Christina Lamb’s diary: Meeting the mother of the Sousse killer

When terrible things happen in beautiful places, I’m the one they send

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

One strange consequence of my job as a foreign correspondent is discovering beautiful places when terrible things happen in them. So it was that I have been spending the past couple of weeks in Tunisia, a land of azure skies, whitewashed houses and apricot light which has inspired artists such as Paul Klee. That beauty — along with soft sandy beaches, local rosé and low prices — also attracted hundreds of thousands of British tourists. Not any more, after a young Tunisian took a gun from inside a beach umbrella at the resort of Sousse and slaughtered 38 holidaymakers, 30 of them British. Almost every Tunisian I met apologised on learning I was British: ‘Please don’t think Tunisians are like that — we are people of peace.’ But as one visitor who stayed on after the attack, a beauty consultant at Selfridges, said to me, ‘It’s hard to look at the beach in the same way after this.’

I had long wanted to go to Tunisia to try to understand a conundrum. This North African country is where the Arab Spring started, when a fruit-seller set himself alight after police confiscated his wares. It’s often cited as the movement’s only success story, having toppled the dictator Ben Ali in 2011 and replaced him with an elected government and constitution. Yet Tunisia sends the most fighters to Isis — an estimated 4,000 currently in Syria, not to mention others in neighbouring Libya. To find out more, I went to the Interior Ministry. At the gate, police were beating a man, which wasn’t a good sign. Inside I met Waleed Lougini, a lugubrious spokesman who like most Tunisians smokes non-stop. ‘People keep saying we have the most fighters in Isis but we are only fourth or fifth on the list,’ he said. The ministry claims to have blocked 12,000 from going and recently brought in a law requiring anyone under the age of 35 travelling to transit countries like Turkey to have permission from their parents. That only seems to have annoyed people.

Tunis by night is incredibly lively. I try to avoid going to Muslim countries during the month-long Ramadan fast, because everyone is moody and sleepy in daytime. But my goodness, in Tunis they come alive after Iftar, the fast-breaking dinner. At about 9 p.m. everyone pours into the streets and sits in cafés or ice-cream parlours, drinking coffee, smoking shisha pipes and people-watching. One of the most popular places is the tree-lined Avenue Habib Bourguiba — or Rue de Revolution as many now call it. In all my travels in the Islamic world I have never seen such a mix — girls in full hijab walking with girls in spaghetti-strapped mini-dresses or tiny shorts. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking this is a country that has it right. But not long ago Tunisia was a brutal police state and I saw reminders every day with gratuitous displays of violence such as that at the ministry gate. Opposite the cathedral on Avenue Bourguiba is the French embassy. Surrounded by tanks and barbed wire, it does not inspire confidence.

Imagine being the parent of the cold-blooded beach killer. On my last but one day I headed into the interior, a soft landscape of rolling hills dotted with olive trees and storks standing in nests on poles, to the town of Gaâfour. Inside a whitewashed compound on the corner of a street sat a woman who looked a portrait of melancholy — Radhia Manai, the mother of Seifeddine Rezgui. ‘My son was a normal boy,’ she said over and over, wiping away tears with her grey shawl. She had not been able to eat or sleep since the moment police told her that not only her beloved son was dead but that he had massacred 38 tourists. She showed school reports and photographs of a harmless-looking young man sporting different hairstyles. ‘He liked new looks,’ she said. Knowing many young Tunisians are joining Isis, she had warned him to stay away from salafists at his university. ’Don’t worry, Mum, I am not one of them,’ he assured her. At the local youth centre, friends who were with him talking football just two nights before the killing were stunned. ‘What this means is these people are among us,’ said one with whom he did breakdancing. The scary thing about Rezgui is that he seems to have given away no clue to either friends or family — except for telling his father on New Year’s Day that he wanted to move university.

As the interior ministry man had said, ‘This is a problem for all the world not just Tunisia.’ On my first day back in London I went to a Foreign Office panel on extremism — how to win over those who are being radicalised. What Rezgui showed is we don’t even know who they are.

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Christina Lamb’s latest book is Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World.

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    What sort of foreign correspondent doesn’t understand that it is lively at night in Muslim countries (apart from Saudi and the like?) during Ramadan? Also, Habib Bourguiba is wholly unrepresentative of streets in the country nor even Tunis. Behind the avenue, the town centre is poorly maintained with cracked pavements and potholes. And she is mistaken to say it is a violent country. I’ve been going there on extended visits for almost five years and have come across only two examples of violence in the street and even those were men having a bit of a girly fight. And I wish people would stop saying Tunisia was the beginning of the Arab Spring. The revolution began in December 2010 and ended on 14 January when Ben Ali fled to Saudi after the Army told him they could no longer protect him. The difference between Tunisia and the other countries which had uprisings in the ensuing period is that the Army took the side of the people as protectors.

  • Gilbert White

    Christina……. Christina…….. . Christina…..Harry’s Place.

    • trace9

      Should this be flagged – as what..?

  • cartimandua

    Youth unemployment is high in Muslim countries and yet Muslim men are expected to support the wider family.
    There is virtually no understanding of psychiatric conditions in Muslim countries.
    The beach killer was on the autistic spectrum like his sibs. One sib had recently died in an accident. The other is badly disabled.
    After one sib died in an accident the Mother had a breakdown.
    The serial killers by proxy prey on emotionally vulnerable youth.
    There are lots of them in Muslim societies.
    To my horror I discovered that 80% of Muslims in the UK are unemployed.
    Its not ideology except that mass killers use Islam to draw the vulnerable into their cult.

    • BaraccoBarner


      • Mark

        Disagree. This analysis seeks to explain away one persons actions by way of personal psychological issues. Are all the Muslim fundamentalists and jihadists through the centuries explicable in this way?

        Of course not. People will kill for causes, for power, for influence, for Allah.

        This man wasn’t acting alone, he had to take care of and maintain a fire arm, where did it come from? why was he so discriminating in his victim selection, how was he able to continue firing and moving? He was trained and trainable, he was able to undergo discipline and win trust among his peers, and, we are told, conceal his motives from those outside the conspiracy.

        And now he’s gone, the Tunisians have made arrests and clamped down on 80 or so mosques, the FCO are warning of an imminent attack, and advising people to leave Tunisia.
        There are more out there like him, and unlike him, but all trained and ready to go, on all continents, from all backgrounds, with varied psychological make ups but united in their belief in the righteousness of violent jihad against the west and against anyone who would obstruct them.

        • cartimandua

          Covering , Ramadan ,and gender apartheid will produce higher rates of psychopathy. The effects of in utero malnutrition were first noted after world war 2. The Dutch produced lots of psychopaths after famine.
          The customs produce a lot of brain damage AND a lot of the vulnerability. Women eat little and last. High birth rates deplete maternal nutrition.
          Nancy Kobrin wrote a book called “The Banality of Suicide Terrorism” (this was a bit like death by cop). In it she outlines how Muslim males are not permitted to separate from Mother who is to be revered as a Mother yet despised as a woman.
          Its biology producing it all not just individuals psychological issues although undoubtedly the serial killers by proxy seek out the vulnerable.
          They seek out the autistic, the depressed and the bereaved.
          One part of Afghanistan has or had one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world.
          It is or was child marriage “covering” which produced stunted bones and high parity.
          I bet that area produces a lot of low IQ nut jobs as well.
          We can understand this with western science and logic . We can also attack the customs (treating women like breeding goats) while leaving
          people internal beliefs that give them comfort.

  • trace9

    Meeting – & Tweeting. A worthless little whisp of non-story.

  • casper

    the poor mother. sob. sniff. the killer got his motive with his mother’s milk. they call it islam. he was raised on hatred for infidels, and the idea that killing infidels will get him a ticket to heavenly bliss. if the poor mother did not want her darling to take seriously the beliefs presented to him as truth at an impressionable age, she should have taught him from the earliest age that although he lives in a demented country where religious stupidity is required, the truth is that they are lying, and all the mass murderer-suicide martyr will get is dead. if all women required by force to submit to the religion of misogyny, murder, robbery, and child rape were to teach their children the truth about the fictitious god of crime and his archcriminal prophet, islam could morph into something that we can coexist with. as it is, islam is fit only to be the religion of losers in prison serving life sentences for the very virtues that mohammed advocated–murder, rape, child molestation, robbery. prison is the ideal location for islam. anywhere else, it is an abomination.

    • Rowland Nelken

      I regret to say I agree with you. Sure I have met some very pleasant Muslims, but that can only be because the Koran is not their life’s guide. There are many nominal Christians for whom the church is a pleasant supportive social club with its bell ringing teams, choirs, flower festivals and garden fetes, with barely a nod in the direction of a freelance apocalytic rabbi of 2 millennia ago promising a new divine kingdom of uncertain description. Is there a similar proportion of Muslims? End Times stuff is knocking around in several corners of the Bible. The Koran contains little else. This earthly life is all but dismissed as of secondary importance. Even the much vaunted respect for Jews and Christians is conditional upon their accepting the unique TRUTH of Islam before Judgement Day and this demoting christ from divinity to prophet. And if the finest thing a Muslim can do is spread this ultimate TRUTH, by violence of necessary, and thus purify the world before an imminent Judgement Day, it is ony to be expected that some folk will go for it.

  • Dogsnob

    “It’s easy to be fooled into thinking this is a country that has it right”
    Are you right in your head?