Two weeks after Tunisia's deadly Bardo attacks, vendors in Hammamet's souks lay out brightly coloured pots and cotton scarves under the March sunshine. It's hard to believe this seaside town on the Mediterranean was once the most popular destination for tourists who travel to swim in its turquoise water and enjoy fresh seafood. The streets of the ancient medina are empty: tourists haven't come since the Bardo attacks, one vendor told me before adding as an afterthought: "Terrorism is taking place across the world, including Europe. When travellers realise this they will come back."
57 people died from terrorist attacks in the UK between 2000-2011
people were murdered in the same period
On 18 March gunmen stormed the Bardo National Museum in the capital Tunis killing 21 tourists and one Tunisian. Islamic State (ISIS) were quick to claim responsibility, promising further assaults and encouraging Tunisians to "follow their brothers". Analysts concluded it was an attack on the economy; if it was, terrorists have certainly succeeded. The sight of Tunisia's empty medinas is a worrying sign for a country in which tourism constitutes a large chunk of its GDP.
If destroying the economy was the goal of that fateful day, what was the real driving force that made three men walk into the most historic museum in the country, and open fire on its visitors?
In ideological terms they were targeting the "near enemy", a phrase used within terrorist circles to describe governments in Muslim majority countries. Hence in the case of the Bardo attack the strategy dictates that if the economy fails the government will collapse to make way for the expansion of the Islamic Caliphate's territory from its current stronghold in Iraq and Syria. Ultimately ISIS want the whole of Bilad Al-Sham, the Levant. Targeting the "far enemy" – international supporters of corrupt anti-Arab or anti-Muslim regimes – has been put forward as an explanation for the 7/7 bombings in London, 9/11 in the US and more recently the Charlie Hebdo massacres.
These days terrorism is a subject that can't be broached without considering ISIS, a brutal movement who have made their name through savage methods like beheadings and setting fire to hostages and their commitment to, and supposed success at, establishing this Islamic caliphate which they believe holds authority over the Muslim ummah both in its vicinity and worldwide. Still, despite their persistent marketing of an "Islamic utopia", ISIS have attracted fighters from all walks of life and it is highly likely each individual fighter has taken up arms for a multitude of religious, social, political and economic reasons.
There is a school of thought in which the connection between western foreign policy and terrorism are repeatedly drawn. Terrorists themselves have alluded to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, drone strikes on Pakistan, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir as explanations for their atrocities. Western interference in "Muslim lands", and subsequent counter-terrorism policies, has played its part in the radicalisation process.
The figures speak for themselves. Last month a study by Physicians for Social Responsibility revealed that since the 9/11 attacks in America at least two million people have died in the war on terror. Compare this with the number of people who have died as a result of terrorist attacks in the west, between 2000 and 2011 in the UK 57 people died from terrorist attacks and in the US the number is 3,029. In the same period, 10,776 people were murdered in the UK and 195,948 in the US.
The figures can be read in two ways – that the threat of terrorism has been hugely inflated or that counter-terrorism strategies are working. But other statistics suggest that the threat of Muslim terrorists looms larger than it really is. There are more than 12,000 Muslims in prison in England and Wales, yet only approximately 100 of these who have been convicted of terrorism offences which also invalidates comments that "all Muslims are terrorists". Between 2006 and 2013 Islamists were only responsible for 0.7 per cent of terror attacks in Europe, with many being carried out by separatist groups, though the media would have you believe the figure is closer to 99 per cent.
ISIS's activities strike a deep chord in Britain thanks to the revelation that some 500 British men have run away to fight alongside them, and the somewhat sensationalised topic that British women have joined them to become "jihadi brides". As a result, the following narrative has emerged: what if these trained fighters come back and carry out an attack on British soil; "home-grown" terrorists are harder to track because they hide behind British passports.
In an attempt to curb the above, the current government has widened powers available to strip British citizens of their nationality if they were naturalised or "it would be conducive to the public good". Figures reveal a huge increase in deprivation orders in recent years. Since 2006, 53 have been made on national security grounds; 48 of these were under the current coalition government. Contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights decree, "everyone has a right to a nationality", the law has been changed so that citizens can be stripped of their passports, even if it will make them stateless. Under the new powers naturalised Brits are not quite as British as the rest of us.
The Prevent Strategy set up under Labour to thwart radicalisation received widespread condemnation when it was discovered they had part-funded the placing of CCTV cameras in Muslim areas of Birmingham – under Prevent whole Muslim communities began to be treated as suspicious which ran contrary to the strategy's pledge to fight individual extremists. Likewise Theresa May's recent promise to issue closure orders for extremist mosques appears to be targeting people's personal, religious lives rather than young radicals themselves.
Simply expecting terrorism to disappear if British foreign policy in "Muslim lands" is completely overhauled is no closer to a helpful understanding of terrorism than those who reduce the root cause to religious ideology. The current strategy is not working, a more nuanced debate is needed, and an approach must be found to address the issue without abusing people's human rights.
In the aftermath of Bardo, a new draft bill on counterterrorism has been penned in Tunisia. It extends incommunicado detention and consents to the death penalty despite the fact that experts consistently warn that curbing people's human rights creates yet another breeding ground for terrorism to flourish. With this kind of attitude, how long will the streets of Tunisia's medinas remain empty?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.