TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A suicide bomber and a teenager carrying a backpack loaded with explosives attacked two sites popular with tourists Wednesday, raising fears that Tunisia's Islamist extremists may be adopting more violent tactics.
No one was killed besides the suicide bomber, but with the Interior Ministry saying both men belonged to the same extremist group, the attacks could signal the adoption of more deadly tactics by Tunisia's Islamic extremists, including ones aimed at tourists.
Religious extremism has been growing here since Tunisians kicked off the Arab Spring in 2011 by overthrowing their authoritarian president.
In what may have been the first suicide attack in Tunisia since the 2002 truck bombing of a synagogue, hotel security guards stopped the bomber from entering the Riadh Palm hotel in Sousse, a resort city 90 miles (150 kilometers) south of the capital, Tunis, then chased him to a beach where he blew himself up, the Interior Ministry said.
The ministry said the bomber wore an explosive belt. The city is being searched for possible accomplices, ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Aroui said. He later added that six suspects had been arrested for being possible accomplices.
In the foiled attack in nearby Monastir, an 18-year-old followed a group of tourists into the mausoleum of modern Tunisia's founder, Habib Bourguiba, carrying a backpack full of TNT. He attempted to distract security by tossing a firework before being subdued, said Hicham Gharbi, a spokesman for the presidential guard, which patrols the site.
It was not immediately clear if the teen had planned a suicide attack of his own or just to plant the explosives.
"He will be questioned to learn his motives and those who ordered the attack," Gharbi told local radio. Bourguiba, Tunisia's first post-independence president, was a fierce secularist and has long been criticized by hard-line Islamists.
Riccardo Fabiani, the North Africa analyst for the Eurasia Group said that, coupled with a failed car bomb a few days ago, Wednesday's attacks suggest the start of a new campaign targeting civilians and tourism.
"A few episodes alone don't necessarily make compelling evidence, but three episodes of this kind point in this direction," he said in an interview. "It was also inevitable to an extent that this would happen sooner or later, if you consider the news over the past few months."
His analysis was echoed by Mokhtar Ben Nasr, the former spokesman for the military, who said the attacks were designed to harm the tourist industry and distract security forces from their efforts to root out militants based in the hinterlands.
When he was president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruthlessly suppressed overt expressions of religion. Since his ouster in 2011, there has been a resurgence of political Islam, including moderates who won elections and hardliners known as Salafis.
The Salafis were tolerated by the new government led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party. But that changed when they began challenging policies they deemed insufficiently Islamic, resulting in increased confrontations between them over the past year.
That culminated in the main Salafi group, Ansar al-Shariah, being named a terrorist movement in September.
Previously, al-Qaida and other organizations had classified Tunisia as place to carry out preaching, not attacks.
"There was a shift in rhetoric by many of these extremist Salafi preachers over the last few months, especially with their disappointment with the experiences of Ennahda in government," said Fabiani.
Earlier this year, two left-wing politicians were gunned down in Tunisia outside their homes, and security forces have repeatedly clashed with militants in several remote areas around the country, many of them armed with weapons spilling over from neighboring Libya.
On Oct. 23, a shootout with militants in the impoverished Sidi Bouzid province of Tunisia left six National Guardsmen dead.
Compared with these remote sites, the choice of Sousse, a major destination for European tourists, for Wednesday's attack indicates an effort to strike one of the mainstays of the economy.
Tunisia's revolution devastated its tourism industry, and only this year officials were expecting tourist arrivals to reach the 7-million record set in 2010.
More than 5 million tourists had come to Tunisia by September, according to the Tourism Ministry. Its spokesman, Zoubeir Jbabli, said there have been no cancellations by tourists and steps are being taken to limit the impact of the Sousse attack.
"We are in contact with the tour operators and families of the tourists to reassure them that the situation is under control and all security measures have been taken to ensure the protection of guests in Tunisia," he told The Associated Press.
There were about 800 guests at the Riadh Palm hotel when the bomb exploded outside the building, causing panic that was eventually calmed down, hotel director Makram Haloul said.
"Once we overcame the shock of the morning, we put together a special buffet for the residents and a performance designed to lighten the mood," he said.
Paul Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco.