Despite boasting one of the lowest gun-ownership rates in the world, Wednesday’s Bardo museum shooting in Tunis is hardly an isolated incident in Tunisia’s history. Over the last couple of years, the North African country has experienced sporadic jihadist attacks that render Wednesday morning’s hostage situation in Tunis slightly less shocking, although no less tragic. As BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner notes, "this attack did not come out of the blue."
Last year, an attack by dissidents that killed 14 soldiers in the Chaambi Mountains (in the extreme west of Tunisia), was one of several incidents that prompted the UK government to issue a travel warning to British tourists. “Our advice makes clear that there is a high threat from terrorism in Tunisia,” a Foreign and Commonwealth official said. The warning advised against all but essential travel to several regions across the country.
According to Gardner, the casualties of Tunisian terror attacks are steadily increasing. Twenty-two people were killed in attacks in 2013, 45 in 2014, and 23 already this year — including those involved in the Bardo Museum incident. “In all cases,” Gardner writes, “the perpetrators are believed to be jihadists.” He points out that Tunisian recruits make up a disproportionately large number of ISIS foreign fighters, with more than 3,000 Tunisians apparently fighting for the terrorist group.
In January 2011, unprecedented street protests in Tunisia resulted in a popular revolution that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s unchallenged leader for more than twenty years, and instigated the tumultuous ongoing events of the Arab Spring. A new government was installed, and a constitution drafted in January 2014. Nevertheless, the political situation in the country remained tense.
In the lead-up to the 2014 elections, Al Arabiya News reported a heightened perceived risk of terrorist activity. Political analysts worried that such attacks could severely affect voter turnout. “We can no longer say that terrorism is just one of Tunisia’s problems,” one analyst told Al Arabiya. “It is now a primary issue especially today when we are finally approaching the parliamentary and presidential elections.” Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a lawyer and member of the liberal Nida Tounes political party, told the publication that Tunisia might be targeted because it represents “the only successful example” of Arab revolutions.
Nida Tounes went on to win the mostly peaceful election, after running on an overtly anti-Islamist platform, according to The Guardian. At the time of Wednesday's attack, the Tunisian government was meeting to discuss anti-terrorism legislation. BBC's Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher agrees that the attacks are designed to derail fragile democratic institutions in the country — which has only recently emerged from a state of emergency imposed in 2011. Last year, The Yemen Times noted that the country’s lack of security and heightened incidence of terrorist attacks were having an adverse effect on the nation’s already-struggling economy.
Most of Tunisia’s terrorism incidents are blamed on Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafist organization that emerged after the 2011 revolution and has been accused of liaising with al Qaeda. In 2013, the movement was branded a terrorism organization by the Tunisian government. That year, the U.S. embassy in Tunis noted "a marked increase in the number of incidents fueled by violent extremism." Most attacks targeted the military or police force, but in one incident a man blew himself up in the resort town of Sousse. The nation’s security forces are currently battling armed fighters in the remote western regions of the country, close to the Algerian border.
But Tunisia’s terrorism troubles extend further back than the revolution and the emergence of Ansar al-Sharia. An attack by al Qaeda in 2002 left 21 people (including eleven German holidaymakers) dead, after a bomb exploded at a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. “Long after the blast at Djerba, Tunisian officials continued to deny the possibility of terrorism,” a Guardian report noted five months after the attack.
The Bardo museum assault has highlighted the very real threat posed by terrorism in the country. BBC notes that the deteriorating situation in neighboring Libya could make Tunisia even more vulnerable to terror attacks in the future.
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