Terrorism and tourism: the two faces of Tunisia

A damaged bus is seen after an attack by gunmen on Tunisia’s national museum in Tunis March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Until the murderous attack on the Europeans visiting the Bardo Museum’s priceless collection of Roman mosaics, Tunisia seemed safe from Isil-inspired violence against both Westerners and Western civilization. Unlike other Arab Spring states, it has chosen between secularists and Muslim-inspired parties with elections rather than violence.

At least, 3,000 jihadis have gone to Syria and Iraq according to the Tunisian Interior Ministry. Others put the figure as high as 7,000. A couple of years ago I travelled on a plane from Tunis to Turkey with such a group of young men. They had an older sheikh to guide them. Strangely enough, given their deadly purpose, they were in high spirits, like schoolboys on their first trip abroad. Probably for some of them it was their first and last foreign journey.

Police officers are seen outside parliament in TunisPolice officers are seen outside parliament in Tunis March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

And over the last couple of years there has been a steady uptick in violence on the fringes of Tunisia itself. The Islamists recognise no borders so it is natural for them to flit across to and from Algeria despite efforts by both governments to control them. With Libya in chaos, the radicals have even more leeway.

Of course, Libya is so violent that it can hardly be called a safe haven for terrorists. Only yesterday one of Tunisia’s most wanted terrorists was killed in a firefight near Sirte in central Libya. Ahmed Rouissi was accused of murdering two secular politicians in Tunis before he fled south to join Isil fighters based in Gaddafi’s hometown, Sirte. Maybe the attack on the Bardo complex was revenge for his death. But probably his jihadi soulmates had already planned an atrocity at the museum: it has the perfect mix of Westerners and their cultural heritage for an Isil onslaught.

Killing nineteen innocent people might serve Isil’s purpose of trying to frighten away Tunisia’s tourist trade. But such murders seem to disgust all sections of Tunisian society. They may well reinforce the strong, secular forces which came back to power in last year’s elections…

It has all the markings of an Islamic State attack. At the moment (15:30 Eastern) they have not claimed it.

Just yesterday: Top Tunisian militant killed while fighting in Libya: TUNIS (Reuters) – One of Tunisia’s most wanted men, a senior commander of Islamic State militants in Libya, has been killed fighting with Libyan forces near the city of Sirte, Tunisian security sources said on Tuesday.

The death of Tunisian militant Ahmed Rouissi, who was fighting in Libya’s Islamic State ranks, confirms the growing importance of foreign fighters in the Libyan conflict, where two rival governments and armed forces battle for control.

Western governments and Libya’s North African neighbors are increasingly worried about Islamist militants, especially Islamic State allies, extending their foothold in the chaotic country just across the Mediterranean from Europe.

“According to the information we have, we can say Rouissi has been killed in the most recent fighting in Sirte,” a Tunisian security source said.

Libya is in chaos with two rival governments – one internationally recognized, the other set up in Tripoli after its forces took over the capital – that are fighting for control four years after a civil war ousted Muammar Gaddafi.