Tunisia museum attack kills at least 19; three suspects sought

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Gunmen killed 17 tourists and two others — one of them a Tunisian security officer — on Wednesday at a museum in Tunisia’s capital in what the North African nation’s Prime Minister called a “cowardly” terrorist attack.

Tunisian security forces managed to kill two attackers and end a hostage siege at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Prime Minister Habib Essid said.

But the bloodshed isn’t necessarily over, with Essid saying that authorities are looking for three other gunmen.

“It’s a cowardly attack mainly targeting the economy of Tunisia,” the Prime Minister said. “We should unite to defend our country.”

The scene played out in the heart of Tunisia’s capital, in a building linked to where the nation’s parliament meets and in an area frequented by tourists.

At least two cruise ships — the MSC Splendida and the Costa Fascinosa, which alone had more than 3,000 passengers — were docked in Tunis at the time, and both had passenger tours of the Bardo Museum organized for Wednesday morning, their parent companies said. The MSC Splendida’s expected Wednesday night departure from Tunisia could be delayed, while the Costa Fascinosa is set to head next to Spain and France before concluding its cruise Sunday in Italy.

It’s not known if any cruise ship passengers died Wednesday. Essid did say that Polish, Italian, German and Spanish tourists are among those killed, with another 20 tourists plus two Tunisians wounded in the attack. He suggested that the terrorists wanted to hurt Tunisia’s economy by going after tourists.

While Essid didn’t specify where the attackers came from, Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui called them Islamists in remarks on national radio.

Tunisia hasn’t had anywhere near the same level of militant violence as other nations in the region that were part of the Arab Spring uprisings, like neighboring Libya. But it hasn’t been immune to it either.

The government, for example, has seen several apparent political assassinations and has been battling a jihadist presence in the Chaambi Mountains.

And in February, the country’s Interior Ministry announced the arrests of about 100 alleged extremists, and published a video allegedly showing that the group possessed a formula for making explosives and a photograph of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Up to 3,000 Tunisians are believed to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight as jihadists, more than any other country, according to the International Centre fort the Study of Radicalization in London.

“There are hundreds that have returned from the battlefield, yet we haven’t seen this kind of activity in Tunisia yet,” said Rick Francona, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer and CNN military analyst.

“I think it was only a matter of time. And today was the day.”

Museum: ‘A jewel of Tunisian heritage’

Photos on Twitter showed security forces in bulletproof vests and black helmets and masks, guns drawn, in the area. Authorities set up a large security cordon around the targeted museum, Ryan said.

The museum is housed in a 19th century palace and describes itself as “a jewel of Tunisian heritage.” Its exhibits showcase Tunisian art, culture and history, and boasts a collection of mosaics, including one of the poet Virgil, as well as marble sculptures, furniture, jewels and other items.

As much as its place in Tunisian culture, the museum is significant for its location — right next to the building that houses the North African nation’s parliament.

That government building was evacuated shortly after noon Wednesday, Tunisian lawmaker Sayida Ounissi said on Twitter.

Sabrine Ghoubatini, a Tunisian lawmaker, said that an administrator interrupted a committee meeting to tell everyone “to lay down on the ground because there was an exchange of fire between terrorists and police. So we laid down on the ground, and they began to evacuate us.”

Ghoubatini told CNN early Wednesday afternoon — before the Prime Minister’s remarks — that Tunis’ main court was also evacuated, describing the situation then as “confused.”

No one immediately claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack. But it happened just days after a Tunisian jihadist tweeted that a pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was coming soon, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

In his message, the jihadi claimed to belong to Jund al-Khilafah in Tunisia, a group that in December pledged allegiance to ISIS, even though that vow didn’t seem to have fully registered with the Islamist extremist group. His post comes after an ISIS fighter in Raqqa, Syria, recently appeared in a video questioning why jihadis in Tunisia had not pledged fealty.

“This raises the possibility that the museum attack could be ISIS’s debut on the Tunisian stage, timed to precede a pledge of allegiance from Tunisian jihadis for maximum impact,” CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said.

Where Arab Spring took root

Tunisia is where the Arab Spring — anti-government protests that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa and sparked revolutions in some of those countries — took root in December 2010. A poor 26-year-old man set himself on fire in front of a Tunisian government building that month, after police confiscated his vegetable cart, sparking protests.

Then-President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his family fled the next month, and in October 2011, Tunisia held its first free elections in the country’s modern history, seating a new parliament.

This came at the cusp of a wave of revolutions around the region in places like Egypt, Libya and Syria. Many of those countries have been plagued by violence and instability since.

In many ways, Tunisia has been the exception — with The Economist going so far as to name it “Country of the Year” for 2014.

“The idealism engendered by the Arab spring has mostly sunk in bloodshed and extremism, with a shining exception: Tunisia,” the magazine wrote. “… Its economy is struggling and its polity is fragile; but Tunisia’s pragmatism and moderation have nurtured hope in a wretched region and a troubled world.”

Tunisia adopted a new constitution in 2014. And in December, longtime politician Beji Caid Essebsi won a runoff election with about 55% of the vote, beating outgoing President Moncef Marzouki’s 44%, state-run media reported.

That was seen as a milestone vote. But it did not mean that Tunisia wasn’t without its troubles.

Chief among them are socioeconomic problems such as youth unemployment. Young people who can’t get jobs are finding that joining extremist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda is a way out.

Up until now, these recruits have largely done their fighting away from home. Experts think that by taking the fight to Tunisia, they’ll hurt their cause not just by hurting the tourism-reliant economy, but also by alienating most of their countrymen.

“They’re already isolated and marginalized, and they further isolate and marginalize themselves by these actions,” said Mubin Shaikh, a former undercover counterterrorism operative. “… This will just further isolate and alienate these groups from the rest of the public.”

Political turnover in Tunisia

While it’s been more peaceful than other countries, Tunisia has seen its share of violence and political turmoil.

There was cautious optimism after the October 2011 elections — the country’s first since its independence in 1956 — that involved 60 political parties and thousands of independent candidates vying for seats in the country’s new Constitutional Assembly.

The moderate Islamist Ennahda party won a majority of seats in that vote, and Marzouki became President.

The next two years saw some crackdowns on media freedom, as well as criticisms in efforts of the new powers-that-be to criminalize blasphemy and inject a certain kind of strict religious discourse in mosques, wrote Alaya Allani, a history professor at Tunisia’s Manouba University, in September 2013.

There were also the 2013 assassinations of two opposition leaders, one of which was followed by the resignation of then Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and the other by the Ennahda party’s decision to hand over power to an independent caretaker until after the forthcoming elections.

It’s too early to tell whether those killings have anything to do with what happened Wednesday. The attack could have been carried out by people who care more about fomenting terror or establishing a strict Islamic caliphate — ISIS’ aim — than Tunisian politics.

The next challenge is to find out who is behind this attack, capture them and their supporters, and guard against future terrorist attacks.

“This tragedy is already done,” Philip Mudd, a former CIA counterterrorism officer, told CNN. “The next question is: Can you prevent the next one?”