Tunisia attack: how a man with a parasol could murder 38 people on the beach
On a late June day in 2015, a man dressed in black came strolling along the beach outside the five-star Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse. It was almost noon, the temperature approaching 30C.
The man’s name was Seifeddine Rezgui. He was 23 years old. He held a large parasol. The dozens of sunbathers paid him no attention. At 11.45am, he pulled out a Kalashnikov assault rifle that was hidden in the parasol, and opened fire.
Rezgui’s rampage is said to have lasted about 30 minutes. He laughed as he went, indiscriminately shooting as he made his way through the crowds, up the beach to the hotel’s pool area, through the building and back again.
By the time he was killed by Tunisian security forces he had murdered 38 people, and left another 39 wounded. Of those killed, 30 were British. All had booked their holidays through Tui, the owner of Thomson Holidays and First Choice.
It remains the biggest loss of British life to terrorism since the bombings in London in July 2005.
How high was the terrorist threat?
A number of attacks had taken place in the area in the two years before the atrocity in Sousse.
Among them was a failed suicide bombing in Sousse in 2013, when an assailant wearing an explosive vest attempted to enter the Riadh Palms hotel, six miles south along the coast from the Imperial Marhaba.
Another failed suicide bombing occurred the same year in Monastir, a resort town 16 miles from Sousse.
Three months before the Sousse attack, the threat from Islamic extremism in Tunisia drew overseas attention. On 18 March 2015, in the capital city of Tunis and killed 22 people, mostly European tourists, including a Briton, Sally Adey.
Was the Foreign Office aware of the risks?
Against this backdrop, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was informing travellers there was a “high threat from terrorism” in Tunisia within its official travel advice.
The current travel advice system relies on a traffic-light code to convey the guidance: red advises against all travel, amber against all but essential travel, and green means “see travel advice before travelling”.
Crucially, green does not necessarily mean “safe to travel”, although it is widely interpreted that way. After the Bardo attack, a significant chunk of Tunisia remained in the green area, including Sousse and the coastal resorts – but the FCO altered the wording of its advice to include details of the atrocity in the museum.
If read in full, the advice gave potential travellers to Tunisia details of the failed suicide bombing in 2013 and also warned attacks could be “indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners”.
The security climate in Tunisia after the Bardo attack prompted Lee Doddridge, director at security consultant Covenant, to reach out to his contact at Tui and raise his concerns.
Doddridge had previously provided a far-reaching security audit for Tui in the Egyptian resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and Luxor in 2013 and 2014 respectively, amid concerns about the terror threat in the country.
He and his team had come across a video purportedly posted by Islamic State on YouTube a few months before the Bardo attack, pledging to attack Tunisia and build a network in the North African country.
In the film, the group threatened to “expand” in Tunisia. Doddridge, in the email dated 18 March 2015 – the day of the Bardo attack – explains that he believes the incident was “the start of an active campaign in Tunisia”.
Jacque Reynolds, a UK-based director of risk and compliance for Tui, was sent the Doddridge email and did not follow it up as it was one of many similar emails she frequently received from security firms.
Reynolds did not consider terrorism or security to be within her remit. Based on evidence presented to the inquest, it remains unclear if anyone at Tui did. The company had no security advisers on its board or in the risk management department. The inquest heard from several Tui employees, none of whom had responsibility for security issues.
Tui’s view was and still is that if the FCO’s advice is green, they will sell holidays to that destination. That the green indicator still comes with conditions attached is not considered.
On the ground in Tunisia, it sent representatives to security briefings alongside British embassy officials and Tunisian ministers. But these employees were not tasked with responsibility for security.
Did Tui hide the travel advice?
Meanwhile, in the UK, after the Bardo attack, Tui prices for Tunisian holidays were plunging, in some cases by up to 30%.
It was at the time of booking that customers might have come across the FCO travel advice.
Tui has been accused by families of victims in the Sousse attacks of “practically hiding and keeping [the advice] out of the limelight”.
When booking a holiday through the Tui website, there are seven pages that must be visited. It is not until the last of these, after the lengthy process of selecting destination, accommodation and flights is completed and personal and payment details are entered, that a small-print link to the FCO website appears.
If a customer books a holiday in a travel agent branch, they will receive a printed booking form, which comes with a small-print reference to the FCO advice.
Some survivors and relatives of victims of the Sousse attack said that after raising concerns about Bardo and the security climate they were reassured Tunisia was “100% safe” and were not directed to the FCO travel advice. A Tui representative denied advising customers in these terms.
The insurance packaged offered by Tui through insurers Axa did not cover for losses caused by terrorism.
Its handling of the FCO travel advice, lack of insurance cover for terrorism and high cancellation penalties were dubbed the “unholy trinity” by its critics.
The FCO currently advises against all travel to four areas of Tunisia and advises against all but essential travel to the rest of the country. Tui does not currently offer holidays to the country.
How secure was the hotel?
Rezgui is said to have chosen the Imperial Marhaba because it was an easy target.
After Bardo, the Tunisian minister of tourism sent a letter to all hotels in the country demanding an upgrade in security.
The Imperial Marhaba had six CCTV cameras, although two were not working and there was no control room to monitor the live footage. There were four guards on duty on the day of the attack. The beach gates were unlocked and unguarded. No training was given to staff for dealing with terrorist incidents.
So it was that Rezgui, an electrical engineering student who had only been exposed to a radical interpretations of Islam in the last 18 months of his life, was able to launch his attack.
What were Rezgui’s influences?
Rezgui who was from Gaafour, in north-west Tunisia, had embraced foreign and western influences, from hip-hop music to Real Madrid football club, and was a keen breakdancer, as seen in a video that . He came from a town known as a centre for ultra-conservative Salafists, but had not been considered particularly devout himself.
Friends told reporters he had travelled to Libya for military training. Tunisia’s interior secretary, Rafik Chelli, said he had visited the neighbouring country in January, travelling with fellow jihadis who afterwards carried out the Bardo Museum attack, leaving 22 dead. He also visited Libya again in March, during the academic spring vacation.
He returned to his Master’s degree course after finishing his final combat training across the border, and sat his end-of-term exams. He passed and picked up his certificate on 29 May as the college was closing for the summer.
Family and neighbours in his hometown of Gaafour, just a few hours north-west of Sousse, said they had not spotted any change in the young man.
Radhia Manai, 49, Rezgui’s mother, told reporters her son must have been radicalised. She said he was a victim as much as those he shot dead in Sousse.
The ringleader behind the Sousse and Bardo attack, and Rezgui’s recruiter, was identified by a BBC Panorama investigation as Chamseddine al-Sandi. Panorama said al-Sandi is believed to be on the run in Libya. The Guardian has not been able to verify his role.
Were the tourist police cowardly?
As Rezgui unleashed his bloodthirsty campaign on the hotel, a catastrophic and hapless response by the Tunisian security authorities was unfolding.
In the aftermath of the attack, it emerged that the armed tourist security police, best equipped and positioned to bring an end to Rezgui’s attack, had deliberately delayed arriving at the hotel in fear for their own lives.
The Tunisian interior minister said the “deliberate and unjustifiable” delays amounted to a criminal offence. Emergency call centre operatives said the tourist police acted out of “simple cowardice”.
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