Eight policemen among nine injured in attack on Habib Bourguiba Avenue
Suicide bomber blows herself up in centre of Tunis
A female suicide bomber detonated in central Tunis on Monday, wounding nine people in an attack that has sent shock waves through the country.
Tunisia had hoped it had turned the corner on terrorism after a spate of ISIS attacks in 2015, but the bombing is a reminder that terror cells continue to operate in the country.
The interior ministry said the bomber had no known militant background, while local media said the woman, named "Mouna", had a university degree in English and was from the coastal governorate of Mahdia.
An interior ministry spokesman said eight of the nine wounded were police officers, and that the bomber was the only fatality.
Local media reports say the bomber used a hand-made grenade device rather than a suicide vest, one reason why casualties may have been limited.
The woman, dressed in black, walked up to police units in the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue and detonated her explosives just before 2pm. The boulevard, the most popular in the capital, is lined with shops and cafes. It was unusually crowded on Monday with demonstrators protesting over the death in police custody of a Tunis man earlier this month.
Habib Bourguiba, named after the founder of modern Tunisia, is a popular place for demonstrations, and the focus of the protesters was on the heavily fortified Interior Ministry that sits at the eastern end of the avenue. The woman blew herself up close to the building.
Police formed a cordon around the body of a young woman dressed in black, lying on her back with extensive wounds to her midriff, and reinforced their positions on the avenue, fencing off side roads leading to Bourgiba.
The blast caused panic among the thousands of protesters and bystanders, who streamed out of the broad avenue which is also home to the heavily guarded French embassy.
“I don’t know what is happening to our country,” said Aziza, watching from a nearby balcony.
A local businessman watching from behind hastily erected police barriers who would not give his name complained: “This is the state of our country. Yes, yes, we have all this democracy, but we also have this.”
The bombing is the first to strike the capital since 12 policemen on a bus were killed by a suicide bomber in a nearby street in November 2015. That attack was one of three that year, and followed the killing of 21 people at the capital’s Bardo museum in March and 38 tourists at a resort hotel in the town of Sousse, both by ISIS units.
Since 2015 military support from the United States and other nations has seen Tunisia ramp up operations against militant groups with mass arrests and ambushes of terrorists in the hinterland. Fighting against militants since then has been restricted to areas around Tunisia’s borders with Algeria and Libya.
Tunisia has completed a 200-kilometre barrier of fencing, sand berms and water trenches along its border with Libya to stem infiltration by militant groups. With improved security, western tourists have begun to return after abandoning resorts in 2015, in what was a blow to an industry that employs 400,000 people.
Politically, Tunisia presents itself as a North African success story, having stuck to the democracy installed after the 2011 ousting of former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Its progress in transitioning to a parliamentary democracy was underlined last week with the visit of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. He met with Tunisian president Beni Said Essebsi, praising the country’s progress and signing a series of EU financial projects to support democracy and civil society.
Yet the country is also home to ISIS sympathisers. The interior ministry says more than 3,000 Tunisians travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, with the government promising to arrest any who return. In July 2016 Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian resident of France, killed 86 and wounded 458 by driving a cargo truck into them on a promenade in Nice, France.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for Monday’s bombing, and nor is it known if it was linked to the protests. Those protests followed the death of a 19-year-old during a police operation in Tunis on October 23. A day later police used tear gas to disperse crowds angry about his death in the Tunis suburb of Sidi Hassine.
The use of an improvised grenade by the woman may indicate the local terrorist cells lack the expertise or resources of ISIS bombers in other countries who deploy explosive-laden vests.