The Tunisian terrorist who gunned down scores of mostly British tourists at a Tunisian beach resort last week trained at an Islamic State-affiliated camp in neighboring war-torn Libya. And so did the gunmen who killed 22 people, mostly European tourists, at the Tunisian capital’s renowned Bardo museum in March.
The radicalized student responsible for the beach massacre and the Tunisian gunmen in the Bardo attack are believed to have received weapons training, and ideological indoctrination at a jihadist camp in Libya at the same time in January, Tunisian security officials said Thursday.
The link between deadly attacks in Tunisia and terrorist training camps in Libya underscores the threat that chaotic and lawless lands prone to jihadist infiltration are posing to weak governments across the Middle East as they try to provide security and order.
Just as Jordan has faced rising security challenges and a growing jihadist influence in particular among young people as the Islamic State (IS) has taken control of large swaths of territory in neighboring war-ravaged Syria, Tunisia is coming to grips with the rise of jihadist groups, including IS, in Libya.
The picture painted Thursday of radicalized Tunisians easily slipping across a poorly guarded border into chaotic Libya to receive training has security officials scrambling to try to figure out who else might have made the jihadist trek – and might be back in Tunisia preparing another attack.
Tunisian officials said Thursday that Seifeddine Rezgui, the gunman who opened fire last Friday on a beach in the resort town of Sousse, killing 38, trained at a camp across the border in western Libya.
The Tunisian government minister heading up the investigation into the Sousse attack, Kamel Jendoubi, said at a press conference in Tunis Thursday that eight individuals have been arrested in connection with the attack carried out by Mr. Rezgui, and that several others are still being sought.
The investigation, being carried out with the assistance of nearly a dozen British security officials, has “allowed us to discover the network behind the operation in Sousse,” Mr. Jendoubi said.
The Tunisian government has also armed the country’s tourism police for the first time and has deployed more than 1,300 armed officers on beaches and at tourist hotels – moves seen widely as desperate attempts to rescue the country’s critical tourism industry.
But the Tunisian government can do little about the terrorist camps that have blossomed across the border in recent years. Homegrown groups like Ansar al-Sharia and imported groups like IS have taken advantage of the security vacuum that followed the fall of strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 and Libya’s more recent descent into civil war.
The Tunisians who carried out the Bardo and Sousse attacks are believed to have received training at a camp across the border in western Libya that is run by Ansar al-Sharia. The Libyan terrorist group was linked to the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi in eastern Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Rezgui, the Sousse gunman, was a member of the Tunisian branch of Ansar al-Sharia in Kairouan, the city where he was studying until the government outlawed the group in 2013.
In Libya, Ansar al-Sharia has affiliated itself with IS, and the two groups are thought to be fighting together against the country’s other armed factions, including the two rival governments battling each other for legitimacy. IS has solidified its foothold in Libya over the past year and now controls both Derna and Sirte, cities along the Mediterranean coast.
Tunisian officials cite the problem they face with IS-controlled territory and terrorist-training camps so accessible across the border, as they emphasized Thursday. And Tunisia’s European and other Western friends have been sympathetic to those concerns, especially after Tunisians chose a secular government in elections last December.
But Libyan officials battling the growing Islamist extremist presence in their country and some regional experts say that Tunisia has another problem with radical Islamists besides the one posed by terrorist camps in Libya.
Tunisians rank near the top of the list of foreign fighters who have traveled to Syria in recent years to wage jihad alongside IS – numbering in the several thousands by some estimates.
But now hundreds of those hardened fighters are believed to have returned home, or may be planning to – focusing their jihadist zeal on their North African home and posing a new threat to Tunisia.