Tunisian officials say the 23-year-old student who slaughtered dozens of seaside tourists last week trained at an extremist camp in neighboring Libya at the same time as the gunmen responsible for a shooting spree at a museum in the country’s capital earlier this year.
One of Tunisia's top security officials confirmed the link, saying that Seifeddine Rezgui slipped across the border into Libya in January and received weapons training at a camp in the town of Sabratha, an hour’s drive west of Tripoli.
“The attacker trained in Libya with weapons at the same period as the Bardo attackers," said Rafik Chelli, the secretary of state for the Interior Ministry, in reference to the March massacre at the Bardo Museum which left 20 tourists and a security guard dead. “He crossed the borders secretly,” he told the Reuters news agency.
While Tunisian authorities have managed to plot Rezgui's journey to Libya now, they are still unable to say how he was drawn into the jihadist world. Officials have variously suggested he was radicalized online or recruited at a mosque in his hometown of Gaafour.
Officials initially thought Rezgui had been radicalized only recently. But his fellow students tell local media he had for some time belonged to the student branch of Tunisia’s Ansar al-Sharia, an outlawed jihadist group known to be highly active in Kairouan, where the killer studied. Rezgui kept his ideological views to himself, though, and maintained a low profile. Family and friends have expressed shock at his unmasking as a jihadist killer — a sharp contrast to the carefree young lover of rap music and soccer they had known.
His membership in Ansar al-Sharia was first reported Friday by The Daily Beast, an American news website. Chelli also highlighted the role of Ansar al-Sharia, which has ties with the Islamic State terror group but has so far not sworn formal allegiance. The group’s leader has called several times this year for all jihadist groups to unite and has sought to broker a reconciliation between rivals Islamic State and al-Qaida.
The death toll from Friday’s shooting in the Tunisian resort of Sousse has risen, officials say, to 39. Most of those killed were western European tourists with the bulk coming from Britain.
The growing strength of jihadist groups in chaos-torn Libya has long posed additional risks for Tunisia. The border between the two countries is porous and recruits and fighters can cross easily, sidestepping immigration officials.
Kairouan, a major seat of Sunni learning, is a hotbed for Salafi jihadist activity and recruitment. Ansar al-Sharia held major public meetings in the town until the government outlawed the group in 2013. Hundreds of Ansar al-Sharia members have volunteered to fight in Syria, generally enlisting with the Islamic State group. Many others have gone to Libya to enlist with Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia, which is fighting alongside IS members in eastern Libya and was implicated in the 2012 assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Tunisia has contributed more jihadist fighters per capita to the war in Syria than any other country, say analysts. Authorities estimate that at least 3,000 Tunisians volunteered to fight in Syria, with 500 returning to Tunisia in recent months.
In recent interviews with VOA, Libyan officials and militia leaders in Tripoli say Tunisians form the largest contingent of foreign fighters with jihadist groups in Libya.
Lack of intelligence sharing
The absence of intelligence sharing with Libya - where two would-be governments are locked in a violent power struggle - is not helping in the fight against the jihadists. Commanders of a Tripoli-controlled deterrence force say other countries refuse to share information with them for fear of appearing to support the rebel authority in the Libyan capital.
“We have been isolated and none of the neighbors will trade information with us - not even Tunisia,” said Hatem al-Deeb, a member of the force that battled IS attackers who stormed Tripoli’s landmark Corinthia Hotel in January.
He added: “The main challenge we face in fighting the jihadists are resources, including equipment and surveillance technology. The second challenge is this lack of intelligence sharing. Tunisia would benefit from talking with us - we have information that would benefit them and we would like information from them which could assist us. There has been no coordination or communication whatsoever.”
In Tunisia, criticism is mounting against the government for failing to beef up security after the Bardo attack. Critics say there were clear warnings that attacks would be mounted against tourist sites this summer.
Analysts are warning that Tunisia could see more attacks before the end of Ramadan in mid-July and they accuse the government of ignoring advice in the past on how to tighten the country’s security. “We still haven’t learned our lesson since the Bardo attacks,” Mazen Cherif, an analyst with the Tunisian Center for Global Security Studies lamented to Tunisia Live, a local new site.
“The current government lacks a clear security strategy and they refuse to look into the future or learn from previous mistakes. Until they do, incidents like Sousse or Bardo will continue to happen,” he said.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebi admits his government was surprised by Friday’s attack. Officials say they have arrested a “significant” number of people from a terrorist cell they have linked to Rezgui. And the president has announced the deployment of 1,000 armed officers at hotels, beaches and tourist attractions to support the tourism police, who will be armed for the first time.