Blast may mark shift in terror

Two Tunisian officials were ousted Saturday in the wake of a bombing.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On the face of it, the terror attack on North Africa's oldest synagogue, which killed 17 people earlier this month, has few of the markings of recent Al Qaeda strikes.

The explosive device was crude, and the target – a Jewish religious site on a placid isle where wealthy Europeans ride horses in the sand dunes and wade in shallow waters – was an unusual one for an Al Qaeda affiliate.

But Western diplomats in the region say that the April 11 surprise attack in Djerba is a reminder that the ultimate goal of most Islamic terror groups is not an all-out confrontation with the Western world.

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Instead, it is the taking back of Arab homelands, an act that some extremists with Al Qaeda leanings refer to as the "purification of Islamic lands." Ayman Al-Zawahiri, leader of the Egyptian Al Jihad terror organization and Osama bin Laden's right hand man, has repeatedly called for the overthrow of regimes that he says are impure and propped up by Western governments – rhetoric echoed by the Al Qaeda chief.

Many observers say they are troubled that the Djerba attack was successfully carried out in a state like Tunisia, whose stern president runs what his critics call one of "the most sophisticated police states" in the Middle East. Further reverberations from the attack, which has been largely hushed up by the tightly controlled state media, rippled across Tunisia on Saturday when President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali ousted from office both his powerful minister of interior and the chief of national security. The shake-up came a week after the government lifted its veil of silence and admitted – with goading from the German government, which lost 11 of its citizens at Djerba – that the strike was a terrorist attack.

Pre-emptive sweeps

The cabinet changes also come as German and Tunisian investigators, who are giving closer scrutiny to the April 11 attack that killed 12 European tourists as well as four local Arabs and a Jew, have become increasingly convinced that the attack was the work of one of Osama bin Laden's many splinter groups. The unpredictable threat of similar attacks is leading some moderate Middle Eastern governments to engage in pre-emptive sweeps of suspected terror cells even as security officials attempt to contain Arab street protests that have raged in the wake of Israel's ongoing military operations in the West Bank.

'No accident'

Tunisian authorities say the synagogue blast was the work of a southern Tunisian citizen, Nizar Naouar, and a Tunisian accomplice. Naouar, who died in the explosion, made a last-minute phone call to a German convert to Islam, an Afghan veteran whom he had once met in a religious school in Pakistan.

A claim by a group called the "Islamic Army to Liberate Holy Shrines," published in two Mideast journals, called Naouar a "brave hero assigned by the leadership of the Islamic army for liberating the holy shrine, on his own, in order to give the nation a unique example of one man who carried out an operation outside the Palestinian territories and against the Jews." A group with the same name claimed responsibility for Al Qaeda-backed strikes against two US embassies in Africa in 1998.

"This was no accident and it definitely came from the outside," says Perez Trabelsi, the rabbi at the Ghriba Synagogue, who was personally directing a hydraulic crane in its work to place concrete barriers down near the gates to the shrine this weekend. "The Arabs, Jews, and tourists here have always gotten along well. There have been no problems among Tunisians."

Inside the nearby Aku Anim Synagogue, a young Jewish worshiper offers a visitor a kippah (head covering) and talks about the newfound fears of the 1,000-strong Jewish community in Djerba. "Don't you have the same fears in the United States?" he asks. "We always had problems here, but they were minor – this is different, this was a bomb."

A strike against tourism?

If the attack had a broader intent, say Western officials, it may well have been to destabilize Tunisia by striking its most lucrative foreign-exchange earner: tourism. The country – which boasts pleasant seaside resorts and the ancient remains of Carthage – entertains some 5 million foreign tourists every year. The Djerba attack, in this way, resembles the 1997 killings of 58 tourists in Luxor, Egypt, in 1997. That attack wreaked havoc on Egypt's tourism industry for two full years.

Diplomats and counter-terror experts say a decades-old Islamic militant struggle in the Middle East has been given fresh energy by a rising tide of anger over the plight of fellow Arabs in the Occupied Territories. The rage has hit moderate Arab regimes, such as Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan as hard as it has hit more radical states like Iraq and Iran.

But at the same time, regional counter-terrorism efforts, aided by increased cooperation from Western governments since the Sept. 11 attacks have led to more arrests both in the Middle East and worldwide.

"We have seen better cooperation across the Middle East in the war on terror," says a Western diplomat involved in the ongoing US-led "Enduring Freedom" campaign, which includes several active theaters across the globe.

The same diplomat says, however, that Islamic terrorist groups are becoming more focused than ever on their goal of taking back their Middle Eastern homelands. "Their war against the West has everything to do with homelands," she says.

Since the attack on Djerba, the Tunisian government has rounded up between 12 and 15 persons, according to Arab and Jewish residents. Though Tunisian human-rights groups claim that the country has no organized terror groups, several hundred Islamists remain jailed in Tunisia on scant evidence of conspiring to overthrow the government.

In Egypt, a country with several well-organized Islamist groups, security forces have made major sweeps of suspected militants since the Sept. 11 attacksin the United States. Egyptian officials make no excuses for their pre-emptive strikes against potential terror cells.

"In traditional wars, you know the theater and the players," says Nabil Osman, an advisor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "You can make an assessment of the might of the opponent, but in this war, you can't tell from which direction the threat will come."

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