Nice attack points to continued Tunisian struggle with jihadists

TUNIS (Reuters) - Though French police believe the attacker who killed three people in Nice on Thursday is a Tunisian, the North African democracy has made big strides in tackling the jihadist threat in recent years.

A French police source told Reuters the man who beheaded an elderly woman and killed two others in a church in the French Riviera city was thought to be a 21-year-old Tunisian who recently entered France via Italy.

Five years after militant Islamists killed scores of tourists in two mass shootings in Tunisia, police in the North African state have grown far better at disrupting plots and responding quickly when attacks take place, diplomats say.

However, a steady series of smaller attacks has shown that the threat remains.

Tunisians made up one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters for Islamic State, and though many died in wars in Syria and Iraq, some returned home and were imprisoned.

An al Qaeda group is meanwhile entrenched in a hilly, inaccessible part of the border region between Tunisia and Algeria but has proven unable to stage attacks beyond that area.

The last major attack in Nice was also carried out by a Tunisian man who had emigrated to France in 2005 before driving a truck into a Bastille Day crowd in 2016, killing 86 people.

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Tunisia’s Foreign Ministry condemned the latest Nice attack and a branch of the judiciary said it has opened an investigation into the suspect.

Though the 2011 revolution brought Tunisia democracy and freedom of expression, it did not translate into an improvement in living standards or economic opportunity, and ever more young people have sought to emigrate.

In September, Italy said the number of migrants arriving over the past year in boats across the Mediterranean - often to the small island of Lampedusa - had risen by half thanks in part to Tunisia’s economic woes.

Lampedusa is only 130 km (80 miles) from the Tunisian coast and young Tunisians living in port towns have told Reuters of a constant temptation to board the ever-present boats departing at night and seek their fortunes in prosperous Europe.

Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Mark Heinrich