Vast stretches of sand were empty of people along the normally packed beaches of Sousse on Saturday. There were still a few tourists around; they had taken the entirely correct view that the place was safer now than it has ever been in recent times, having a heavy security presence in the wake of Friday’s massacre.
But even these hardy visitors said they would be gone as soon as their holiday finishes, and the gloomy hotel and restaurant owners do not expect a new wave of custom to follow this summer, or indeed anything like the same numbers for the next season either.
It is perhaps surprising that there were so many Western tourists around for the dreadful slaughter. They obviously had not thought that the attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis three months ago, in which 20 foreigners died, meant that they, too, were potential targets. Or perhaps they simply decided to come despite the risks involved.
The fact is that Islamist extremists have very specific targets in Tunisia. The killer, Seifeddine Rezgui, was extraordinarily careful in his choice of victims, picking on obvious foreigners, deliberately sparing locals when he could, urging them to get out of the way. This is not seen as visceral hatred of kafirs (unbelievers) and altruism towards fellow Muslims, but part of a deliberate plan to destroy the tourist industry, the biggest revenue earners and the biggest source of employment, in the country.
Tunisia has not suffered over much from the arbitrary massacres of suicide bombs. The internal targets have been civic society figures, the security forces and politicians. The aim, it is felt, is to undermine fatally the structures which have made the country, arguably, the only one of the Arab Spring with a fledgling democracy and an election in which the main Islamist party, Enhada, was edged out of power.
There are not many here who disagree with Prime Minister Habib Essid’s assertion that the aim of the Islamist campaign is to sabotage the economy and undermine the democratic process. Nor are there dissenting voices, among non-Islamists, to the desperate reaction of the tourism minister Salma Elloumi, who had tried hard to present Tunisia as a safe destination for visitors from abroad, that what happened was nothing short of a “catastrophe”.
So what is happening in Tunisia, compared to other jihadist arenas, does not point towards a “one size fits all” formula in the jihadist order of battle. One has to recognise, of course, that the Sousse attack took place on the same day as the beheading in France and the bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait, three very different attacks in three continents. The resultant huge publicity for Islamists was too much to be a coincidence, and something which must have been planned, a number of security analysts held. Among them was Bruce Riedel, formerly of the CIA now at the Washington think-tank, Brookings Institution, who said: “It appears to be an effort to launch and inspire a wave of attacks in different places, reminiscent of al-Qaeda’s simultaneous multiple attacks in the past.”
Western and allied intelligence agencies are trying to establish a link and evidence may yet emerge of a grand plan, but that has not happened yet. Isis, locked in a deadly struggle for the soul of international jihad, is claiming credit.
Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the spokesman for Isis, declared in an audio message to the group’s followers last week: “Muslims embark and hasten towards jihad. Oh mujahedin everywhere, rush and go to make Ramadan a month of disasters for the infidels.” This, however, appears to be a general call to arms rather than the smoking gun. The 23-year-old Sousse murderer, Rezgui, also known as Abu Yahya, an electronics graduate, frequented a hard-line Salafist mosque in his home city of Kairouan, but there is nothing to suggest that he was a follower of Isis.
There is, nevertheless, one international dimension to this. The Tunisian government has claimed that Islamists carrying out attacks had trained in Libya, in territories nominally controlled by the Tripoli government which is vying for control of the country with a rival internationally recognised government based in Tobruk.
I was in Libya a few weeks ago when a car packed with explosives blew up a checkpoint outside the northern port of Misrata. Libyan ministers were keen to tell me that the suicide bomber was a Tunisian, Abu Wahid al-Tunsi, and that it was Tunisia, not them, exporting terror. Soon after, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a well-known Algerian jihadist commander was reported to have been killed in a US drone strike in eastern Libya. There is a burgeoning Salafist insurgency in Egypt’s eastern border and intrinsic links between Islamist violence in the Sahel states and North Africa, buttressed by weapons and people smuggling.
All the grim indications are that this region will experience violent turbulence in years to come. And it is unlikely that what is left of the tourist trade in Tunisia will escape being a hunting ground for jihadists again in the future.