Tunisia’s Interior Ministry has identified the man behind an attack that killed five people earlier this week, saying Thursday that he intentionally targeted a synagogue on the Mediterranean island of Djerba in a premeditated act. The ministry described the shooting as a “cowardly criminal attack” but refrained from calling it an act of terrorism.
On Tuesday, a member of the Tunisian national guard opened fire at the historic El-Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, killing three of his fellow guards and two civilians. At least 10 other people were injured in the attack, according to the ministry.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Interior Minister Kamel Fekih identified the assailant as Wissam Khazri, a member of the national guard stationed at the naval base in the island’s port town of Aghir. Fekih recounted the details of the attack, saying Khazri killed one of his colleagues at the base before seizing his weapon and moving to a schoolyard near the synagogue.
Khazri waited there for a police car to leave before entering the synagogue and shot the first victim at the site at 8:13 p.m. on Tuesday. Fekih said that he opened fire indiscriminately on the security guards before being surrounded and shot.
The French National Terrorism Prosecution Office has launched its own probe into the attack. Benjamin Haddad, who was French, was killed in the attack along with his cousin Aviel Haddad, who held dual Tunisian and Israeli citizenship.
The shooting coincided with the annual Jewish pilgrimage that is part of Lag Ba’omer celebration. Thousands of Jews from around the world gather at El-Ghriba synagogue, believed to be the oldest in Africa dating back 2,500 years.
Jews have lived on Djerba since 500 B.C., the Associated Press reported. Djerba’s Jewish population is one of North Africa’s biggest, although in recent years it declined to 1,500, down from 100,000 in the 1960s, AP said.
Each year, the pilgrimage revives a debate in Tunisia on normalization with Israel. Many parties have repeatedly called for criminalizing any normalization of relations with the Jewish state, accusing authorities of exploiting the pilgrimage to Djerba to further normalization. Tunisia and Israel do not have formal diplomatic relations, but Israelis can apply for a visa to travel to Djerba for the pilgrimage.
According to the London-based Minority Rights Group International organization, between 1,500 to 2,000 Jews currently live in Tunisia, with the majority believed to be concentrated in Djerba.
On Wednesday, President Kais Saied condemned the attack on the synagogue, calling it a “criminal and cowardly” act.
“I want to reassure the Tunisian people and the whole world that Tunisia will remain safe despite this type of attempt intended to disturb its stability,” he said during a meeting of the national security council.
During his electoral campaign in 2019, Saied, who has since cemented his one-man rule, labeled normalization with Israel “high treason.”