Tunisian gunman described as a normal college student

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re with The World. We’re a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH here in Boston. Tunisia is still reeling from a deadly terrorist attack last week. On friday, a gunman opened fire on sunbathers in the Tunisian town of Sousse. Some 38 people, most of them European tourists, were killed. The gunmen, identified as Seifeddine Rezgui, was shot dead by police on the scene. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, and reports indicate that the gunman may have been radicalized only recently. Reporter Marine Olivesi went to Rezgui’s hometown today. It’s a town called Gaafour.


Marine Olivesi: It’s a small place that’s only an hour and a half away from the capital but very far away from the glitz of Tunisia’s coastal resorts. And everybody I talked to there, whether neighbors, friends, relatives, including his father, they were at a loss to explain what happened to Seifeddine Rezgui. He was still in Gaafour the day before the attack and they say he was acting totally normal, breaking the fast of Ramadan with his family, going to work at a local cafe in the evening to get some money--the same routine as usual. One of his friends told me the only way he could make sense of it all was to think that he was living a double life and he didn’t let anything transpire whenever he was back home. Now, I also went to the town where he was doing his Master’s degree, and that’s where his family believes he was radicalized. The only link so far tying him to a radical group is the Islamic society that he was a part of at his university. It is possible that some of the young men there had gone either to Syria or Libya and influenced him, but at this point there’s still a lot of mystery shrouding his case.


Werman: Is there any evidence to suggest that Rezgui himself went abroad and was radicalized somewhere outside of Tunisia?


Olivesi: No, so far not at all. The authorities say that he had a passport but he never used it, which rules out the possibility that he traveled to Syria or neighboring Libya, unless he smuggled himself into the country. But the family also says they saw him every weekend or so, so it’s not like he disappeared for weeks at a time. And it’s not clear whether he received actually any kind of training at this point because we heard eyewitnesses from friday rampage saying that in the first few minutes of the shootout, Seifeddine didn’t seem to have a good grip on his assault rifle and his shots were sloppy. Then he steadied himself and started to shoot more methodically, reloading multiple times. Now, it’s obviously really hard to say if that’s something anybody can do with little to no training.


Werman: Tell me, Marine, it seemed to be that there was perhaps more than one shooter on friday. Is the narrative now focusing strictly on Rezgui as the only attacker?


Olivesi: Well, there have been conflicting reports. What the authorities have said yesterday is that they’re looking for accomplices. They believe that he could not have done that on his own and he had received help to prepare the attack, but the authorities at this point say that he was the only one that did open fire on the tourists.


Werman: Now Marine, you also said you spoke with Rezgui’s father. What was he feeling when you spoke with him and what kind of things did he tell you?


Olivesi: Well, he didn’t want to be interviewed, so it was more off the cuff comments. Obviously a lot of journalists had gone there and he, himself, had only returned to his house, after having been taken into custody with his wife and one of his daughter’s the day before. So, he was very tired, looked very wary of all the attention surrounding his family. Throughout the maybe half an hour we spent around his house, there were a lot of people, locals, who would come to him and just hug him. He did say that he just had no clue of what could have happened to his son.


Werman: So this town, Rezgui’s hometown of Gaafour, what kind of town is it?


Olivesi: It’s very representative of that split that exists in Tunisia between the towns on the coast that have gained a lot of wealth throughout the years through the tourism industry, and the house where his family lives is just a one-story house, whitewashed walls, and not much to see. His family was working class, nothing very distinctive about it.


Werman: Right. We do know that Tunisia has seen a lot of its citizens drawn to ISIS, more so proportionally than most countries, in fact. Do you know why that is, Marine? What are the connections between ISIS and Tunisia?


Olivesi: Well, we know indeed that that’s the country that has sent the highest number of jihadists to Syria since 2012. With the opening of the country after 2011, that has allowed a lot of groups and more radical Islamist groups to openly preach on the street, which is something that was impossible under the former regime. The mosques, for instance, were very tightly controlled, the imam could not say a word outside of what was said for him by the ministry of religious affairs. And all of a sudden the freedom that came in the wake of the Arab Spring allowed all of these groups to do whatever they wanted. Some of the blame has been put on all these mosques; there are about 150 mosques since 2011 that have sprung up across the country without authorization, privately owned, privately built. Some of those have been preaching a very radical version of Islam. We know that in Europe, for instance, the radicalization operated online--Facebook and so on--away from the mosques. But in Tunisia, these mosques and these groups were able to operate and to preach openly on the streets.


Werman: Marine Olivesi speaking with me from Sousse in Tunisia. Thank you very much for the update, Marine.


Olivesi: My pleasure, Marco.