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.

Soldiers and onlookers at the site of the attack in Sousse
Soldiers and onlookers at the site of the attack in Sousse
Grazia Longo

KAIROUAN â€" 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.”

Recruitment center

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.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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