Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 04/2015

TSG IntelBrief: Terrorism Strikes in Tunis

March 2015

The Soufan Group


• The brazen terrorist attack in the heart of Tunis, at the Bardo National Museum, is the most serious attack to take place in Tunisia since 2002, and presents the tourism-dependent country with serious challenges in how to respond effectively and proportionately

• Such an attack was nearly inevitable, given the disproportionately large number of Tunisians who have traveled to fight with the Islamic State, as well as being squeezed in a vise of extremism with Libya to the east and Algeria to the west

• There have been no claims of responsibility but there is no shortage of plausible suspects, with both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb active in the country

• There will likely be more attacks in Tunisia, though perhaps of a smaller but equally destabilizing nature, as the government increases pressure on networks, leaving the field open for Charlie Hebdo-styled attacks which are harder to disrupt given the smaller numbers of actors.


Tunisia became the latest country to suffer a serious terrorist attack likely related to the extremist cancer spreading from the violent conflicts in Iraq and Syria. The ambush shooting of tourists getting off a bus in front of the famous Bardo National Museum in the heart of Tunis killed at least 20 foreign tourists, a Tunisian police officer, and a museum worker. This is the worst terrorist attack in Tunisia since the al-Qaeda-directed 2002 suicide truck bombing of the el-Ghariba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

The type of attack at the museum, which involved perhaps five gunmen using Kalashnikov rifles and grenades, was brazen and shocking, but that it happened is unfortunately not shocking given the conditions in and around the country. External and internal factors have combined to make such an attack almost inevitable. The Bardo attack was consistent with the new "terror spectacular," where low-tech and relatively low-scale attacks (compared to more complicated attacks with explosives or 9/11-sized coordination) create large-scale reactions and repercussions.

No other country has seen more of its citizens, estimated at 3,000, travel to Syrian and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State. An estimated 500 have returned, presenting security services with a tremendous challenge. Sadly, it's not just the potential fighters returning home to continue the fight that is going to prove problematic for the Tunisian government to handle effectively-even though that by itself is no small task. Rather, Tunisia is being squeezed by violent extremism that will tighten as long as current trend lines persist. The vise is made up of the worst terrorist groups, with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) battling to take advantage of the regional instability. There are unconfirmed reports that one of the attackers has an Ansar al-Sharia flag in his pocket, while Islamic State Twitter has been mentioning statements made by the group warning of something happening soon. However, it's as hard as ever to tell between propaganda and reality. There has been no claim of yet outside Twitter enthusiasm but the modern violent extremist trend is "motivation over affiliation," making group attribution important but not paramount since individuals and small groups are acting on the ideology regardless of the larger group.

The eastern hinge of the vise is Libya, which has managed to deteriorate even more from its already violent, chaotic state, presents an immediate and long-term problem for Tunisia. Aside from the normal dangers of having a failed state as a neighbor, the Islamic State is making a serious push in the country. Libya is the perfect breeding ground for terrorism; the Islamic State will find it easier to plan and operate in Libya than it will to take over the country, and use the sanctuary to launch attacks into Tunisia. There is no realistic scenario that sees Libya stabilize to any meaningful degree in the foreseeable future-a future that ensures the Islamic State can continue to use its Libyan and Tunisian fighters. The loss of Ahmed al-Rouissi, a leader in Tunisia's Ansar al-Sharia terrorist group who was fighting with the Islamic State when he was killed in the Libyan city of Sirte, won't dramatically hurt the group's ability to project power across the border.

The western hinge of the vise that threatens Tunisia is Algeria, which has long been a source of instability given the presence of AQIM. The border area between the two has seen persistent attacks on government and police personnel. Last July, an attack by the Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade of AQIM killed 14 Tunisian policemen in Kasserine, an area known for endemic extremism. There are unconfirmed reports that one of the Bardo museum attackers was an individual named Jabar al-Khashnawi from Kasserine. With AQIM and the Islamic State competing for members and to conduct more operations, Tunisia faces serious challenges.

The repercussions for this attack will be significant for several reasons. Firstly, the attack was aimed at the heart of the Tunisian economy: tourism, an industry that reacts quickly and negatively to security concerns but that takes a long time to recover once the perception of insecurity is set. Indeed, the last terrorist attack in an Arab country that deliberately targeted foreign tourists on this scale was the 1997 attack in Luxor, Egypt, which greatly hurt the tourist economy of the area. The foreign victims of the Bardo attack came from France, Italy, Japan, Columbia, and Australia-ensuring that the fallout will be widespread and lingering.

Secondly, the large number of returning or soon-to-return foreign fighters from Syria and Libya, along with the instability on both the east and the west, mean this problem will likely get worse before it gets better. The challenge will be to effectively deal with the threat while not creating more tension in a country that is politically and socially already far too tense.