March 20, 2015
Desknote: ISIS Signals Tunisian Presence with Bardo Museum Attack
A militant Islamist attack in Tunis on March 18 that killed at least 20 foreigners represents a major inflection point in a country where terrorist attacks are rare. Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, and if confirmed, it would signify the arrival of ISIS’s presence in Tunisia. This attack is the deadliest in the country since a 2002 al Qaeda-linked attack on a Tunisian synagogue and signals the capacity to launch coordinated assaults in populated areas, which al Qaeda-linked groups have failed to do since 2002.
The details of the attack are still forthcoming. At least two gunmen reportedly dressed in military uniforms opened fire on tourists exiting a bus at the popular Bardo Art Museum in downtown Tunis before chasing the tourists into the museum and holding them hostage on March 18. Italians, Spaniards, Brits, French, Colombians and Japanese were among the casualties. Tunisian security forces killed two of the gunmen and arrested four people suspected of being “directly linked” to the attack and another five suspected of having “ties” to the attackers. ISIS released an audio statement the day after the attack claiming responsibility for the attack saying it was “the first drop of the rain” and gave the noms de guerre of the attackers as Zakarya al Tunisi and Abu Anas al Tunisi, but offered no information to confirm the claim. The Tunisian Secretary of State for Security said the two gunmen travel to Libya last December and trained at camps there. A Tunisian source specified that both gunmen spent two months at a training camp in Derna, Libya, which is an ISIS stronghold.
ISIS’s claim of responsibility remains unconfirmed, but ISIS or pro-ISIS groups are likely behind the attack. It is possible the Uqba ibn Nafaa Brigade, an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-linked group based in Tunisia’s mountainous Kasserine Province, is responsible, as multiple unconfirmed reports in Tunisian press claimed the militants were members of the group. The style of the attack is more characteristic of ISIS than of the Uqba ibn Nafaa Brigade, however, which has historically focused on Tunisian security targets.
There is additional evidence supporting the conclusion that ISIS planned or inspired the attack. Tunisia is the largest source of foreign fighters to both ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra in Syria. There is a possibility that at least one of the gunmen had traveled to or had contact with someone who had been in Iraq. A Tunisian security source said the identities of the gunmen, who were killed during the attack, are Tunisians Jabeur Khachnaoui and Yassine Laabidi. Khachnaoui had been missing for the last three months and was using an Iraqi SIM card. The EU foreign policy chief blamed ISIS for the attack, but did not offer any evidence to back the claim. Further, a number of pro-ISIS social media accounts praised the attack almost immediately after it happened.
A pro-ISIS group emerged in Tunisia in recent months. A group calling itself “the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Tunisia” pledged allegiance to ISIS in December 2014. The group has yet to claim responsibility for an attack and its strength is unclear. Soldiers of the Caliphate released a message through Afriqiyah Media, a pro-ISIS jihadi media group with links to the Uqba ibn Nafaa Brigade, that may have forecasted the Bardo Museum attack three days before it occurred. The message said, “Wait for the glad tidings of what will bring you joy and bring joy to the Muslims in general, soon,” and was a response to an ISIS video by a Tunisian fighter in Syria calling for Tunisians to pledge loyalty to ISIS. Afriqiyah Media also released an unattributed detailed statement analyzing the Bardo attack on the same day it happened. There were rumors that the Uqba ibn Nafaa Brigade may be pro-ISIS as well, although the group denied any allegiance to ISIS and reaffirmed its connection to AQIM. Since ISIS’s recent expansion into Libya, rumors have also spread about ISIS sleeper cells expanding into Tunisia. A number of Tunisians are known to be fighting in Libya, possibly alongside ISIS-affiliated groups, such as former prominent Ansar al Sharia Tunisia (AST) official, Ahmed Rouissi, who recently died fighting alongside ISIS in Sirte, Libya. Furthermore, multiple Western and local sources have claimed AST leader Saifallah ben Hassine defected to ISIS with Rouissi while in Libya and is coordinating AST-ISIS operations and recruiting in Tunisia.
The Bardo Museum attack and recent militant activity, coupled with ISIS’s claim of responsibility, shows that the conflict in Libya may begin to seriously undermine security in Tunisia. Reports that the attackers trained in Libya is a worrying omen, as there is believed to be several thousand Tunisian militants fighting in Libya. This attack would mark the first known ISIS attack in Tunisia, and could indicate that rumored ISIS communication with AST and the Uqba ibn Nafaa Brigade are true.