29 October 2018, Suicide bomber near hotel, Tunis, Tunisia

06 November, 2018 Hotel Attacks

Eturbonews reports that, at 1:50 pm on 29 October 2018, a female suicide bomber, most likely Tunisia’s first (Muir Analytics is conducting research to confirm), detonated her explosives on the pedestrian walkway on Habib Bourguiba Avenue between the Municipal Theater of Tunis and the El Hana International Tunis hotel. The hotel did not suffer damage. The apparent target of the bomber was a police checkpoint that was next to a police van. Brinkwire reported that Tunisian Interior Minister, Hichem Fourati, said the detonation injured 15 police officers and five civilians.

(Muir Analytics conducted a photographic and video analysis to pinpoint the apparent seat of the blast. If additional data causes this to change, Muir Analytics will adjust its analysis. The Mirror has a photograph of the deceased bomber – pixilated to blur the woman’s wounds – lying directly in front of the El Hana hotel. Specifically, it is the second photo in the article with the title, “Forensic officers carry out an investigation after the blast.” The building in the background is the hotel. More, STL News has an Associated Press photo of the bomber laying near a long, rectangular tree planter, which are the only type of tree planter that flank the sides of the pedestrian walkway on Habib Bourguiba avenue. These key data points, among others, support the estimated blast location.)

Al Jazeera described the explosive device as a “handmade grenade,” and that pictures of the bomber showed an intact body of a “veiled woman who appeared to be dead wearing dark trousers, a pink top and a short dark jacket.” The wounds she suffered appeared on her stomach and left hip.

Al Arabiya sent reporters to the home of the bomber in Sidi Alouane town, Mahdia Governorate, along the east coast of Tunisia. Her name was Mona Guebla (also spelled, Mouna Kebla). Her parents said she was quiet, single, a dedicated student, and exhibited no outward signs of Islamist jihadist ideology. The Tunisian government said she was not on any terrorist watch list.

Some pundits have suggested Guebla’s attack on the police might have been motivated by her inability to find a job, which might have pushed her into radical Islamism.

The Tunisian government said the attack was an isolated incident.

Youssef Chahed, Tunisia’s Prime Minister, denounced the attack. He moreover said that the Tunisian population had to rally to the cause of counterterrorism and help prevent such attacks: “Far from being exclusive to the security apparatus, the fight against terrorism remains a responsibility for all Tunisian people.”

In 2015, ISIS staged punishing attacks on tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and at the Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Sousse. Muir Analytics covered these attacks here, here, and here. Smaller attacks preceded and followed these more spectacular operations.

Since then, the government launched counter terror operations that forced Islamist jihadist cells into hiding, and the movement became an insurgency (a rural based movement that is trying to overthrow the government) where radicals and government forces clash on occasion, mostly in the countryside. Militants ambushed and killed six police in July 2018, for example. Small contingents of foreign forces, including US Special Operations Forces, are supporting Tunisia in this fight.

Insurgent and terror cells in Tunisia are largely, but not exclusively, comprised of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Tunisian branch, which is called the “Uqba ibn Nafaa Battalion” (KUBN), and various factions of ISIS.

Hassine Dimassi, political analyst at Sousse University, said of the suicide bombing, “One lesson to gather is that we need to strengthen the intelligence apparatus. Extremists seem to have lost momentum recently, and that’s when they resort to this kind of action to mark their presence taking advantage of a loosening of grip on security forces.”

This suicide bombing follows scores of news outlets running stories heralding British and international tourists returning to Tunisia after the deadly Sousse hotel attack chased them away and caused a two-year collapse of the tourism-hotel sector. Similar types of stories ran just after the much more destructive Bardo Museum attack in 2015, and then the Sousse hotel massacre followed months later.

There have been at least five terror operations in Tunisia in the past few years where the attackers either blew themselves up via suicide bombs or conducted raids where they intentionally fought to the death as the 2008 Mumbai terrorists did.

There are three takeaways here. First, tactically, the attack was a marginal success regarding destruction. Despite the high number of wounded – which cannot be dismissed – no one but the bomber was killed, and buildings and vehicles were not destroyed or severely damaged. The bomber’s device apparently used a small amount of explosives or a weak compound. The technical indication is that the bomb maker had minimal skill sets. An experienced bomb maker probably would have built a more destructive device, especially since the delivery was by suicide bomber, a prized asset since they garner sensational headlines. And, this one was a female bomber, which carries extra shock value.

Second, several data points strongly suggest this was an Islamist jihadist motivated operation.

Third, because Tunisia’s insurgency is fully functional, and because it still has a demonstrated ability to attack urban tourist targets, Tunisia’s tourist sector remains at risk. This includes the hotel sector. This is true despite Tunisia’s increased security in urban and tourist areas. Using female suicide bombers (or fighters) widens terrorist options in attacking such targets. Moreover, just because there has not been a major, punishing attack on tourists and local civilians in Tunisia since 2015 does not mean these movements are defeated or completely at bay. ISIS and al Qaeda are continually operating in country, and they are patient and methodical. And, since PM Chahed said in a public announcement said that it was the responsibility of the entire population to help the government prevent terrorism, the government is saying, without reservation, that it is facing an insurgency, and it is attempting to harness the population to serve as added eyes and ears to report on such threats before they come to fruition.

Tunisia’s tourism and hotel sector remains at risk.

Sources and further reading

EXCLUSIVE: Inside home of Tunisia’s suicide bomber,” Al Arabiya, 2 November 2018.

Tunisia’s economic woes under spotlight after suicide blast,” Al Jazeera, 1 November 2018.

Update: 20 injured in suicide bombing in central Tunis,” Brinkwire, 1 November 2018.

9 people injured in terrorist attack near hotel in downtown Tunis,” Eturbonews.com, 29 October 2018.

Nine people wounded in Tunis suicide bomb attack,” Al Jazeera, 29 October 2018.

Tunis explosion: Female suicide bomber blows herself up outside hotel in Tunisian capital,” The Mirror, 29 October 2018.

Tunis, Tunisia: Female suicide bomber wounds 9 in Tunisia’s capital,” STL News, 29 October 2018.

America is quietly expanding its war in Tunisia,” National Interest, 18 September 2018.

At least six Tunisian police killed in ambush,” Reuters, 8 July 2018.

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