Seven foreign tourists and a security official were among the 19 people who died Wednesday when at least five terrorists attacked the famed Bardo museum in Tunis.
In early years at the Bardo, Jewish antiquities were highlighted in the “Judaica Hall” which adjoined a museographic arrangement deployed in the great Iwan hall of the Tunisian palace, arranged by Louis Poinssot in 1932. Poinssot also reorganized the Christian department with newly-laid mosaics on its ground, and created an Islamic department in the pillared hall on the same ground floor.
As tourists gazed on the myriad wonders of the museum, however, gunmen dressed in military fatigues stormed the Bardo, killing and holding dozens of people hostage for a three hour period. Two of the terrorists were later killed by Tunisian armed forces, who freed the hostages. Three others escaped and were still at large Wednesday night local time, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. At least 20 people were wounded in the melee.
The attack was hailed on Twitter accounts aligned with Daesh, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, as “ghazwat Tunis” – the “raid of Tunis.” Pro-Daesh accounts tweeted kudos to the attackers.
But no terror group had officially claimed responsibility for the attack by midnight. Thousands of Tunisian citizens have traveled abroad to fight for Daesh, however, though the group has not gained a foothold in Tunisia, an Arab nation that remains home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, on the island of Djerba.
The death earlier this week of Tunisian-born Daesh field commander Ahmed Al-Rouissi, 48, may have been the trigger for Wednesday’s attack. Al-Rouissi, also known as Abu Zakariya al-Tunisi, was high on Tunisia’s “Most Wanted List” for his role in assassinating politicians there. Al-Rouissi led a cohort of Daesh fighters in Libya and was killed in clashes with Libyan soldiers near Sirte, the stronghold of the late dictator, Muammar Qaddafi.
Daesh and Libya Dawn – a second radical Islamist group – are struggling for terrorist supremacy, while both are fighting with government forces in a situation similar to that in Syria.
Tunisian Interior Ministry officials said the Tunis terror operation began at around midday local time, Wataniya TV reported. Three Polish nationals were among the wounded, according to the Polish foreign ministry.
Two Italian nationals also may have been wounded, according to one report; according to the Italian foreign ministry, 100 of that nation’s citizens were confirmed safe and rescued from a tour in the museum.
“This is a black day for Tunisia,” said Karim Ben Sa’a, a tourism official. “We are very sad for these tourists. They visit our country and it is so, so sad to see them die. Our hearts are black.”
The museum, located in the heart of the Tunisian capital, is also a strategic target in that it shares the Bardot palace complex with the nation’s parliament. Police checkpoints were set up outside the offices of the nearby UK British Council.
While the parliament was immediately evacuated during the crisis, MP Sayida Ounissi tweeted, “We are not afraid.”
The attack follows a series of anti-terror activities by the Tunisian government. Last month more than 30 suspected terrorists were arrested, including a number who had returned from fighting in Syria, and some who allegedly were planning “spectacular” attacks, officials said at the time. Counter-terror forces also reportedly foiled attacks against “vital installations” in the country, including the interior ministry and civilian sites in Tunis.
It also came a day after Tunisia announced the results of a major sting operation in which a large number of weapons were seized from radical Islamist terror organizations.