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In Tunisia, the return of a familiar terror target: Foreign tourists

A bus riddled with bullets when gunmen opened fire on tourists leaves the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, on March 18 . (Mohamed Messara/European Pressphoto Agency)
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At present, it's unclear who exactly is behind a horrific attack on Tunisia's most prominent museum, the Bardo. In modern Tunisia, there are quite a few groups that might be suspects. So far, however, most of the suspicion has fallen on one group in particular: The Islamic State, an extremist Islamist group that proclaimed a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq last year.

With its extreme theological ideology, transnational ambitions and social media savvy, the Islamic State is very much the fresh new face of terrorism in the 21st century. But it's important to note that Wednesday's attack followed a very familiar Islamist extremist terror tactic: The targeting of foreign tourists.

The Bardo is a spectacular tourist attraction -- as The Post's Mary Beth Sheridan writes, its collection of ancient mosaics is perhaps the best in the world. The attackers probably knew that there would be a large number of foreign tourists at the site: Of the nearly two dozen believed killed in the attack, as many as 20 were identified as foreigners.

There's a clear logic at work when terrorists attack tourists: Not only do these attacks spread terror internationally, they also have a negative effect on the economy of the local government.

Over the past few decades, it became a favored tactic of all sorts of groups. One of the most notorious examples took place in Egypt in 1997, when gunmen massacred 58 foreign nationals and four Egyptians at the Deir el-Bahri archaeological site near Luxor. The gunmen, later linked to Egyptian Islamist group al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, ambushed tourists as they arrived by bus early in the morning. They used guns and knives to kill and disfigure their victims. Most of the attackers later committed suicide: As in the attack on Bardo, they were dressed as members of the security forces.

Egypt had many more notable attacks in the years after the Luxor attack. In 2004, for example, the resort town of Taba suffered a bomb attack that left scores of Israelis dead. In 2005, an attack at nearby Sharm el-Sheikh left more than 80 dead (in this case, mostly Egyptians). Then, the year after that, a number of tourists were among those who died in a  blast that killed more than 20 at the resort city of Dahab. Tunisia suffered similar attacks, too: In 2002, a bombing at an ancient synagogue on the tourist island of Djerba killed 14 German tourists and two from France.

Yet while terror attacks on tourists haven't really gone away (just last year a bomb attack on a tourist bus in Sinai left three South Koreans and an Egyptian dead), they may have been overshadowed. Spectacular attacks on foreigners' home soil became the calling card of al-Qaeda and its supporters. Meanwhile, groups such as Boko Haram built gruesome reputations with the scale of their violence against locals rather than foreigners. And now the Islamic State spreads its terror on social media through videos of brutality.

Hundreds of Tunisians rallied on the streets of Tunis and Monastir after gunmen attacked the Bardo Musuem in the capital on Mar. 18, leaving 23 dead including 20 foreign visitors. (Video: The Washington Post)

The perverse logic of attacks on tourists remains, however. Tourism was a major part of Egypt's economy in 1997, and the Luxor attacks and others that followed were clearly designed to derail it. ''We are facing the biggest crisis in the history of tourism in Egypt,'' Tourism Minister Mamdou el-Beltagi told al-Ahram newspaper at the time.

Today, Tunisia's own tourism industry is important but fragile: The Bardo museum alone had 600,000 visitors in 2005, according to Agence France-Press, but that figure had dropped to 100,000 during the 2011 uprising against Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Rebuilding the tourism industry is vital for a stable future. The country has been the only real success story of the "Arab Spring," and an attack on tourists is no doubt meant to derail that. "All Tunisians should be united after this attack, which was aimed at destroying the Tunisian economy," Prime Minister Habib Essid said in a national address Wednesday.

The death toll in Tunisia museum attack has risen to 23. With four Italian tourists among those killed, the reaction in Rome is a mixture of sadness and anger. (Video: Reuters)