Tunisia names synagogue gunman, says attack was premeditated and targeted shrine

Country’s interior minister calls deadly attack in Djerba a ‘cowardly criminal attack,’ but refrains from referring to it as terrorism; assailant named as guardsman Wissam Khazri

Tunisian Interior Minister Kamel Fekih speaks during a press conference in Tunis, May 11, 2023. (AP/Hassene Dridi)
Tunisian Interior Minister Kamel Fekih speaks during a press conference in Tunis, May 11, 2023. (AP/Hassene Dridi)

TUNIS, Tunisia — A Tunisian national guardsman behind an attack that killed five people intentionally targeted the ancient synagogue on the Mediterranean island of Djerba in a premeditated act, Tunisia’s interior minister said Thursday, as authorities also revealed the assailant’s name.

The mass shooting on Tuesday sparked panic during an annual Jewish pilgrimage at the historic Ghriba synagogue on the resort island, believed to be one of the world’s oldest Jewish shrines.

Authorities were investigating the motive of the gunman, who was shot dead after killing three police officers and two visitors, a French-Tunisian and an Israeli-Tunisian man, both of whom were Jewish. A dozen others were wounded.

Tunisian authorities revealed the gunman’s name — Wissam Khazri, a member of the Tunisian National Guard affiliated with the naval center in the island’s port town of Aghir — and said he planned the attack, but they gave no explanation of why. It was yet unknown if the Khazri specifically targeted Jews in the attack.

Interior Minister Kamel Fekih pledged to “spare no effort to ensure the stability of the country” and to protect foreigners following the attack.

Fekih said security forces killed the gunman within 120 seconds of arriving outside the synagogue complex. The minister described the shooting as a “cowardly criminal attack” but refrained from calling it a terrorist act.

Police officers and soldiers stand near Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, May 10, 2023. (Moncef Abidi/AP)

France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office opened an investigation following the death of its national.

Israeli and Tunisian authorities and family members identified the civilian victims as cousins: Aviel Haddad, 30, who held dual Tunisian and Israeli citizenship, and Benjamin Haddad, 42, who was French.

Benjamin Haddad, left, and his cousin, Aviel Haddad, who were killed in a shooting in Djerba, Tunisia on May 9, 2023. (Courtesy of the family)

The interior minister called on security services to be vigilant for any efforts to destabilize the North African country. Tunisia is mired in political and economic crisis, and the synagogue attack is a new blow to its once-thriving tourism industry as well as to a vibrant Jewish community.

Fekri said the gunman killed one of his colleagues and seized his weapon at a national guard base on the coast of Djerba, then took a National Guard motorcycle to a schoolyard about 200 meters from the Ghriba temple, where hundreds of worshipers were present.

“When he left the school after monitoring the movement of a traffic police car that was parked in the vicinity, he shot the first victim at about 8:13 p.m. and then moved toward the security guards, who were protecting the area around the synagogue, opening fire indiscriminately in order to cause as many victims as possible. But he was immediately surrounded and shot,” Fekri told reporters in Tunis.

He said that a spirit of “celebration quickly returned to the island of Djerba, a land of peace and tolerance, which is proof that the author failed to implement his plan.”

Tunisian President Kais Saied earlier sought to assure his compatriots and foreign visitors that “Tunisia will remain a safe country, despite the criminal attempts to destabilize it.”

Speaking Wednesday night at a meeting of the country’s National Security Council, Saied claimed the attack was intended to sow discord and sabotage the tourist season in the run-up to summer.

“But these criminals will not succeed because the state is strong in its institutions, its security forces, and its people are awake,” he said.

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied speaks during a media conference at an EU Africa summit in Brussels, February 18, 2022. (Johanna Geron, Pool Photo via AP)

The chair of the synagogue’s committee, Perez Trabelsi, was in the house of worship during the attack and told The Associated Press of his terror.

“I was scared, as were most of the people gathered in the ‘oukala,’ a large space adjacent to the synagogue. Everyone was panicked. Many took refuge in the rooms for fear of being hit by the shots that came from outside,” he said.

The synagogue attracted more pilgrims this year — around 6,000 people from the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and beyond — than it had for some time, Trabelsi said. He said he was saddened that the pilgrimage to the site that is revered in Judaism “was spoiled by those who wish Tunisia harm.”

Jews have lived on Djerba, a picturesque island off the southern coast of Tunisia, since 500 BC. Djerba’s Jewish population is one of North Africa’s biggest, although in recent years it declined to 1,500, down from 100,000 in the 1960s.

In 2002, a truck bombing killed about 20 people at the entrance to the same temple during the annual Jewish pilgrimage. Al-Qaeda claimed that attack, whose victims included German and French tourists as well as Tunisians.

Jewish worshippers attend the annual Jewish pilgrimage at the El Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia’s southern resort island of Djerba, on May 8, 2023. (Yassine Mahjoub / AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to keep up the fight “against antisemitic hatred,” and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the bloodshed proves “evil and hatred are still there.”

Cohen spoke with Tunis Chief Rabbi Haim Bitan, and “told him that Israel stands alongside the community in this difficult hour.” He said he instructed ministry officials to provide all needed aid. Israel and Tunisia do not have formal diplomatic relations.

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