Tunisia museum attack claimed by Islamic State

Group releases audio praising two militants as Tunisian officials deploy army to cities

Footage emerges on social media showing armed Tunisian security personnel in black uniforms outside the museum before the attack was ended earlier on Wednesday. Video: Yassine Abidi/Reuters

 

Tunisia said it would deploy the army to major cities and arrested nine people after 20 foreign tourists were shot dead at a museum in the capital in an attack claimed by Islamic State (IS).

Officials did not confirm the claim, but said they had identified the two militants shot dead by security forces after opening fire on tourist buses visiting the Bardo museum inside Tunisia’s heavily guarded parliament compound on Wednesday.

Japanese, Italian, Spanish and British visitors, as well as three Tunisians, were among the victims.

The assault was the most deadly attack involving foreigners in Tunisia since a 2002 suicide bombing in Djerba.

IS, which has declared a caliphate in large parts of Iraq and Syria and is active in Tunisia’s neighbour Libya, praised the two attackers in an audio recording in Arabic, calling them “knights of the Islamic State”.

Tunisians make up one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Their homeland, which has cracked down on militancy at home, was seen as a potential target.

The two dead militants were identified as Tunisians Hatem al-Khashnawi and Yassin al-Abidi. Two local newspapers reported that Abidi had spent time in Iraq and Libya, but officials did not confirm this.

Tunisia’s prime minister Habib Essid said Abidi had been under surveillance.

“We have identified them, it is indeed these two terrorists,” the Tunisian premier told French RTL radio.

Authorities said they had arrested four people directly linked to the attack and five others with indirect ties. A security source said two family members of one of the gunmen were among those held. “

We arrested the father and the sister of the terrorist Hatem Al-Khashnawi in the their home in Sbiba City,” the source told reporters.

Army deployed

The president’s office said the army would be deployed to the streets as part of increased security following the attack.

“After a meeting with the armed forces, the president has decided large cities will be secured by the army.”

The number of foreign tourists killed rose to 20 from 17, the Tunisian minister for health said.

The UK government said a British woman was among the dead in shootings it said were cowardly and despicable.

Tunisian security forces are battling Islamist militants at home, including Ansar al-Sharia, which is listed as a terrorist group by the US, and Okba Ibn Nafaa, a brigade of al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters operating in the Chaambi mountains along the Algerian border.

The fight against these militants may have played a role in prompting the museum attack, according to Geoff Porter, security analyst at North Africa Risk Consulting.

“Increasing pressure on terrorist activities in the Djebel Chaambi region may have squeezed the balloon, with terrorists seeking softer targets with more symbolic impact.”

A social media account linked to Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade also provided details of the attack, without a direct claim of responsibility.

The attack appeared squarely aimed at Tunisia’s economy, with tourism accounting for seven percent of gross domestic product.

Tourist fatalities

Those killed included Sally Adey, (57), from Shropshire, who was with her husband, Robert, at the time of the attack. He is believed to have been unharmed.

The couple had been passengers on the MSC Cruises vessel Splendida and were visiting the Bardo museum during a stop-off in Tunis.

MSC confirmed that the Adeys had been among 79 UK passengers – as well as 10 from the Republic of Ireland – aboard the Splendida. The company, which has suspended stops in Tunis for its vessels, said Mr Adey was receiving support from the MSC Cruises customer care team in Tunis.

It added: “We will be extending all possible support to him and his family. At this tragic time, the entire MSC Cruises family wishes to extend its most sincere and heartfelt condolences to all those who were affected by this tragic event and are suffering as a result, in particular to the families and friends of those who lost their lives as well as the injured ones.”

The Splendida had left its home port of Genoa in Italy on a seven-night cruise last Saturday. The Bardo museum has one of the most important collections in the Mediterranean and traces Tunisia’s history over thousands of years through archaeological pieces.

Julia Holden, a close friend of the Adey family, issued a statement on their behalf. She said: “Sally Adey was a much-loved daughter, wife and mother. The family are devastated by her loss. They are also saddened for others who have lost people they love, and for those who have been hurt.”

Another couple who had also been on board the Splendida and were feared dead, a Spanish man and his pregnant wife who were feared dead, have been found “safe and well” after hiding in the museum for almost 24-hours.

British prime minister David Cameron said: “These terrorist attacks yesterday in Tunisia were an appalling and brutal outrage. I can confirm that one of those killed was a British citizen and our heart goes out to her family. We will do everything we can to help the family at this very difficult time.”

Two German tour operators said they were cancelling trips from Tunisia‘s beach resorts to Tunis for a few days and Accor, Europe‘s largest hotel group, said it had tightened security at its two hotels in Tunisia. Italy‘s Costa Cruises, a unit of Carnival Corp CCL.N, cancelled stops in Tunisia.

Reuters/PA