army and security forces. The National Constituent Assembly (NCA) is still trying to pass an anti-terrorism bill that has been debated for weeks. Measures to protect borders and high-risk areas have been slow in coming. Resentment is growing against the rulers, with whom the people have been angry since they refused to leave parliament in 2012. But what happened to put Tunisia in such a mess now?

The NCA is currently debating the anti-terrorism bill, and elected officials have been unable to agree on some provisions, including the definition of the word "terrorism." Kalthoum Badreddine, the chairwoman of the General Legislation Committee, said, “Even international laws and treaties have not ruled on the definition of terrorism because this phenomenon is too complex to be defined.” Although complex, the problem exists and has been on our land for several months.

The bloodiest attack took place July 16, shortly after the breaking of the Ramadan fast. It was not the first time that a terrorist attack killed people in this holy month, a month that jihadists are clearly fond of.

Last year, eight soldiers were killed and mutilated on July 29, the 19th day of Ramadan, barely four days after the assassination of leftist deputy Mohamed Brahmi in Tunis on Republic Day. After almost a year to the day, the terrorists chose the 18th of Ramadan to commit the bloodiest attack since the 2011 revolution, and even since 1956. This date was certainly not been chosen at random. It corresponds to the Battle of Badr, the first victorious battle by the Muslim Arabs.

In the attack on July 16, 14 soldiers were killed on Mount Chaambi and more than 20 were wounded. At the time of this writing, another soldier remains missing and it’s unclear whether he is dead or has been captured by the attackers. The defense minister gave a news conference later in the day July 17. “The toll could rise and is already the heaviest recorded by the Tunisian army since independence,” he said.

The president declared three days of national mourning. The Culture Ministry postponed all cultural events planned for July 17, 18 and 19. On the other hand, some rejoiced in the attack. Groups that sympathize with terrorists held sinister gatherings overnight on July 17 in the mosques and streets of Bizerte, Zarzouna, Sidi Ali Ben Aoun, the city Ezzouhour at Kasserine and Ben Guerdane.

“The supreme sacrifice of the martyred soldiers will not be in vain and the state will always be there despite these criminal conspiracies,” said interim President Moncef Marzouki, who expressed his indignation with terrorism during a eulogy for the soldiers who were killed on Mount Chaambi.

The terrorists have a new method now: RPGs. On July 16, about 7:40 p.m., at the breaking of the fast, two simultaneous attacks targeted two of the army’s monitoring stations. Soldiers were killed by machine gun fire and RPGs.

Uqba Bin Nafe battalion, an AQIM-affiliated Islamist group, quickly claimed responsibility for the attack over social media. That group broke its silence in May by claiming responsibility for recent bombings in the country, including the attack in Kasserine on the home of Minister of Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou. Four security personnel were killed in that attack.

Chaambi is a closed military zone where the Tunisian army has been tracking an armed group linked to al-Qaeda since December 2012. So the recent attack was not surprising. Indeed, dozens of armed fighters hide in the mountains, according to security officials quoted by Al-Jazeera. Many of them are Algerian nationals with weapons from Libya. A terrorist group specializing in weapons smuggling was arrested there a few days ago. Its members were planning terrorist attacks in Tunisia, and they are clearly not alone.

Defense Minister Ghazi Jeribi recognized that fact during a news conference held July 17 in conjunction with the Interior Ministry. He said that between 40 and 60 terrorists attacked the national army, asserting, “We know very well that the Ramadan period and the elections will be hot periods, and that terrorists will try to sabotage the next elections through diabolical plans that also target the entire Arab Maghreb region.”

Jeribi listed “many precautionary measures” to address the situation. But they haven’t prevented the bloodiest attack in the country in 50 years. The Interior Ministry followed suit and listed terrorist attacks that were thwarted during the first 19 days of Ramadan. One of these attacks was coordinated with members of the National Guard and security forces that were infiltrated by terrorists.

The former governments of the Troika have been accused by many political parties and civil groups of having allowed terrorism to grow. But the current government doesn’t seem to be up to the task. There is hate speech, extremists with access to large audiences and violent groups operating with impunity, and yet the current situation, although messy, was not born yesterday. It was caused by prolonged neglect and a political decision to refrain from fighting those conducting the attacks today.

On July 17, journalist and presidential candidate Zied el-Heni called for a new peaceful march to be held July 18 to urge the ANC to vote on the anti-terrorism law before July 24. “There will not be an ANC afterward. It’s over. We have no more patience. The conspiracy against our country must stop,” he said.

Yet, amid this outpour of events, condemnations, mourning and canceled festivals, young soldiers continue to serve as cannon fodder while the word “terrorism” remains undefined.

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