ISTANBUL — The so-called Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the murderous assault Wednesday on a landmark museum in Tunis that left 20 foreign tourists and three Tunisians dead, describing the attack by gunmen dressed in military uniforms as a “blessed invasion of one of the dens of the infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia.”
It said the attack was carried out by “two knights of the caliphate,” naming them as Abu Zakariya al Tunisi and Abu Anas al-Tunisi.
The attack is the biggest terror incident associated with the ISIS outside Iraq and Syria—prompting fears that more attacks are in the offing, not only in North Africa but in nearby Europe, by a group that until recently appeared focused on the Levantine region.
Only a few months ago American officials were arguing reassuringly that ISIS was focused to the exclusion of all else on the consolidation of its caliphate straddling the Levant—and therefore posed no immediate major transnational threat. But last month it released a video in which one of its minions threatened to attack “Rome,” meaning the West, and underscored the threat by beheading Egyptian Christians.
The claim of responsibility for the Tunis attack carried in an audio message posted on a forum used by the militant group came as Tunisian officials announced they had arrested nine people in connection with the attack on the Bardo Museum, five of them allegedly involved in the planning and logistics for the violence. The other four had “ties to the terror cell,” officials said.
Two gunmen were shot in the museum by security forces hours after the militants sprayed tourist buses outside with automatic gunfire and stormed the building holding several foreigners hostage. The authorities have named them as Tunisians Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui and say Laabidi was known to security services and was being monitored, raising questions about why he was still at large and able to participate in the deadly attack.
Jihadist sources tell The Daily Beast that both gunmen had recently been in eastern Libya and trained with the ISIS affiliate Mujahideen of Libya, which announced its formation last October in the eastern Libyan town of Derna. The group is thought to number about 800 fighters.
The importance ISIS is placing on North Africa was signaled last autumn when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dispatched his deputy in Syria, Abu Ali al-Anbari, a former major general in the Iraqi army, to orchestrate the final takeover of Derna, a city of 100,000 that has been a hotbed of Salafism since the 1990s. Mujahideen of Libya claimed responsibility for the beheadings last month in Libya of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.
"We tell the apostates who sit on the chest of Muslim Tunisia: Wait for the glad tidings of what will harm you, o impure ones, for what you have seen today is the first drop of the rain," the ISIS message said.
It remains unclear, though, whether the assault was directed and coordinated by ISIS strategists from their stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, or from Derna in Libya, or if the attack was more homegrown by an affiliate of the terror organization, allowing ISIS to claim overall credit. Tunisian authorities are avoiding being specific in their remarks about the affiliation of the assailants, with Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui refusing to go beyond describing them as “Islamists” and talking of just one terror cell.
Last December, a Tunisian jihadist group called Jund al-Khilafah announced its allegiance to ISIS. That pledge coincided with another video posted online by three Tunisian volunteers with ISIS warning that the country would not be secure “as long as Tunisia is not governed by Islam.” One of the fighters in the video was Boubakr Hakim, who is wanted in connection with the 2013 assassination of leftwing Tunisian politician, Chokri Belaid. Since December there has been a stream of jihadist tweets and chatter in militant forums about a likely terror attack—with strong hints that the targets would be cultural or foreigners.
That. Too, raises questions about whether the Tunisian security services should have been more alert and high-profile around landmark tourist sites—in this case one adjacent to the national parliament, where deputies were discussing new anti-terror legislation as the assault unfolded. The deputies were evacuated quickly by security forces. One Tunisian lawmaker, Sayida Ounissi, told BBC Radio that intelligence officials told him that the gunmen had originally planned to attack the parliament but had been prevented from doing so and changed their targets.
The counter-terror operation mounted to clear the gunmen from the museum and to rescue more than a dozen foreigners being held hostage by the militants also seems to have been less than efficient. The museum doesn’t appear to have been searched exhaustively once the security forces had regained control. A Spanish couple and a Tunisian security guard hid in the museum for 24 hours after the gunmen had been shot, not realizing the siege was over, according to Spain’s foreign minister, José García-Margallo.
The couple, Juan Carlos Sanchez and his wife Cristina Rubio, four months into a pregnancy, “spent the whole night hidden in the museum and didn’t even dare to use their cell phones, which is why we were unable to contact them,’’ García-Margallo told reporters.
They weren’t the only tourists who hid for hours during the attack and after. Shocked tourists said the gunmen were shooting at anything that moved in the fifteenth century museum. "After they entered the museum, I saw their faces: They were about 10 meters 32 away from me," Josep Lluis Cusido, the mayor of a small Spanish town told Spain's Cadena Ser radio station. “I managed to hide behind a pillar; there were unlucky people who they killed right there," he said, adding that he and his wife spent nearly three hours behind the pillar until they fled.
Despite shortfalls in the security operation Tunisian leaders are endeavoring to establish confidence — both among Tunisians and overseas—insisting they can defeat terrorism. Army units are being deployed to major cities across the country. Tunisia relies on foreign visitors and nearly half-a-million jobs are dependent on tourism, which has only recently started to recover from the 2011 Arab spring uprising that led to the ouster of dictator Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali.
But the country’s recently elected President Beji Caid Essebsi admitted in a statement that Tunisia was facing “exceptional circumstances,” adding, “terrorist operations have now moved from the mountains to the cities.” In recent months, Tunisian security forces have mounted a series of counter-terror operations, focusing partly on training camps in remote parts of the country.
At least half-a-dozen foreign tourists are still unaccounted for—including two Britons. Those killed include at least three Tunisians, including a police officer, five Japanese (the Japanese government says it has only confirmed the deaths of three); four Italians; two Colombians; and two Spaniards. One Pole, a Frenchman, an Australian and one British national were also killed, according to the Tunisian authorities. At least 40 people were wounded in the assault.
In an interview with RTL radio Thursday, Tunisia’s Prime Minister Habib Essi said Tunisian intelligence officials are coordinating with other governments to learn more about the attackers. Up to 3,000 people have left Tunisia to fight with ISIS in Syria and Iraq and Tunisian officials say at least 500 have returned.