A group of armed terrorists killed more than a dozen people today at a popular museum in Tunisia, taking a number of Western tourists hostage. Thankfully, security forces appear to have managed to free the hostages and halt the attack, but the event is even more disturbing than one might expect. Tunisia has been lucky to escape the wave of terror across North Africa in the wake of the Arab spring, and this well-executed attack interrupts that pattern, showing the vulnerability of even Western targets in a once-stable country — and potentially the growing reach of the Islamic State.
Tunisia television showing amazing footage of hostages escaping museum as security forces provide cover pic.twitter.com/t3Hex1cXNj
— Borzou Daragahi 🖊🗒 (@borzou) March 18, 2015
Today’s tragedy was a well-executed, well-coordinated attack in what had looked like a relatively secure stable country, even after the Arab spring and next-door Libya’s steady collapse. There are terrorist groups in Tunisia, but striking a target just blocks from the parliament and killing more than a dozen tourists is nearly unprecedented. Terror over the last couple years in Tunisia has been mostly small-scale and mostly targeted the state. 2002 did see a deadly terror attack against tourists at a synagogue and 2013 saw an attempted bombing at a tourist hotel in the coastal city of Sousse, but Tunisia just doesn’t have the violent history its neighbors in North Africa do. Today’s successful attack, in a country where tourism is a huge industry, is going to have far-reaching consequences, no matter who turns out to have executed it.
The Islamic State, which has acquired affiliates in Libya, has been gaining followers in North Africa and eyeing Tunisia for some time now; another possibility would be al-Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters from the Maghreb. It’s possible the attackers were trained or at least gained experience fighting in Syria’s civil war — Tunisia has been one of the biggest sources of foreign fighters for that conflict. Both al-Qaeda-friendly and Islamic State–friendly social-media accounts have been promoting and praising the attack.