Deadly Shooting Rampage at Tunisian National Museum Leaves Birthplace of Arab Spring on Edge

March 19, 2015


Amna Guellali

director of the Tunisian office of Human Rights Watch.

A shooting rampage at Tunisia’s national museum has left 22 people dead — 20 foreign tourists and two Tunisians. Nearly 50 people were injured. The two gunmen began the attack by opening fire on tourists as they got off a bus and then chasing them inside the museum. The Bardo museum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tunis and is adjacent to the country’s Parliament building. The dead included residents of Japan, Italy, Colombia, Australia, France, Poland, Spain and Britain. It was the most serious attack in years in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began in 2011. In recent years, thousands of Tunisians have left the country to fight with the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya. In response to the attack, the Tunisian government has pledged to wage what it calls a "merciless war against terrorism." Thousands of Tunisians have marched in the streets to denounce the shooting. We are joined from Tunis by Amna Guellali, director of the Tunisian office of Human Rights Watch.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Tunisia, where gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed Tunisia’s national museum Wednesday, killing 20 foreign tourists and two Tunisians. Nearly 50 people were injured. Tunisian officials said the dead included residents of Japan, Italy, Colombia, Australia, France, Poland, Spain and Britain. It was the most serious attack in years in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began in 2011. The Bardo museum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tunis and is adjacent to the country’s Parliament building. The gunmen began the attack by opening fire on tourists as they got off a bus. Then they chased them inside the museum. Survivors of the attack described the scene inside the museum.

SURVIVOR: [translated] It’s hard to say. We were visiting the museum. Suddenly we hear loud noises. To start with, we thought it was a statue falling over. In fact, progressively, we realized that it was gunfire. So we were there, the four of us. We found another couple with children. We didn’t know what to do. We hid. We were on the top floor. After a while, the gunfire stabilized. There was a guide in the room, the mosaic room, who let us in. We waited for approximately one hour, sitting on the floor without moving, until the police forces intervened. At that point, they said, "You must run. You must run. Get out of here fast." Then they took us to the military barracks, which we’ve just left.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier today, Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid said neither of the two gunmen who were killed in the museum attack have been linked to any known terrorist group. One of the gunmen was said to be known to authorities. Tunisian officials said security forces are now searching for accomplices. In recent years, thousands of Tunisians have left the country to fight with the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Tunisia’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, promised to wage a merciless war against terrorism.

PRESIDENT BEJI CAID ESSEBSI: [translated] I can’t say anything other than this was a huge tragedy that has fallen on Tunisia, and there is no hope for these people, so Tunisia must stand strong against these militants and wipe them out.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now in Tunis from the site of yesterday’s attack is Amna Guellali. She is the director of the Tunisian office of Human Rights Watch.

Amna, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what you understand happened.


AMY GOODMAN: And who were the shooters?

AMNA GUELLALI: Well, according to the official account of what happened and the description also from eyewitnesses, around 12:00 p.m., at noon, two men, not wearing any military attire—as the first description of the events were saying, they were in plainclothes, normal civilian clothes, wearing—having, holding Kalashnikovs, entered into the main entrance, running into the main entrance of the big door to the museum, which is also the same door to the Parliament. And after a while, they started shooting immediately at the tourists. After shooting outside in the parking lot, they went inside the museum and took hostages and shot them, as well. In the meantime, the security forces were trying to liberate the hostages and launched an anti—the anti-attack operation on the two people, the two gunmen. And at 3:00, they declared that the operation was over and that they killed the two gunmen. Unfortunately, when the people and security forces went inside, they discovered the very ghastly picture of what happened, because there were many more people who were killed than what was initially expected or envisaged.

AMY GOODMAN: Amna, can you talk about the location of the museum next to the Parliament building? And what was happening inside the Parliament building? Did the shooters, the attackers, attempt to go into Parliament before they went to the museum?

AMNA GUELLALI: There are two entrances to the Parliament. One entrance is really the entrance to the Parliament, and there is a backdoor entrance, and this is the entrance from which—which is linked and adjacent to the Bardo museum. So what they did is—there is a big door, which is open. There are usually security guards, but apparently the two gunmen went into—inside, running. They were not stopped by anyone. And then, in—so, the Bardo museum, which is the location of the largest historical and archaeological artifact of the Roman Empire, one of the largest in the world, is very close and adjacent—it’s the same building, basically. Part of the building is dedicated to the Parliament and to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, so the Tunisian Parliament—that’s what the name of the Parliament is. And the other part is the museum. And they are communicating; there are communicating doors.

And what happened is that—so they entered inside the big door, where there is the entrance and then the parking lot. In front of the parking lot, there is the main door to the museum. They opened fire on the tourists coming out of the buses and the car—and the tourists’ cars. And going inside to the museum, they opened fire on them. They left eight people dead then, and then they went inside the museum.

Now, there are also some information from one of the main—the main Twitter account of the local branch of al-Qaeda in Tunis, which has kind of claimed responsibility for the attack and gave a very detailed account and description of what happened and the names of the two gunmen, and said that their original intent was to target the Parliament and to target the representatives, the MPs, but that when it became impossible to do that, they turned to the other target, which were the tourists, the closest target to them and the easiest one, since it was not protected at all, at least not to the level that it should have been.

AMY GOODMAN: Amna, the members of Parliament at the time were debating antiterrorism legislation?

AMNA GUELLALI: The Parliament is indeed reviewing and now reviewing a draft legislation on antiterrorism. This draft has been submitted already to the previous parliament, so the National Constituent Assembly. And they started voting and discussing it since July 2014. Then they stopped. They voted on several articles, and they stopped. What happens now is that there is a new draft, which is—normally, it will be submitted by the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Justice to the new Parliament. We don’t know yet what is the content of this law and whether it has some of the, you know, flaws of the previous antiterrorism law of 2003, whether it is—it has harsher sentences or harsher antiterrorism operation, exceptional powers to the security forces.

This is what the human rights community in Tunisia fears, is that in the aftermath of this attack there will be a more tightening of the security apparatus around antiterrorism operation and sweeping antiterrorism operations that could lead to some backsliding on rights. And the antiterrorism law is really at the heart of this challenge and at the heart of the stakes in Tunisia between the different political forces. And it’s a political debate that will now become really central, because many people are calling for the enactment of a harsher law, of a law that would lead, obviously, to establishing the death penalty against the alleged—people allegedly linked with terrorism. Now, the death penalty in Tunisia, there is a moratorium on it since '91. There is no one who was executed since that date. There are lots of elements now in the aftermath of the attack that could lead to a possible backsliding on rights, but this is a fear only, and it's not a reality yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Amna Guellali, it’s estimated upwards of 3,000 Tunisians have gone to fight with ISIS, with the so-called Islamic State. It’s disproportionately higher, I believe, than any other country for foreign recruits. Can you explain why you think that is?

AMNA GUELLALI: It’s very—it’s a very disturbing number, definitely something that makes Tunisians very perplexing. It’s very perplexing for Tunisians. The explanations are many and manyfold and very complex, although I don’t have one, you know, sided explanation for that. I think what happens is that it’s a phenomenon that started even before the fall of the Ben Ali regime. There were many Tunisians already fighting in Iraq since 2003. And some of them have been executed there. I think like the strength of the jihadist or Salafist movement in Tunisia started really to gain traction after the uprising. Obviously, for a while and for a moment in time, they had free hand to recruit. They had free hand to call for jihad in Syria and Iraq, until the authorities realized that this is going to have a very serious backlash on Tunisia, and started cracking down on the movement and declared—for example, one of the leading Salafist movement in Tunisia, Ansar al-Sharia, was outlawed in early—in the fall of 2013. So, this is one of the elements.

The other elements is also the desperation and the lack of any prospects, I think, also from the economic side in Tunisia, the fact that there are a lot of people who are disenfranchised. And even though some of the forces now of these young people joining ISIS are highly qualified, so they are not only people who are without education or from, you know, lower class. They can be from all walks of life, and they can be very highly qualified. But still, I think they don’t see what the country can afford them or give them in terms of prospects. And I think this is really going beyond Tunisia. I think maybe the numbers coming from Tunisia are alarming, but I think everywhere in the world, even in France now, we start hearing about thousands of people of—mainly from Muslim origins, but also many converts, who are going to join ISIS. It becomes a kind of—the illustration of the system, the breakdown of the system, and how there are no kind of hopes or no alternatives to violence in the world today. So I think we should look at it really from a broader perspective than Tunisia itself.

AMY GOODMAN: McClatchy News says some 4,000 fighters believed to be in Libya now from Tunisia and another 3,000 fighting in Syria and Iraq. This news just in, Amna: Authorities have arrested nine people in connection with the gun attack at the Bardo museum, four of the arrests directly related to the attack, five others were made under strong suspicion of relation to the attack. Amna Guellali, as we wrap up, next week the World Social Forum is being held in Tunis. That’s thousands and thousands of people from all over the world coming in to talk about the state of the world and to talk about issues of inequality. Can you talk about whether or not this will move forward and your concerns there?

AMNA GUELLALI: Apparently, the Social Forum, the World Social Forum, the organizers decided that they will keep the event, that they didn’t cancel it, so—which is really a very good sign for the country, because it means like they are still confident that there will be security. And I think now the authorities have had a wake-up call in order to really secure all the venues and all the places and all the sensitive locations, both for the World Social Forum and elsewhere.

I think the concerns mainly for Tunisia now is to keep the democracy and to keep the transition on track. Obviously, this kind of attacks can have an impact on rights and freedoms. There can be some kind of restrictions on some of the rights. So far, we didn’t hear from the government that they will declare the emergency state or anything else. There are no immediate measures which are taken so far which are too worrying. The president declared the total war on terror, which, obviously, sounds and rings some alarm bells. You know, when you hear about the total war on terror, it reminds us of the PATRIOT Act in the U.S. and some of the very bad laws and very bad practices of torture that were then—that were done for a decade now. And this is something that is worrying.

I think, on the political side, I don’t expect to have a big blow for the political dynamic in Tunisia, because now we have a coalition government. And this coalition government came after the presidential and legislative elections. It has brought together the modernist party, Nidaa Tounes, who won most—the majority of the seats, and al-Nahda party, which is the Islamist party. And I think the fact that al-Nahda and the Islamists are in the coalition government may give more stability now and avoid a total blowing of the political process. I think the government will definitely take some steps in order to counter any threat or any next threat that could arise. Unfortunately, the problem is that there are lots of arms, and they are discovering lots of arm cash everywhere in Tunisia. And it’s going to be a challenge for the government to find a way to counter these possible terrorist attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Amna Guellali, I want to thank you for being with us, director of the Tunisian office of Human Rights Watch, standing right near the site where the shooters first attacked the tourists and Tunisians who were just outside the museum, and then pushed them inside. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

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