President Beji Caid Essebsi vowed to fight terrorism “without mercy” following the attack against the Bardo Museum in central Tunis on 18 March that killed 23 people, including 20 foreign tourists (see that day’s Special Report). Thousands of people also protested in the capital against the shootings, which a broadcast by Islamic State’s (IS) main radio channel on 19 March credibly claimed was conducted by fighters loyal to the group.
Essebsi’s comments indicate that the Government will intensify its campaign against suspected jihadist groups and their supporters. Since coming to
Tunis will hope that by demonstrating its resolve to improve security, it will reassure foreigners and limit the impact of this attack on the tourism industry; the stock exchange has already dropped 2.5% and two German tour operators have suspended trips to the capital from coastal resorts. However, a crackdown will increase support for militants in the country’s Salafist-jihadist community, who already perceive the Government as pursuing an anti-Islamist agenda, and this will raise the risk of further attacks.
Jihadists will prioritise Government and security targets to retaliate for the crackdown and portray themselves as defending Islam against a secular regime. However, the risk to foreigners has now increased and will be ongoing since pro-IS fighters believe that damaging the tourism industry will undermine political stability and security, giving them greater opportunities to increase support. IS’s radio broadcast referred to the attackers as members of the Caliphate, which suggests that the group is looking to expand its activities in Tunisia to destabilise the country and thereby help it seize territory in the longer-term. There are hundreds of Tunisian volunteers fighting with the group in Syria and Iraq, and so their eventual return home will also increase the threat to foreigners and risk further undermining the country’s security environment.