Blast may mark shift in terror
Two Tunisian officials were ousted Saturday in the wake of a bombing.
DJERBA ISLAND, TUNISIA
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.
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.