After Beach Massacre, A Visit To Tunisia's Extremist Mosque
Seifeddine Rezgui, perpetrator of last Friday's attack in Sousse, often prayed at the "God's Mercy" mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia. A look inside.
KAIROUAN — The searing Tunisian heat and the stench of rancid olives emanating from a nearby olive oil factory make for an unbearable morning in Kairouan, Islam's fourth holiest city after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Bright sunshine bathes the mosque's white dome with even brighter intensity as we approach the Muslim site where we have since learned a young student was radicalized before slaughtering 38 tourists last Friday on a beach in the resort town of Sousse.
Seifeddine Rezgui, a 23-year-old studying for a masters degree in engineering, practiced breakdancing in his free time when he wasn't praying in this Kairouan mosque named "God's Mercy" and ironically located in the Gharbia district of the city, which means "West" in Arabic. At first he frequented Kairouan's famed Great Mosque, but eventually Rezgui began attending this very small house of worship in the old city, not far from where he lived with two other students.
The Tunisian police and secret services are still investigating whether it was at "God's Mercy" that the young shooter was radicalized. In these first few days after the attack, this mosque has come under heavy scrutiny, and is constantly monitored by a group of plainclothes special agents. In the tense atmosphere, even attempting to take a photograph attracts attention and questioning from the agents.
Taieb Ghozzi, imam of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, also sounds the alarm on increasing radicalization in the city's mosques. "The government already planned to shut down the more dangerous institutions five or six months ago. There are 135 mosques in Kairouan and 600 in its outskirts. There are 5,000 in all of Tunisia, of which 120 are considered "extremist"," says the imam.
"Some had already been closed in recent months, and now they're proceeding with the rest. We Muslims are peaceful people, we preach fraternity and solidarity," Imam Ghozzi tells La Stampa. "This young terrorist, Seifeddine, was certainly used as a tool by the Salafists, who we want nothing to do with."
On the topic of Salafism, Ghozzi clarifies his opinion. "We don't need to condemn Salafism itself, but when it's applied to jihad it becomes a problem as it becomes a synonym for death."
At the moment, investigators haven't ruled out a link between the Salafists in Kairouan and those in Sousse, where the attack took place. Sousse is considered one of the centers for jihadist recruitment in Tunisia, and last year was scene to another terrorist attack that fortunately yielded no victims. Some 1,000 people have left this city to join the battlefields of Syria, mainly from the neighborhoods of Al Qalam, Al Kubra and Al Ryadh. The full list of the country's most dangerous mosques hasn't been compiled yet, but some of the most notorious are the Errahma mosque in the city of Jendouba and the Salafist Al Fath mosque in Tunis, the capital.
Another center of the state's fight against radical Islam is the town of Hergla, 20 kilometers north of Sousse, home to angry protests by mothers of teenagers who fled to swell the ranks of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The authorities also disbanded a terrorist cell and training camp in Hammam Lif, a seaside suburb of the capital.
Rezgui's father says he shares no sympathies whatsoever for Islamic radicals. "I'm in despair, I haven't been able to sleep for two days," he says. "I sent my child to university and then they indoctrinated him like this. My other son was killed by lightning, and now I've lost this son too: a dead murderer."
Meanwhile the inquiry into the attacks continues to reveal terrifying new information. Between 40 to 45 minutes passed between the attacker's first shot and the time of his death, an eternity that took the lives of 38 innocent people, singled out for their Western origins. The Tunisians working at the resort were spared, although seven were hospitalized for minor injuries. According to a 16-year-old Tunisian who witnessed the attack, Rezgui smiled so widely while shooting that it seemed like he was dancing or listening to music. Seif, 21, says that the killer told him to leave and that he "wasn't there for him."
"The attacker was completely calm," says Amir Ben Hadj Hessine, who lives close to the Hotel Riu Imperial Merhaba, the site of Friday's deadly attack. "A hotel worker who was armed tried to use his weapon but it wouldn't work."
In the aftermath of the massacre in Sousse, anti-terrorism initiatives are flourishing across Tunisia to safeguard the country's nascent democracy, which is counting on a flourishing tourism industry. Emergency measures, including the arming of guards around sites and beaches, are being implemented. The beach attack comes on the heels of the March assault on the Bardo Museum in the capital that killed 20.
As demonstrations and candlelight vigils sweep the nation's cities, ordinary Tunisians are mobilizing to counter the growing image of their country as an unsafe destination. But the sight of tourists slain as they toured a museum or relaxed on a beach will not vanish any time soon.