A photograph purporting to be that of the gunman who killed at least 37 people Friday on a beach resort in Tunisia was making the rounds on jihadist forums and jihadist accounts on Twitter on Saturday.
The Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attack, released the photograph and identified the man by his jihadi nom de guerre, Abu Yahya al-Qayrawani. According to Tunisian authorities, he was Seifiddine Rezgui, a 23-year-old electrical engineering student from Gaafour, in northwest Tunisia. He was a student at Kairouan University, a city just south of Sousse where the killings occurred.
On Friday, the Tunisian press named Seifiddine Yacoubi, also 23 from Kairouan, as the killer. It was not immediately clear if this was the same person, a case of mistaken identity, or an accomplice in the massacre. The killer was shot dead by Tunisian police at the scene of the massacre.
Rezgui’s parents were reportedly arrested by police on Saturday.
IS released a statement overnight Friday-Saturday saying “a soldier of the caliphate, Abu Yahya al-Qayrawani, was able to access [the hotels],” killing almost 40 people “most of whom were from states fighting the state of the caliphate.”
The majority of those killed were European tourists, most of them British, Tunisian authorities said. Fifteen Britons were confirmed dead by Saturday night.
Eyewitnesses said the gunman was “laughing and joking” as he mowed down his victims, and selecting who to kill, UK media reported Saturday. One man told Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM “He was laughing and joking around, like a normal guy. He was choosing who to shoot. “Some people, he was saying to them, ‘You go away,’” the witness said. “He was choosing tourists, British, French.”
Earlier on Saturday, Tunisia’s prime minister called for all citizens to work together to defeat terrorism as thousands of tourists prepared to leave the North African country in wake of the worst terrorist attack it ever suffered.
“The fight against terrorism is a national responsibility,” said a visibly exhausted Habib Essid at a press conference in Tunis early Saturday. “We are at war against terrorism which represents a serious danger to national unity during this delicate period that the nation is going through.”
He announced a string of tough measures to fight extremism, including examining the funding of organizations suspected of promoting radicalism, closing some 80 mosques outside government control and declaring certain mountainous zones military areas.
At the Imperial Marhaba Hotel where the attack took place, vans and buses were carrying away tourists on Saturday. While the hotel was not actually closing down, the tour operators had urged everyone to leave, the director said.
“We may have zero clients today but we will keep our staff,” said Mohammed Becheur, adding the 370-room hotel had been at 75 percent occupancy before the attack.
Tourism is a key part of Tunisia’s economy and had already fallen some 25 percent after a terrorist attack on the national museum in the capital Tunis that killed 22 people in March.
“It’s really sad but what can you do, for everyone, for the tourists, for the people who died, for their families,” said Belgian tourist Clause Besser, as he recovered in the hospital from a gunshot wound he received fleeing from the attacker. “For me, somehow, with a bullet in the leg, it’s not a catastrophe. For those who died or were injured for life, it’s something else.”
British travel companies Thomson and First Choice said they are flying back thousands of tourists from Tunisia Saturday and are cancelling all flights to the country in the coming week. Tourist flights from Ireland to Tunisia have continued in the wake of the attack, but travel agents are offering full refunds for those canceling. Slovakia has sent a plane to evacuate some 150 of its citizens who are currently in Tunisia, according to the Foreign Ministry and Scandinavian tour operators have stopped all flights to the North African country for the rest of the season.
“We felt a bit scared because Sousse isn’t that far away, it’s only 40-50 kilometers (25-30 miles) from where we stayed,” said Kathrin Scheider as she waited in line to check in to her flight out of the country at the Hammamet airport near Sousse. “We felt quite safe during the whole holiday, but as soon as we heard, we were quite happy to leave because you don’t feel that safe anymore if something happens like that.”
The Tunisian Ministry of Health has confirmed the nationalities of 10 of the 39 victims of the attack, including eight Britons, a Belgian and a German. The government of Ireland said an Irish nurse was also among those killed.
Relatives and family friends say Lorna Carty was fatally shot as she sunbathed. She and her husband, Declan, had received the holiday as a present to help Declan Carty relax following his recent heart surgery.
Family friends speaking to the couple’s two children said Lorna Carty went ahead of her husband to the beach, where she suffered fatal gunshot wounds and was pronounced dead in hospital.