Tunisia’s mysterious poison letters spark concern of new terror tactic

A spate of letters have been intercepted containing a potentially deadly substance

Police officers secure the area at the site of an explosion that occurred yesterday in Tunis, Tunisia October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi
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A string of mysterious letters containing potentially deadly toxins have been intercepted in Tunisia, leading the country’s intelligence agency to urge the public to be cautious around unexpected post.

Investigations into the source of the letters remains ongoing but the government suspects extremists.

"We knew that they are coming from a terrorist, or religious extremist groups, based upon our investigations," Interior Ministry spokesman Sofiane Zaag told The National.

However, the government admits that they don’t yet know what the individual or group’s agenda is.

So far 19 letters, addressed to prominent journalists, politicians and trade unionists, have been intercepted by police at the central Post Office in Tunis and taken for testing. It’s unclear at this stage how many letters have been sent.

While Mr Zaag refused to disclose details of the letters or the potentially deadly poison they contained, a local news site quoted sources suggesting it was Anthrax. Mr Zaag only said that samples have been referred to a laboratory for further testing but based on their current information physical contact with the substance could prove fatal.

He urged the public to be on their guard if they receive any unexpected letters or parcel.

Though Tunisia has faced extremist attacks in recent years, poisoned letters are unprecedented.

According to recent figures from the Washington Institute, around 2,900 people from across Tunisia left to fight alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In addition, there remains the festering domestic insurgency within the country’s mountain reaches that continues to dog Tunisia’s democratic transition.

In 2015, three gunmen attacked the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, killing 22. Three months later a mass shooting claimed by ISIS killed 38 tourists – 30 of whom were British – at a holiday resort on the coast. Since an attempted takeover of a border town the following year, Tunisian militants have been largely confined to sporadic, but deadly, hit and run attacks against the military and those the groups think are assisting the state.

The attacks, like many of the international plots claimed by ISIS, are high profile and public. Sending poison letters is not the usual method.

“The extremists’ goals in this, apart from causing terror amongst the recipients and the public, is unclear,” said Matt Herbert, from the Tunis based security consultancy Maharbal. “But my sense is that it was an attempt to demonstrate that the security force’s crackdown on urban terrorists, and the broader increase in, [the] security force’s technical capacity, has not blunted the ability of terrorists to target public figures.”

However, Mr Herbert suggested, the poisoned letters may be emblematic of a new strain within Tunisia’s domestic militancy.

Picture taken on June 12, 2018 shows police officers of a special unit wearing protective clothes and respiratory masks during an operation in Cologne's Chorweiler district, western Germany, where police found toxic substances after storming a flat. A Tunisian man arrested in Germany is suspected of trying to build a biological weapon using the deadly poison ricin, prosecutors said on June 14, 2018, stressing however there was no indication of any "concrete attack plans". - Germany OUT
 / AFP / dpa / David Young
Police officers of a special unit wearing protective clothes and respiratory masks during an operation in Cologne after a Tunisian man was arrested in Germany is suspected of trying to build a biological weapon. AFP

Neither a suicide bombing in Tunis last October, which injured nine but killed no one other than the attacker and an earlier incident where a man living near the coastal resort of Hammamet killed himself while constructing an explosive device, showed any tangible link to any known terrorist organisation. Both appeared to be local actors without links or guidance from international groups.

“Neither of the explosives incidents, nor this letter plot, seems terribly well organized,” Mr Herbert said. “But the attacks are worrisome precisely because they're difficult for the security forces to uncover in advance.”

While no details of the chemical agent used in the letters have been confirmed, analysts have long warned of the dangers posed by a terror group resorting to relatively basic compounds — such as homemade ricin or anthrax — to carry out attacks.

"Anthrax is entirely plausible and we know terrorists, including Jihadists, have been looking to weaponise it," chemical weapons expert and former British army officer, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, told The National. But he cautioned "it is very difficult to 'weaponise' Anthrax but not impossible."

“The challenge is to ‘grind’ a spore small enough in order that it can be ingested by the human body,” he said.

Another possibility is Ricin. A Tunisian extremist and his wife were arrested in Cologne, Germany last year, "with a large amount of weaponised Ricin, a Biological Toxin made from Castor Beans,” Mr de Bretton-Gordon said.

Two more suspects were taken into custody in Tunisia, suspected of aiding in the attempted Cologne attack, though no link to the current spate of letters has been suggested.

Calling for continued vigilance in a public statement last week, Interior Minister Hichem Fourati said, “The security situation is stable but the threat threshold is high,” adding that the timely interception of the letters had prevented a “real disaster."