The hunt is on for three suspects whom the Tunisian government says are linked to the deadly terrorist attack at a museum in the North African nation’s capital.
Gunmen killed at least 19 people, most of them foreign tourists, in an assault on the Bardo Museum in the heart of Tunis on Wednesday, rattling a country widely seen as the lone democratic success story of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Two attackers were killed by Tunisian security forces who moved in to end the hostage siege, Prime Minister Habib Essid said. But he warned that three other suspects are still at large.
It was unclear what role the three remaining suspects played in the attack.
“It’s a cowardly attack mainly targeting the economy of Tunisia,” Essid said. “We should unite to defend our country.”
Tourists ‘running in different directions’
Another 20 foreign tourists and two Tunisians were wounded in the violence, he said. The dead included citizens of Colombia, France, Italy, Japan, Poland and Spain, as well as at least one Tunisian security officer.
The tourism industry is a key part of Tunisia’s economy, with millions of foreigners visiting the country each year. The attackers struck a popular cultural attraction situated close to the country’s parliamentary building.
Lawmakers there were in the middle of a committee meetings when they heard the gunfire erupt.
“The tourists were frightened and they were running in different directions. We opened the doors and we got them to enter to the Parliament,” lawmaker Mehrezia Labidi told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
An administrator told lawmakers to lay down on the ground as a gun battle broke out between terrorists and police, said Sabrine Ghoubatini, a member of parliament.
Was ISIS involved?
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack so far. Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told national radio that the attackers were Islamists, but authorities haven’t been more specific than that.
The siege took place just days after a Tunisian jihadist tweeted that a pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, was coming soon, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist propaganda.
In his message, the jihadist claimed to belong to Jund al-Khilafah in Tunisia, a group that in December pledged allegiance to ISIS, even though that vow hadn’t seemed to have fully registered with the Islamist extremist group. His post comes after an ISIS fighter in the extremist group’s stronghold of Raqqa in Syria recently appeared in a video questioning why militants in Tunisia had not pledged fealty.
“This raises the possibility that the museum attack could be ISIS’ debut on the Tunisian stage, timed to precede a pledge of allegiance from Tunisian jihadis for maximum impact,” CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said.
The attack was celebrated by ISIS supporters online, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility from the group, which refers to itself as the Islamic State.
“It appears likely that this was an attack by the Islamic State but we have to remember that there are also other possibilities,” said Christopher Chivvis, a security expert at the RAND Corporation. “It could have been Ansar al Shariah in Tunisia, which is a local group. It could have been al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
Arab Spring success story
Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, has managed to avoid the chaos that engulfed Libya or the military seizure of power that derailed Egypt’s democratic experiment.
“Tunisia is the sole country to have emerged from an Arab Spring revolution with its political process intact,” Jon Marks, a North Africa expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said in a commentary for CNN.
While some more moderate Islamists have participated in the process, extremists have made threats against “Tunisia’s outward-looking, investment-friendly majority,” Marks wrote.
The government has been battling a jihadist presence in the Chaambi Mountains. There have been several apparent political assassinations.
And in February, the country’s Interior Ministry announced the arrests of about 100 alleged extremists and published a video allegedly showing that the group possessed a formula for making explosives and a photograph of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Up to 3,000 Tunisians are believed to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight as jihadists, more than any other country, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in London.
Fears for tourism industry after attack
It will take time for the effects of the museum attack on Tunisia’s delicate transition to become clear. The country has had to navigate challenges like high youth unemployment after emerging from decades of dictatorship.
“The Tunis tragedy is unlikely to have any immediate impact on the political process,” Marks said. “A majority of Tunisians remain foursquare behind preserving ‘republican institutions,’ even if they vocally disagree on the detail of policy.”
But analysts are concerned about the impact on the economy and the severity of any response from security forces.
“The museum attack is the biggest crisis faced by Tunisia since the revolution,” CNN’s Cruickshank says. “It is likely to significantly impact Tunisia’s tourism industry, worsening the economic outlook and increasing the sense of frustration on which extremists thrive.”
Mohammed Ali Troudi, a taxi driver in Tunis, told CNN that he believed the terrorists wanted to harm the economy by scaring away tourists.
“They hit the heart of our livelihood,” he said.
Cruickshank said there is also concern that “Tunisian security forces, traumatized by the attack on the capital, could once again embrace repression in their struggle to contain the jihadi threat.”