Suicide bomber strikes in Tunisia
A suicide bomber blew himself up outside of the Riadh Palm hotel in Sousse, Tunisia earlier today. No casualties, other than the suicide bomber himself, have been reported.
A second suicide bomber was arrested before he could detonate his explosive device, according to the Tunisian Interior Ministry, which says he "wanted to blow up the mausoleum of [Habib] Bourguiba in Monastir." Tunisian authorities claim there were multiple unsuccessful attacks in Monastir.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Laroui has identified the perpetrators as takfiris, who believe that anyone who does not follow their radical ways, including their fellow Muslims, should be punished or killed. The suicide bomber, the apprehended bomber, and a third suspect on the lam in Sousse are all Tunisians, Laroui said in an interview.
Thus far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Escalating violence in Tunisia
The suicide attack comes after weeks of escalating violence in the conflict between Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, the leading al Qaeda-linked group in the country, and the Tunisian government.
A number of Ansar al Sharia members were reportedly killed during counterterrorism raids earlier this month. The Tunisian government blames Ansar al Sharia for a string of attacks on security personnel.
During a press briefing on Oct. 19, Interior Ministry spokesman Laroui said some of the slain Ansar al Sharia members were part of a terrorist cell responsible for assassinating two high-profile politicians earlier this year.
Chokri Belaid was murdered on Feb. 6 and Mohamed Brahmi was assassinated months later on July 25. The Tunisian government has accused Ansar al Sharia and its leader, Seifallah Ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi), of being responsible for the murders. [See LWJ report, Ansar al Sharia responds to Tunisian government.]
The Ansar al Sharia cell described by Laroui was reportedly hiding near the Algerian border. "Two tonnes of ammonium and other products destined to making explosives as well as Kalashnikov, a heavy machine gun, a sniper rifle and large quantities of ammonium were also discovered," according to Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP).
Tunisian officials claimed that one of the men killed during the raid is Lotfi Ezzine, who is wanted for his alleged role in the assassination ring.
Unconfirmed Tunisian press reports say that Seifallah ben Hassine has been plotting attacks alongside al Qaeda commanders inside Libya.
On Oct. 22, Mosaique FM reported that "terrorist groups had succeeded in transferring explosives and weapons" from Libya into Tunisia "with the help of" Ansar al Sharia and its leader, Ben Hassine. The source for this report was not named or otherwise identified, however.
The report also alleged that Ben Hassine has been working with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the longtime al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander who formed his own al Qaeda group (the "Those who Sign with Blood" brigade) in December 2012. Belmokhtar has been raiding former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi's weapons stockpiles for more advanced weaponry, including antiaircraft missiles, according to Mosaique FM.
On Oct. 23, Mosaique FM reported that both the US and French embassies in Tunisia had received "reports indicating a terrorist plan to target them via a suicide operation using car bombs." Mosaique FM cited sources "close to the French embassy in Algiers" as the basis for this claim.
The report continued by saying that captured terrorists "had revealed orders issued by" AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel and Belmokhtar to "Ansar al Sharia sleeper cells in Tunisia and supporters present in Tunisia who had been able to infiltrate [Tunisia] from Libya." The cells were supposedly ordered to carry out attacks as revenge for France's intervention in Mali, which had been supported by the US, as well as in response to the killings of senior AQIM leaders. Mosaique FM's sources claimed that Ben Hassine's presence alongside Belmokhtar and "Libyan armed extremist groups" had "contributed" to these plans.
Droukdel and Belmokhtar have longstanding disagreements, which led to Belmokhtar's announcement of the creation of his own, independent al Qaeda group late last year. In August, Belmokhtar merged his group with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an al Qaeda group that also operates in the Sahel, and formed the al-Mulathameen Brigade.
Many of the details in Mosaique FM's reporting have not been verified. But multiple sources in Tunisia have told the press that Ben Hassine has relocated to Libya alongside some members of his organization.
In late August, Tunisian security officials accused Ansar al Sharia of having a "close" relationship with AQIM. At a press conference, according to Tunis Afrique Presse, they "reported the existence of close links between Ansar al Sharia and AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), showing journalists the handwritten Allegiance Act" between Ansar al Sharia's leader, Seifallah Ben Hassine, and AQIM's emir, Droukdel.
The document reportedly indicates that Ansar al Sharia members who swear allegiance to Ben Hassine, but then disobey his orders, "may be subject to physical extermination."
In a response to the Tunisian government's accusations, in early September Ansar al Sharia reaffirmed its "loyalty" to al Qaeda while claiming to be organizationally independent.
AQIM officials have openly praised and blessed Ansar al Sharia.