Sunday, May 03, 2015

03-May-15: Israel sees concrete signs of a terror threat in Tunisia while the government there says it's actually nothing

These Jewish visitors to Tunisia feature prominently in the Iranian
media report today (see below) that makes fun of Israel's warning about
a terrorist danger while actually confirming just how real the danger is
[Image Source: Iran's PressTV]
There are reports in today's news about Israeli warnings to travelers about the coming days, which include the joyous festival of Lag B'Omer, and focus on Tunisia in particular.

Just why this is, and why the reports are so little understood by parts of the foreign news media, are matters worth exploring. So is the somewhat bizarre way the Iranians, up to their eyebrows in supporting and funding terror against Jews, Israelis and a host of others around the world, deny the danger while confirming (wittingly or unintentionally) how real it is.

First, who issued the warning? Israel's National Security Council. It's part of the Prime Minister's Office, a government department located in Jerusalem on the same street as the Foreign Ministry with a comprehensive Hebrew website (here) and an English-language on-line presence (here) that is comically bad: hopelessly out-dated, expressed in fractured English, and containing virtually nothing useful.

The NSC is widely quoted in the news though the scope of its authority has been called "vague". The Prime Minister [according to Wikipedia]
is not obligated to accept its recommendations, unlike with those of the Attorney General, for example.
One of its three wings is called the Counter-Terrorism Bureau (the other two deal with security policy and with foreign policy). The CTB is said to have its headquarters inside the NSC center in Ramat Hasharon, in Tel Aviv's northern suburbs.

The CTB is making small headlines today, having issued a travel alert last night (Saturday night) warning Israelis to give Tunisia a miss
following "updated information" on terror plots, with an emphasis on the Lag Baomer holiday which takes place on Thursday. Tunisian Jews, and other Jews visiting the North African country, traditionally celebrate the Hilula festival of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag Baomer. The Counter-Terrorism Bureau said a Level 2 alert, meaning a concrete and high threat is in place, has been issued for the country, adding, "The recommendation is to avoid visiting Tunisia"... The Bureau issued a total of 27 travel alerts, in addition to six enemy states that Israelis are banned by law from visiting, and eight regions that are subject to a variety of advisories... [A]head of Lag Ba’omer... it named Tunisia as a country that could see additional attacks. [Jerusalem Post, today]
How surprising is that? Not very. Just six weeks ago, we reported here ["19-Mar-15: In Tunisia, terrorists target tourists... again"] on a
murderous attack by terrorists in broad daylight yesterday (Wednesday) [that] left at least 19 people killed on the streets of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia... The president of Tunisia says his country will now fight terrorism "without mercy", according to the BBC. 
We also took the opportunity to note how Tunisia's own government spokespeople, starting with its newly-elected prime minister Habib Essid, urged "national unity", calling the massacre "the first operation of its kind ever to occur in Tunisia". That sounded wrong to us:
The first? That's true only if we ignore (and ignore is exactly what most parts of the news media are doing) the April 11, 2002 Djerba synagogue bombing in which terrorists operating on behalf of Al Qaeda deployed a human bomb and a truck full of explosives to attack people, most of them tourists, visiting a historically-significant (and exceptionally beautiful) Tunisian synagogue. The death toll was heavy: 14 German tourists, 3 Tunisians, 2 French. [Source]
The Israeli government's travel advisory issued last night that
focuses on the dangers of visiting Tunisia specifically [Online here]
As we said, that was six weeks ago.

Today, in the wake of the Israeli travel advisory, the government in Tunis is back in insistent denial mode:
The Tunisian government on Saturday shrugged off a warning from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel had learned of "concrete threats" of terror attacks against Jewish or Israeli targets in the Arab country. "Information indicates that there are plans for terrorist attacks against Israelis or Jews in Tunisia," a statement from Netanyahu's office said, urging Jews not to visit Tunisia during the Lag BaOmer Jewish festival, which will be celebrated on May 7. A senior official in the Tunisian interior ministry told Agence France-Presse that no such threats existed. "We have nothing on that. There are no threats," the unnamed official said. Thousands of pilgrims visit the tombs of famous rabbis for Lag BaOmer, including on Tunisia's holiday island of Djerba, where one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world still lives. Several thousand Jews from France and Israel make the trip to the island every year, where 19 people died in an attack on the ancient El Ghriba synagogue in 2002 blamed on Al-Qaeda. Tunisia has been trying to reassure foreign visitors they will be safe since 21 tourists were killed in a jihadist attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis in March. ["Tunisia rebuffs Netanyahu’s terror warning" | Al-Arabiya, today]
The joy of Lag B'Omer in the ancient Tunisian synagogue, Djerba 1960
[Image Source: The invaluable Israel Picture a Day website]
An AFP report today, referring to the synagogue on Djerba that has attracted Jewish tourists to Tunisia for generations, adds:
The Tunisian interior ministry official insisted the police and army were ready to ensure security. "All measures have been taken... to ensure the success of the pilgrimage to El Ghriba," the official said.
Now for anyone thinking Israel's approach seems contrived or excessively cautious, let's compare it with what the British government says in its online travel advisory for Tunisia this morning:
There is a high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping. A terrorist attack took place at the Bardo Museum in the centre of Tunis on 18 March. Twenty-one tourists were killed, including a British national. Tunisian security forces continue to carry out counter terrorist operations following this incident. Terrorists continue to threaten attacks in Tunisia and the Ministry of Interior has previously warned of threats to industrial and tourist sites. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners. You should be especially vigilant at this time and follow the advice of Tunisian security authorities and your tour operator. Terrorist attacks have increased in Tunisia since 2013. In October 2013, there were failed attacks at a hotel in Sousse and the Bourguiba Museum in Monastir. Since then, members of the Tunisian security forces have been targeted in terrorist-related incidents at various locations, mainly near border areas including in the Chaambi Mountains. There is considered to be a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time. Keep up to date with this travel advice, and follow the advice of the local authorities and your tour operator. [UK Travel Advisory | Tunisia | Updated to May 3, 2015]
Now for the Iranian view via a PressTV report from this morning:
In an apparent publicity campaign to portray Jews as victimized, the Israeli regime said earlier in the day that there were “concrete threats” of attacks against “Jewish and Israeli targets” in Tunisia. The office of Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a Saturday statement, "Information indicates that there are plans for terrorist attacks against Israelis or Jews in Tunisia." The statement further claimed that the threats are connected to the Lag BaOmer Jewish festival in the country, urging “Jews” not to travel to Tunisia for the May 6 event... Meanwhile, the Israeli regime has issued a number of false claims of potential terror attacks against Israeli or Jewish targets around the globe aimed at showing that Jewish communities are under persisting and increased threats in order to encourage Jews to immigrate to occupied Palestinian territories... The people of Tunisia, the birthplace of pro-democracy protests across North Africa and the Middle East, revolted against the Western-backed dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Despite the recent political stability, insurgency and terrorist activities still threaten the North African country. [Iran's PressTV today]
Clear now?

Let's hope (and pray) the Tunisians are right and that there are "no threats". And let's also hope that when they say "We have nothing on that", they actually mean
"We checked, we professionally reviewed all our sources, we set politics aside, we phoned the Israelis and asked them to tell us what they know about terrorism here in Tunisia and having given it our very best shot, we have concluded - as if lives depended on it - that the Israeli concern amounts to nothing."
For anyone interested in what the Israeli government actually said about Tunisia last night, it's online at this Hebrew-only page. Here's our unofficial translation:
Tunisia | High-level concrete threat | It emerges on the basis of updated information that there is an intention to carry out terror attacks (piguim) against Israeli and Jewish targets in Tunisia, with an emphasis on the Lag B'Omer events and those attending them. The Counter Terrorism Bureau recommends to refrain from visiting, and to leave the state (Tunisia) as quickly as possible.
The CTB clarifies that the foregoing travel advisory is a recommendation only and the decision to visit or stay in any place outside Israel is a matter for the personal discretion of every individual, and his/her exclusive responsibility, taking into account the significance of the travel advisory, other dangers apart from the dangers of terror, and awareness of the requirements of Israeli law.
And for the record, we don't plan to include Tunisia in any upcoming travel.

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