The Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for Wednesday's deadly attack on the National Bardo Museum, which left 21 people dead — including two gunmen and 18 foreign tourists — in the Tunisian capital.
In an audio recording issued Thursday, IS praised the two gunmen involved in the terrorist operation and warned of more bloodshed. The group also confirmed that the museum was the target of the attack, ending speculation that the neighboring Parliament could have been the gunmen's original focus.
Speaking to French radio RTL, Tunisia's Prime Minister Habib Essid named the gunmen as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, adding that Laabidi, who hailed from a working-class neighborhood of Tunis, was "known to security services" and was being monitored. Khachnaoui came from the western town of Kasserine.
In a statement released Thursday, Tunisian President Béji Caid Essebsi said that authorities had arrested "four individuals directly involved in the [terrorist] operation and five others, on suspicion of being involved with the [terrorist] cell."
As he arrived in Brussels today for a meeting of the European socialist party, French president François Hollande said that a third French tourist may have been killed in the attack, and that France would be providing support to help the Tunisian authorities, including an anti-terror judge and several police officers. The Paris prosecutor's office has also opened an independent investigation into the attack — as is customary when French nationals are killed abroad.
Hundreds of Tunisians gathered Wednesday evening on Avenue Habib Bourguiba Avenue, in the center of Tunis, chanting, "Tunisia is free, terrorists out." Two Spanish tourists emerged unscathed from the museum Thursday, after hiding in a museum office overnight.
Many of the tourists killed in Wednesday's attack were traveling on Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises ships; both companies have since cancelled all stopovers in Tunis.
A fragile security
Wednesday's attack occurred as Tunisian deputies debated the country's new counterterrorism law in the national parliament, which adjoins the Bardo national art museum. According to political scientist Hasni Abidi, a reform of the national security laws is much needed in a country where "security has been subject to a certain level of uncertainty since the fall of Ben Ali," he said, referring to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, president from 1987 to 2011.
Speaking to VICE News on Thursday, Abidi said the attack could partly be blamed on "the catastrophic inheritance of [Ben Ali's] economic and security policies." Ever since the former dictator was overthrown in 2011, said Abidi, the country had witnessed a "demobilization" of its security forces.
According to Abidi, the new Tunisian government formed in January 2015 has shown "good will, but lacks resources — both legal or financial — to ensure the country's security." That sentiment is echoed by lawmakers, who were debating the issue at the time of the attack.
The ruling secularist Nidaa Tounes party was elected in January after a campaign that vowed to "bring the State back" and boost security to respond to the threat of militant Islam. "The government is expected to deliver on these issues," said Abidi, "but needs time to prove itself."
A blow to hope in the region
Tunisia's democracy has emerged as a beacon of hope for other Arab Spring countries, holding free elections since 2011 and introducing a constitution that grants equal rights to men and women.
The national unity government, formed by ruling party Nidaa Tounes, includes the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which rose to power in 2011. In 2013, Ennahda severed its ties with Salafist extremist group Ansar al-Sharia. On Thursday the party firmly "condemned the heinous terrorist crime" carried out at the Bardo museum.
Abidi told VICE News that the Tunisian government "needs Ennahda now more than ever, as an antidote against jihadist propaganda." No political party is "totally homogenous," said the analyst, and some radicalism persists within the party. But "those who advocate Jihad don't recognize themselves in Ennahda," said Abidi, adding that the new coalition had nonetheless led to "a certain political and media permissiveness" in the face of extremist rhetoric.
Tunisia is the leading provider of IS recruits — 3,000 according to official numbers — and some 500 Jihadists have allegedly returned to Tunisia after fighting alongside militants in Syria. The country has also come under increasing pressure from the Libyan Islamic State branch, a group formed in 2014, which counts many Tunisians in its ranks. The Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, a group affiliated with Islamist militant organization al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is considered to be one of the most dangerous militant groups currently operating in Tunisia.
The attack also deals a major blow to one of Tunisia's main industries. Tourism revenues make up 2 percent of the country's GDP, and provides jobs to 12 percent of the population. Already on a downward trend since 2011, experts have predicted that the attack could have a devastating impact on the Tunisia's tourism industry.
The Bardo museum is set to reopen its doors next Tuesday.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray