Attack hit Tunisia where it hurt

Story highlights

  • Tunisia weathered the Arab Spring and has been buoyed by its tourism industry
  • Authors: The fedayeen-style attacks are an effort to spread fear and weaken the nation

Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." David Sterman is a research associate at New America.

(CNN)Wednesday's terrorist attack, which killed 23 people, hit Tunisia where it hurt by targeting its flourishing tourism industry.

The deadly attack on the prominent Bardo Museum near Tunisia's parliament in the country's capital, Tunis, is the latest instance of an armed assault carried out by gunmen willing to fight to the death, a tactic that has been widely adopted by jihadist terrorists in recent years, including in North Africa.
Such attacks mimic the 2008 Mumbai assaults in which 10 gunmen from Pakistan went on a rampage in the massive Indian port city. They took hostages and killed more than 160 people over a three-day period, in an attack that drew sustained global TV coverage. The gunmen attacked iconic Mumbai targets such as the Taj hotel, which is frequented by Westerners.
    Peter Bergen
    David Sterman
    The Mumbai gunmen embarked on their attack knowing that it was a "fedayeen" mission -- meaning "those who sacrifice themselves" -- and that they would probably fight to the death. Only one gunman survived.
    In this week's Tunisia attack, the gunmen took hostages, two gunmen died in the assault, and three survived and are being hunted by the Tunisian government.
    Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid said the attackers at the Bardo Museum had specifically targeted tourists to hurt the country's economy.
    This seems a likely outcome of the attack, as tourism is vital to Tunisia's economy, providing 15% of GDP.
    Tunisia is also the only country where the Arab Spring produced a successful, lasting democratic transition, making it attractive to tourists who are avoiding going to countries like Egypt, which did not weather the Arab Spring as well as Tunisia. Already, some tour companies are canceling excursions to Tunis.
    In January, in Tunisia's neighbor Libya, the local branch of ISIS mounted a similar attack on the upscale Corinthia Hotel in the capital, Tripoli. Two gunmen, one of them a Tunisian, killed 10 people, including an American. Both gunmen died in the attack.
    This attack served ISIS' purposes of sowing greater instability in Libya and expunging Western influence from the country, as the hotel was where many foreign businessmen stayed.
    A senior US official told one of us that the U.S. intelligence community estimates that jihadist terrorist groups such as ISIS now control a twelfth of the landmass of Libya, which is one of the largest countries on the African continent. This is a sobering finding for Tunisia, which had been largely immune from the kinds of terrorist attacks that have recently plagued Libya and other North African countries.
    While the museum attack in Tunisia and the hotel attack in Libya may help terrorist groups to achieve their strategic goals, more often than not, armed assaults by terrorists against so-called soft targets such as hotels, supermarkets and malls do not achieve much beyond the tactical successes of global news coverage and causing mayhem.
    In September 2013, Al-Shabaab, the Somali al Qaeda affiliate, killed 67 people in a fedayeen-style armed assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Four gunmen carried out the attack, which unspooled over a four-day period.
    The Westgate attack received much global news coverage and was designed to put pressure on the Kenyan government, which had sent troops to Somalia to fight Al-Shabaab. However, a year and a half after the attack on the mall, Al-Shabaab continues to lose territory in Somalia, and the Kenyan military has continued to battle the terrorist group.
    The plague of Mumbai-style armed assaults by jihadist terrorists is not confined to Africa.
    In January, Mumbai-style tactics were used in Paris when Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly conducted armed assaults on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket over a three-day period. All three gunmen were killed. In a videotape, Coulibaly said ISIS inspired him.
    The Paris attacks received considerable coverage around the world but had no impact on France's willingness to continue its involvement in coalition airstrikes against ISIS.