Tunisia leaders urged to rethink anti-jihad strategy

Ines Bel Aiba
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Tunisia police stand guard in front of the closed border between Tunisia and Libya in Ras Jdir on November 26, 2015

Tunisia police stand guard in front of the closed border between Tunisia and Libya in Ras Jdir on November 26, 2015 (AFP Photo/Fethi Nasri)

Tunis (AFP) - Tunisia's leaders faced calls Thursday to rethink their strategy in the fight against extremism, following a suicide bombing by the Islamic State group that killed a dozen presidential guards.

The struggle against Islamist violence has taken on added urgency for North African nation following three major attacks there this year by IS, which has made Tunisia one of its main targets.

Authorities closed the border with strife-wracked Libya for 15 days, imposing a nationwide state of emergency and a night-time curfew in Tunis after 12 presidential guards were killed in Tuesday's blast.

"Some of the materials used in the bombing are not available in Tunisia, but they can be found in Libya," Prime Minister Habib Essid told parliament.

On Thursday, the interior ministry identified the suicide bomber, based on "final biological analysis", as Hussam ben Hedi ben Miled Abdelli, a 26-year-old travelling salesman from Manouba, near the capital.

Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli announced that Tunisians returning from conflict zones would be put under house arrest under new security measures.

The bombing comes after 60 people were killed, all but one of them foreign tourists, in two separate IS attacks earlier this year in the Mediterranean resort of Sousse and at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis.

- 'Frightened public' -

The response has been criticised by some politicians as insufficient.

"Our people expect more," leftist lawmaker Ahmed Seddik said in parliament.

Several other politicians, including Abdellatif Mekki of the Islamist party Ennahda, the country's number two political force, called for a national congress on the fight against terrorism.

On Wednesday, the National Security Council decided to increase surveillance of maritime borders and airports, recruit 6,000 more personnel for the army and interior ministry and step up efforts to block Internet sites linked to extremism.

It also pledged to implement as quickly as possible a terrorism law which was met with scepticism by many when it was adopted in July.

Independent expert Selim Kharrat criticised the response as "superficial decisions taken to reassure a frightened public, which indicates a lack of vision".

"What is the basic strategy? What about the reform of the security apparatus? What do you plan to do for education and to tackle unemployment?" he asked.

Essid told parliament that a youth-employment plan in regions plagued by extremism and poverty would be implemented "from next week".

Hamza Meddeb, a researcher for the Carnegie Middle East Center, said Tunisia lacks "a real concerted national strategy against terrorism, which involves the state, civil society and political parties".

Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings, has been plagued by Islamist violence since the 2011 overthrow of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Thousands of Tunisians have travelled to Libya, Iraq and Syria to fight alongside Islamic extremists, according to the authorities, who say the Sousse and Bardo attackers received arms training in Libya.

Tunis Cathedral was due to hold a mass for peace Thursday in memory of the victims of extremism in Tunisia and worldwide.

Rights groups have urged Tunisia to respect civil liberties during the state of emergency and curfew, which the authorities have vowed to apply "strictly".

"Now more than ever, Tunisian authorities have a responsibility to stay committed to a rights-respecting society and democratic principles," New York-based Human Rights Watch said.