On Wednesday, two gunmen stormed into the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. At least 21 people — mainly foreign tourists — were murdered.
On Thursday, the Islamic State released an audio recording claiming responsibility for the massacre. Ranting about the “debauchery” of tourism and describing the museum as a “den of disbelief and immorality,” ISIS ended its message with a warning: “We tell the apostates who sit on the chest of Muslim Tunisia: Wait for the glad tidings of what will harm you, o impure ones, for what you have seen today is the first drop of the rain, Allah permitting.”
While we’ll have to wait for more evidence before confirming the Islamic State’s involvement, the group’s claim is credible. Full of excited, demented rhetoric — “apostates,” “impure ones,” “crusaders,” etc. — the message conveys a deep hatred for secular democracy. This matches perfectly with the Islamic State’s ideology. ISIS defines itself by the pursuit of a “purified” world and focuses on expanding its territory and imposing its Islamist political ideology. Wednesday’s attack would seem to be yet another step in carrying out this plan.
A great home of Tunisia’s cultural heritage and many exquisite Roman artifacts, the Bardo Museum is a national treasure. Yet by attracting Western tourists and housing exhibits that ISIS regards as evil idols, the museum is also a perfect target. And as ISIS has proved by destroying ancient treasures in Iraq and Syria, it detests other cultures and the symbols they hold dear.
Yet this attack didn’t arise out of mere hatred; it was at attempt at acquiring more political power. Following elections late last year, Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party was unseated from power and replaced by a coalition led by the secularist Nidaa Tounes party. In a triumph of democracy, voters turned on Ennahda after its shambolic governance. But jihadists in the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Ansar-al-Sharia were infuriated. They believe that democracy is an affront to God’s law, and they therefore despise secular political empowerment. In 2013, jihadists assassinated two prominent liberal politicians in Tunisia.
Correspondingly, the jihadists today are trying to destabilize the new Tunisian government. Reflecting a popular desire for economic development, Nidaa Tounes seeks foreign direct investment and would like to have a flourishing tourism industry (critical to Tunisia’s GDP). By attacking tourists and threatening future visitors — “what you have seen today is the first drop of the rain”) — the jihadists want to delegitimize the Tunisian government and undermine its utility to the Tunisian people.
Ultimately, an attack like this was probably inevitable. The birthplace of the Arab Spring, home to thousands of ISIS fighters and bordering terrorist havens in Libya, Tunisia is a key battleground in the war for political Islam’s future. With the Islamic State’s empire now reaching from West Africa to the borders of Southern Europe, we should expect more atrocities to follow.