“A Normal Day.” This is the headline Afriqiyah Media, a media group that has announced its allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), used for an article in which it described the stages of the terrorist attack against Tunisian citizens and foreigners at the Bardo archaeological museum on March 18, 2015. Yet, this was no ordinary day in the life of Tunisians; it was different by all measures. Feelings of shock and fear were mixed with certainty that such things not only happen to others, but also happen here, and in a brutal manner that has made Tunisians reconsider their view of things.
On the morning of March 18, the Bardo Museum, which is adjacent to the Tunisian parliament’s headquarters, opened its doors to tourists, MPs and journalists.
The day seemed normal until midday, when the entry of two tourist buses coincided with heavy gunfire that randomly targeted those present. A total of 18 people were killed, including a Tunisian, in addition to 43 wounded of various nationalities.
After news about the terrorist attack spread on social media sites, a large number of Tunisians arrived to follow up on the event from up close. Despite security efforts to surround the location and prevent the crowd from approaching, an increasing number of people arrived to monitor the performance of the army and security forces, amid applause, rallying cries, screams of hostages, the sounds of gunfire and bombs and the roar of helicopters. The operation to free the hostages and eliminate the terrorists ended at 3 p.m., and the following day Tunisia found itself exhausted and at a new security and political turning point. This comes after the country had become the focus of the world’s attention, which was bewildered as it supported a country that had succeeded in its first steps toward freedom and democracy, yet at the same time dealt cautiously with a tourist destination that was no longer safe.
The involvement of al-Qaeda
After IS claimed responsibility for the Bardo attack, the next day Tunisian Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli announced that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was involved in the operation, which was carried out by an affiliated cell active in Tunisia called the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade. The interior minister confirmed that security forces had detained 80% of the members of this cell, which included two Moroccans and an Algerian who are still on the run. The cell also included two people who had returned from Syria, and three others who had participated in the fighting in Libya.
The Interior Ministry revealed the identity of some members of the cell, including its head, a Tunisian citizen named Mohamed Amin Kebili. The ministry also identified the two terrorists killed during the attack, Yassin al-Obeidi, 27, who lived in a lower-income neighborhood of the capital, and Jaber al-Khashnawi, 21, from the Kasserine governorate. The state clerk at the Ministry of Interior, Rafic al-Shili, announced to the press that this cell included 16 individuals assigned to different tasks, including transferring arms, monitoring the location of the operation and deliberating about the timing of the attacks.
While the Ministry of Interior provided information regarding the timing of the operation, as well as its organizers and perpetrators, questions remained concerning how the terrorists infiltrated the walls of the museum. The responsibility of the security authorities has been called into question throughout the past week concerning how three terrorists entered into the headquarters housing the museum and the parliament, which is guarded by more than 30 security members, in addition to the presence of a police barracks across from the gate through which the terrorist entered. This has led some to consider what happened a massive failure for the security forces, foretelling more security failures in the future.
This security predicament led a number of the countries whose citizens were among the victims, including France, to send special teams to participate in the ongoing investigations into the security mistakes that led to the occurrence of this disaster.
Meanwhile, the Tunisian interior minister dismissed seven officials from their posts, awaiting the results of the investigations. All of the surveillance cameras were inside the museum and did not record what happened outside, especially concerning the way the terrorists infiltrated the site despite the large security presence.
The border with Libya
In a televised statement, Shili confirmed that the perpetrators of the Bardo Museum attack were two extremist Salafists who left the country in December 2014 to travel to Libya, where they joined weapons training camps in the Libyan cities of Misrata, Benghazi and Derna.
The lack of security control over the Tunisian-Libyan border is considered one of the most prominent weaknesses of the security authorities in Tunisia. In addition to the region of Libya bordering Tunisia transforming into a hotbed for terrorist groups and their training camps, the increase in the smuggling of goods between the two countries and the inability of the security forces to control it has contributed to a sharp increase in supplying terrorists in Tunisia with supplies and weapons. Tunisian police recently discovered weapons caches in the southern regions of Tunisia. Despite the great efforts made by the army and the national guard to secure the border, the expertise of smugglers — who are natives of the border areas with crossings into Libya — has made the task of monitoring them very complicated.
During televised remarks following the terrorist attack, security officials acknowledged the state’s inability to protect the Tunisian-Libyan border effectively, thus facilitating the movement of terrorists who were in Syria and Libya into Tunisia through various means. Calls to close the Tunisian-Libyan border permanently have recently been issued in Tunisia, especially since the number of Libyans living in Tunisia has exceeded 2 million, which has weakened the country without having any notable economic returns.
A directed blow
As of the writing of this article, the Tunisian Interior Ministry has not provided precise information concerning the target of the terrorist attack, and whether the terrorists were working to target tourists or the MPs in the adjacent parliament building. In any case, national and international public opinion viewed this operation as a painful blow to tourism and the economy in Tunisia. Following the attack, a French newspaper even published an article titled “Tunisia has ended, and tourism has ended.”
However, Tunisians quickly took action to try to reduce the impact of this attack and spread the message that this operation will in no way affect Tunisia’s relations with its friends in the world. On the contrary, they stressed that the country needs support now more than ever. Although a few thousand tourist bookings were canceled, hundreds of thousands of messages of support for Tunisia ignited social media sites from across the world, including messages from Arab and foreign artists, athletes and politicians.
Tunisia has also received support from senior politicians throughout the world, including presidents, ministers, party representatives and senior economic officials. During her visit to Tunisia, the managing director of the World Bank Group, Mulyani Indrawati, stressed the determination of the global economic powers to support the Tunisian government and help it overcome the crises and to entrench development.
Tunisians are well aware of the importance of the tourism sector for their country’s economy, as it contributes to 7% of the GDP by providing $1.6 billion annually. Moreover, it is second only to farming in the number of workers it employs. Despite the fears of experts in this field and their confirmation of the danger the implications this event will have on the sector, Minister of Tourism Selma Elloumi stressed that the effects of this attack were very limited in terms of numbers, and the number of canceled bookings was of little importance.
Tunisia also benefited from the arrival of approximately 60,000 participants in the World Social Forum, which directed thousands of its attendees to the Bardo Museum to express their rejection of terrorism and affirm their belief that Tunisia is a country of security, peace and brotherhood.
After Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, so-called jihadists have started thinking about making Tunisia a new arena for war, taking another turn. Through the successive posts broadcast by jihadist websites, it is clear that Tunisia has become a target. Jihadists want to shift the battles to Tunisian land, which they consider to have been usurped by the secularists and “apostates” who refuse to implement the law of God. It also appears that “hidden hands” are very interested in this happening, especially after Tunisia’s success in completing the transitional path, holding democratic elections and forming a national unity government that has already begun to actually look into the country’s outstanding issues. This success, which confounded jihadist organizations and international forces supporting them, comes with a price, and here Tunisia is paying it with the courage of those who only desire progress and change in front of the specter of terrorism, which toppled the balance of major countries and claimed hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.
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