OMRANE SUPERIEUR, TUNISIA (Reuters) - Shortly before he and a friend gunned down 20 foreign tourists at Tunisia’s Bardo museum, Yassine al-Abidi sat down to a breakfast of olive oil and dates with his family and left for work at his travel agency as usual.
His relatives, mourning his death in a hail of police bullets in the midst of the attack, said they could not understand how a lively, popular young man with a taste for the latest imported clothes could have done such a thing.
They said he was typical of the young men of Tunis’ Omrane Superieur suburb. He graduated in French, held down a job and showed no sign of the hardline Islamist ideology that would drive him to commit the worst militant attack in a decade.
But relatives said last year he had begun to spend more and more time at a local mosque, following a pattern of rationalization of Tunisian young men who then find themselves fighting in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
“I am sad for Yassine, but even sadder for the victims that Yassine killed. They were innocent, why did they have to pay the price of a false understanding of Islam,” said his uncle Mohamed Abidi. “They are the victims of terrorism. We are the victims of a demagogic network that wants only death.”
Yassine’s family had set up a traditional mourning tent outside their home, a well-made orange duplex standing in contrast to the more rundown residences nearby.
Chairs sat empty inside, with only ten family members present. Nearby his mother wept constantly.
Four years after a popular revolt toppled autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has had free elections, a new constitution and compromise politics.
But the new government is also caught up in a low-level war with militants who have taken advantage of the new freedoms.
More than 3,000 Tunisians have left to fight in Syria and Iraq and the government estimates around 500 have since returned, fuelling fears of further attacks on Tunisia’s fragile new democratic state.
‘COULDN‘T HURT A BIRD’
Abidi and his fellow gunman were trained at a jihadist camp in Libya before the Bardo attack, the Tunisian government has said. Officials said the two men had been recruited at mosques in Tunisia and traveled to Libya in September.
Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate in large parts of Iraq and Syria and is active in Tunisia’s chaotic neighbor Libya, praised the two attackers in an audio recording as “knights of the Islamic State” armed with machineguns and bombs.
Family members said Abidi had left home for two months, saying he would be working in the commercial city Sfax on Tunisia’s coast. But he did not display any of the conservative beliefs of hardline Islamists, never, for instance, complaining about alcohol being consumed at his uncle’s house.
“He was always fun, we danced together at family weddings. He wasn’t like hardline Salafists,” said his cousin Hanen.
“On the last day he had breakfast of dates and olive oil and went to work. At 10 am he asked for a break and went and did what he did.”
Last year, he had started visiting a local mosque where ultraconservative Salafists gave talks on jihad in Syria and Libya, relatives said.
But even when Abidi spent lots of time there, he acted normally with his family, unlike the Islamist hardliners who frown on popular music and entertainment.
“He never told us not to watch television for example,” Hanen said.
Since its revolution, Tunisia has seen the emergence of several hardline Islamist groups, including Ansar al-Sharia, which the United States blames for storming its embassy in Tunis in 2012 and lists as a terrorist organization.
In the early days after the revolution, hardline imams took over mosques, profiting from the new freedoms to preach their extremist vision of Islam and encourage young men to leave to fight in foreign wars.
The Tunisian authorities have began taking back control of most of those mosques. But young men are still leaving. Some are students, unemployed and middle class, rather than poor. Some lived in marginalized rural communities, and most were simply taken in by extremist recruiters.
“The son I knew could never do what was done,” Abidi’s mother Zakia said, weeping. “He could not even harm a bird.”
Writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Philippa Fletcher