On the morning of 18 March, Yassine Labidi woke up in his middle-class home in Kech el Ghaba, a suburb of Tunis. Like every other morning he had breakfast at home and then left for work before 10 o’clock. But this was not a normal Wednesday. After one hour at work, at around 11 am, Labidi told his sister, who works at the same place, that he had to run an errand for his boss. However, he didn’t go back. Instead, he met 19-year-old Saber Khachnaoui and together they went on to commit one of the worst terrorist attacks in Tunisia’s history.
Entering the Bardo National Museum, Labidi and Khachnaoui killed 21 tourists and three Tunisians in a hostage situation, which lasted several hours before they were both shot and killed by the security forces. “If his parents had had a clue they would have stopped him immediately,” said Yassine Labidi’s 27-year-old cousin Dalel; like her cousins and neighbours, she claims that they had no idea of what he was planning to do. His family members say that they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary on that fateful day. As the attack unfolded they cursed the perpetrators. It was not until they saw the Facebook photos and recognised Yassine’s clothes that they slowly started to realise what had happened. Then the police came and his father, brother and sister were taken in for questioning.
The Interior Ministry blamed the atrocity on a group called Uqba Ibn Nafaa, which is reported to have links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and operates along the Algeria-Tunisia border. The group traces its roots back to the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. However, according to Tunisian security analyst Habib M Sayah, the official statement was ambiguous. At a press conference on 23 March, Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli said that the attack was definitely the work of Uqba Ibn Nafaa but added at a later stage, “We may not put a name to the terrorist cell but we know that it is linked to Al-Qaeda.” Sayah argued that the minister “hesitantly framed AQIM” but did not provide “corroborative elements or convincing indications of a link of command and control between Uqba Ibn Nafaa and the authors of the Bardo attack.”
At the same time, ISIS claimed responsibility in three different statements. Some analysts are sceptical about the group’s apparent urge to take responsibility for attacks beyond its territory. “The Islamic State’s claims have not been disputed by AQIM, which is its rival organisation in Tunisia,” added Sayah. He believes that it was convenient for the Tunisian authorities to frame AQIM because an operation to take down Uqba Ibn Nafaa leader Loqman Abu Sakhr was underway; they carried out a successful raid in Gafsa this weekend, only hours before a march organised to denounce terrorism took place in the capital Tunis.
Yassine Labidi’s case represents a rising fear in Tunisian society, where the country’s youth risk being lured into extremism. It’s a development that is symbolising a growing threat to the country’s democratic success story. Twenty-seven year old Labidi was working as a deliveryman in Tunis at the time of the attack and came from a middle-class family. He had studied French at university and even though he attended the mosque he was far from radical. “He was open-minded,” argued Dalel Labidi. “His sister didn’t wear the head-scarf and his uncles didn’t even pray.” He also had girlfriends, used to drink alcohol (he stopped a while back), and neither frequented the mosque on a daily basis nor had a beard. He shaved-off a short beard when his parents said that it didn’t suit him, explained Dalel. They didn’t notice any gradual radicalisation ahead of the attack. “Yassine had no reason to do this,” insisted “MA”, one of Yassine’s neighbours. “He had a job and didn’t live in poverty. But he was a victim of brainwashing.”
Yassine Labidi and Saber Khachnaoui are believed to have travelled to Libya in December 2014 to receive training in a jihadi camp and had been monitored by Tunisian security forces. Tunisian jihadis in Libya are a threat, claimed Sayah, as they operate for ISIS, which is asserting its presence in Tunisia’s neighbouring country. “The Islamic State is very popular among Tunisian Jihadi-Salafis, notably former members of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia,” he argued, “but its network in Tunisia is not structured well enough.” ISIS in Libya has an incentive to organise the Tunisian Jihadi-Salafi social movement, he pointed out, which is largely Ansar al-Shari’a’s legacy. “Both the Islamic State and AQIM are vying for its leadership.”
The fear is that this case will be the beginning of regular attacks on Tunisian soil; that Tunisia will not be able to remain isolated from the power struggle in Libya. So far, though, Tunisia has been more or less spared from radical violence, due partly to a strategy from radical groups such as Ansar al-Sharia where dawa at home, jihad abroad has been encouraged.
However, MA doesn’t want to believe that Labidi went to Libya. “He was in Sfax for one month, that’s it,” he claimed. There is no “explanation” for this, he stressed, “Yassine was a cultivated and nice boy.” For family members it remains difficult to accept the news. “I would give my life to know who did this,” cried Sayida, one of Yassine Labidi’s cousins, outside his parents’ house a few days after the attack. She feels hopeless and claims that Yassine was not a radical. Instead she blames the so-called recruiters, the people who are able to get inside these young boys’ minds. “It’s brainwashing,” she repeated. “We have to find the people who do this.” If they are able to get to someone like Yassine, she asked desperately, then what can we do? Yet Nejat, a shop-keeper in the neighbourhood, is reluctant to label Yassine as a victim. “If a person does this, he is not a victim,” she argued, although she agreed that many questions remain. She only knew Yassine Labidi from a distance but would describe him as “normal”.
Tunisian officials have declared that they have arrested a number of suspects with links to the attack and according to Prime Minister Habib Essid the authorities are cooperating with other countries to find out more about the attackers’ backgrounds and motivations. Sayida, who saw Yassine that Wednesday morning, didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. To this day she, together with the rest of the neighbourhood, has trouble believing what happened; for them, too many questions remain unanswered.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.