On 26 June 2015, an Islamist mass shooting attack occurred at the tourist resort at Port El Kantaoui, about 10 kilometres north of the city of Sousse, Tunisia.
Thirty-eight people, thirty of whom were British, were killed when an armed gunman attacked a hotel. It was the deadliest non-state attack in the history of modern Tunisia, with more fatalities than the twenty-two killed in the Bardo National Museum attack three months before.
In October 2013, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a botched attack on a Sousse beach while security forces foiled another planned attack nearby. The post-Tunisian revolution led to the 2014 parliamentary election in which the principal secularist party gained a plurality but was unable to govern alone, and ultimately formed a national unity government. Secularist Beji Caid Essebsi was elected president in the Tunisian presidential election, 2014. Since the overthrow of Tunisian president Ben Ali, terrorism increased, leading to 60 victims among security and military troops. Other attacks targeted civilians and tourists. Despite this, Tunisia was considered to be a secure country.
On 18 March 2015, the Bardo National Museum in Tunis was attacked by three terrorists, leading to the deaths of twenty-two people, including twenty foreigners visiting the museum. Two of the gunmen, Tunisian citizens Yassine Labidi and Saber Khachnaoui, were killed by police, while the third attacker is currently at large. Police treated the event as a terrorist attack. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attack, and threatened to commit further attacks. However, the Tunisian government blamed a local splinter group of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, called the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, for the attack. A police raid killed nine members on 28 March. After the Bardo attack, the government announced new security measures and declared the country safe again.
On 26 June 2015 the Spanish-owned five-star Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel at Port El Kantaoui, a tourist complex situated on the coast about ten kilometres north of Sousse, Tunisia, was hosting 565 guests mainly from Western Europe, 77% of its capacity. Tourists from the hotel as well as from the Soviva Hotel located nearby went to the beach to swim and sunbathe.
At around noon, Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi, disguised as a tourist, socialised with others, and then took out a Kalashnikov assault rifle concealed in a beach umbrella and fired at the tourists on the beach. He entered the hotel, shooting at people he came across. He was killed by security forces during an exchange of fire. All bullets were found to have been fired from the one weapon; the attacker had four magazines of ammunition. The attacker had spoken to his father on a mobile telephone which he then threw into the sea just before the attack; it was retrieved.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said that they were sure that others helped, but did not participate directly, providing the Kalashnikov, and helping Rezgui to the scene.
Thirty-eight people were killed, thirty of whom were British. Among the fatalities was Denis Thwaites, a former professional footballer for Birmingham City, and his wife, Elaine. Thirty-nine others were wounded.
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Perpetrator and Associates
The killer, Seifiddine Rezgui Yacoubi, also known as Abu Yahya al-Qayrawani, (born 1992 in Gaafour) was a 23-year-old electrical engineering student at University of Kairouan from Gaafour, in northwest Tunisia. He did not have the typical traits of an Islamic extremist: he had a girlfriend, drank alcohol and was a local break-dancing star. He was also believed to be high on cocaine during his rampage. He is believed to have been radicalized over such issues as the Libyan Civil War and Western inaction against the savagery of the Assad government during the Syrian Civil War.
Rezgui is thought to have been recruited by Ajnad al-Khilafah, an outgrowth of the Tunisian branch of Ansar al-Sharia, which was founded by Saifallah Ben Hassine, who had lived in the UK in the 1990s and whose mentor during that time was Abu Qatada. High Court papers relating to a control order placed on a British-based suspect state that Ben Hassine “aimed to recruit new members and send them to Afghanistan for training”. The control order documents add that: “Abu Qatada appears as a watermark running through the whole of this case as being the mastermind.”
Ben Hassine is reported to have been killed by the USAF near Adjabiya in eastern Libya on 14 June 2015. The strike was designed to kill Mokhtar Belmokhtar in an Ansar meeting. After the overthrow of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali in 2011, Ben Hassine was released from jail in March 2011 under an amnesty, and later founded Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, which resisted proscription until 2013 arguing it was carrying out humanitarian work, even though Ben Hassine personally had led the storming of the US Embassy in Tunis on 14 September 2012, three days after Ansar’s Libyan counterparts killed US ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya. When Ansar was finally outlawed in August 2013, after the murders of two secular leftist MPs, he was listed as a proscribed terrorist by the United States, and he fled to Libya.
Qatada wrote in a letter published online in January 2014 that Ben Hassine “is among the best of those I have known in intellect” and “the most knowledgeable of people of my intentions … for he was the closest of people to me”.
Immediately after the attack, the flight JAF5017, on its way to Enfidha-Hammamet International Airport, was redirected to Brussels. German tour operator TUI offered German tourists the opportunity to fly back to Germany and to cancel or adjust their bookings in Tunisia. British tour operator Thomson announced that flights to Tunisia will be cancelled until at least 9 July 2015, with ten flights departing on the evening of the attacks to bring 2,500 customers in the resort back to the United Kingdom. EasyJet and Thomas Cook announced that customers planning to visit Tunisia would be able to change their travel plans free of charge. First Choice also announced the same.
Hotels were targeted in attacks to undermine tourism and because they were considered “brothels” by ISIS. Both tourism and the related industries accounted for up to 14.9% of the Tunisian economy in 2014.
The United Kingdom’s Home Secretary Theresa May and Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood visited the site of the shooting on 29 June 2015. It was also announced that a Royal Air Force aircraft would be sent in order to repatriate bodies and evacuate the injured back to the United Kingdom. On 29 June an RAF Boeing C-17 Globemaster III flew from RAF Brize Norton to Tunisia to recover four British victims, with the C17 returning via Birmingham Airport to unload one patient, and returning to Brize Norton with the other three.
On 29 June, the House of Commons chamber observed a minute of silence shortly before the Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a national minute of silence would be held on 3 July 2015 at 12:00 local time to remember the victims, exactly one week on from the attacks. Cameron later led several COBRA meetings. The Foreign Office sent a team to the hotel to support British survivors and know more about the British victims. The Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner announced an heightened police presence and security for Armed Forces Day and Pride London events taking place in London over the weekend. On 28 June 2015, Her Majesty The Queen said she and the Duke of Edinburgh were shocked by the attack and also offered their deepest sympathy to the injured. Scotland Yard’s SO15 Counter Terrorism Command (CTC) launched their largest anti-terrorism investigation since the 7 July 2005 London bombings, involving 600 police officers and support staff. 16 British counter-terrorism police were deployed to Tunisia in the direct aftermath of the attacks, and almost 400 officers were sent to British airports to identify potential witnesses to the attack who had returned home.
On 1 July, the bodies of eight British nationals who were killed in the attacks were flown from Tunisia to RAF Brize Norton. On 2 July, the bodies of a further nine British nationals who were killed in the attacks were flown to RAF Brize Norton and the Prime Minister David Cameron and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon began making calls for airstrikes in Syria, believing the Sousse attacks to have been coordinated from there. On 3 July, the United Kingdom held a nationwide minute’s silence at 12:00 local time to remember the victims of the attacks as government buildings and Buckingham Palace flew the Union Jack at half mast. A further eight bodies of British victims were repatriated back to RAF Brize Norton. On 4 July, the final five bodies of the British victims were repatriated back to the United Kingdom.
Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi called for a global strategy against terrorism and visited Sousse with Prime Minister Habib Essid, who promised to close 80 mosques within the week. The government also plans to crack down on financing for certain associations as a countermeasure against another attack. Essid announced new anti-terrorism measures, including the deployment of reserve troops to reinforce security at “sensitive sites … and places that could be targets of terrorist attacks.” The “exceptional plan to better secure tourist and archaeological sites” will include “deploying armed tourist security officers all along the coast and inside hotels from 1 July,” and that:
The country is under threat; the government is under threat. Without the cooperation of everyone and a show of unity, we cannot win this war. We have won some battles and lost others, but our objective is to win the war… Some mosques continue to spread their propaganda and their venom to promote terrorism. No mosque that does not conform to the law will be tolerated.
Beji Caid Essebsi also denounced the “cowardly” attacks, promising “painful but necessary” measures to fight extremism in the country. He called for a firm response: “No country is safe from terrorism, and we need a global strategy of all democratic countries,”
On 4 July, Essebsi removed from his post the provincial Governor of Sousse and at least five senior police officers. Among the policemen dismissed were three from Sousse, one from Gaafour (the home city of Rezgui) and one from Kairouan, where Rezgui was studying.
On 22 July, Tunisian MPs began a three-day debate on new counter-terrorism legislation. The legislation would allow the courts to impose death sentences to those convicted of terrorism related offences. The legislation would also make public support of terrorism a jailable offence. If passed, the bill would allow law enforcement and security services to tap phone calls of individuals suspected of terrorism.
On 8 July, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office changed the advised status of Tunisia to “Advise against all but essential travel”, resulting from 9 July in the planned return home of the estimated 3,000 British nationals in Tunisia at that time. ABTA and travel organisations First Choice, TUI and Thomson have stated that they plan to send no further British tourists to Tunisia until post 31 October 2015.
Other Islamist attacks
Four other Islamist attacks took place on the same day in France, Kuwait, Syria and Somalia. The attacks followed an audio message released three days earlier by ISIL senior leader Abu Mohammad al-Adnani encouraging militants everywhere to attack during the month of Ramadan. No definitive link between the attacks has yet been established. One attack, at a French factory, resulted in the beheading of one person; another bombing at a Shia mosque in Kuwait City killed at least 27; and the other attack on an African Union base in Somalia undertaken by Al-Shabaab, killed at least 70. Another attack on the day took place in Hasakeh in Syria. A suicide bomber blew himself up and killed 20 people.