With the one stroke of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks in New York, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida forever changed the way we experience air travel — precipitating the introduction of technology and layers of security at airports that hitherto did not exist. Now a new wave of terrorist fighters, inspired by the success of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, are threatening to alter our experience of iconic cities. After the attacks in Paris and Sydney this year, gunmen attacked the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, known to be frequented by tourists, killing 19 people including five Japanese, four Italians and two French nationals.
As with most terrorist attacks, this incident is freighted with both local and international portents. The new government in Tunisia has been battling Islamists for a while and the latter have decided to hurt the regime economically by targeting tourists. Militants typically stage such dramatic attacks to elicit a hardline State response in order to polarise populations and attract recruits. It is not clear if ISIS is behind the attack but Tunisia has been a major source of fighters for ISIS. (ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, according to a news break after this article went to press)
Around 2,400 of its nationals were fighting in Syria alone last year, according to the country’s interior minister. Tunisia is likely to see a long-drawn tussle with radical Islamists but other nations will be alarmed at the tactics of deliberately targeting foreigners, a measure used with devastating effect during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008 by the Lashar-e-Taiba. These strategies could spread further afield, as the attacks in Paris and Sydney show. They need not be explicitly led by ISIS, which is now essentially a brand that international fighters want to identify with. Like al-Qaida at the height of its notoriety in the mid noughties, ISIS does not exercise centralised control; it merely provides the inspiration and the tactical template for groups of misguided and disaffected youth in various contexts to attack the West, which they perceive to be anti-Islamic.
What confounds observers is the very elective character of terrorist recruitment. Anthropologists suggest that fighters are prompted by a deep alienation from the society they live in, a subsequent consolidation of religious identity, the camaraderie that peers and social media provide and a rare accidental moment of reckoning that translates into violent purpose. It is, no wonder, a phenomenon that is nearly impossible to predict.