A naval guardsman opened fire near an ancient synagogue on the island of Djerba off Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast that has previously been the target of Islamist militants, killing two visitors and two guards, and wounding 10 other people during an annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue, the country’s interior ministry said Wednesday. Another security officer was also killed by the gunman before he reached the synagogue.
The guardsman, who was stationed at a naval installation on the island, first killed his fellow guard and pocketed his ammunition late Tuesday before heading toward El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba’s ancient Jewish neighborhood, roughly half an hour’s drive away, the ministry said in a statement. Then he shot indiscriminately near the synagogue until officers guarding the pilgrimage shot and killed him.
The authorities gave no motive for the shooting, in which a 42-year-old French national who the authorities described as French-Tunisian, and a 30-year-old Tunisian were killed, according to the foreign ministry. But the synagogue, where a celebration for the annual Lag b’Omer festival was held Tuesday night, has previously come under attack by Islamist militants, who have also targeted other Tunisian tourist sites.
Tunisia is also in political and economic crisis. President Kais Saied has steered the democracy Tunisians had built over the last decade back toward autocracy while the economy craters, pushing a growing number of Tunisians into desperation.
The interior ministry statement said the authorities had begun an investigation “to find out the reasons for this treacherous and cowardly attack.”
Six officers and four other people were hospitalized for injuries of varying severity, the statement said. The authorities did not name any of the victims or the shooter. The ministry later said that two officers had also died in the attack.
Djerba, whose palm trees and blue seascapes have long drawn tourists and European retirees, is home to more than 1,000 Jews, one of the last significant Jewish communities in the Middle East outside Israel. Local tradition has it that the Jewish settlement there arrived in Roman times, later building a synagogue, El Ghriba — “The Extraordinary” — that is said to house a holy gate brought two millenniums ago from Jerusalem.
Numbering almost 5,000 in the 1940s, the community shrank as Djerbian Jews migrated to Israel or France, while more Muslims moved into the area. There were occasional attacks, including an October 1985 incident in which a Tunisian guard who was supposed to be protecting the synagogue shot at the congregation, killing four worshipers and a police officer and wounding 11. But in general, the Jews and Muslims of Djerba have coexisted peacefully.
El Ghriba, where Tuesday’s shooting occurred, hosts an annual pilgrimage that draws crowds of Jewish visitors from Europe and Israel, an event that the government has for years encouraged as a tourist attraction. The authorities have provided tight security to the pilgrimage since militants detonated a truck bomb at the synagogue in April 2002, killing 21 Western tourists in an attack for which Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.
On Monday, the day before the attack, the recently arrived American ambassador to Tunisia, Joey Hood, visited the synagogue alongside the United States envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. Embassy in Tunis had said on Twitter.
The embassy was the site of one of Tunisia’s last terrorist attacks, in which one police officer outside the embassy died in an explosion in 2020. Islamist militants also killed 60 people, most of them tourists, in separate attacks at the beach resort of Sousse and at the Bardo Museum in Tunis in 2015.
As with those attacks, Tuesday’s shooting could harm the country’s crucial tourism industry, one of the few strong spots in an otherwise flailing economy. Visitor numbers to Tunisia had just begun to recover last year after more than a decade of blows, including Tunisia’s Arab Spring revolt at the end of 2010, the terrorist attacks and the coronavirus pandemic.