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Cultural Property and Terrorism

While tourists from cruise ships were shopping and sightseeing in March 2015, gunmen stormed the area surrounding the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, Tunisia. The attackers, said to be affiliated with ISIS, gained unimpeded access to the museum, opening fire on tourists as they moved from their buses to the museum's entrance.

The three-hour siege on the museum left 24 people dead and ex­posed the inherent weaknesses in the security procedures of museums, which have become targets for terrorist attacks in recent years with the rise of ISIS. The terrorist organization has destroyed cultural property at numerous sites, including Khorsabad, the Mosul Museum and Library, Jonah's Tomb, Hatra, and Palmyra.

ISIS has focused its destruction—a type of religious and cultural cleansing—on religious and historical shrines and idols it does not recognize. ISIS has also engaged in looting at these sites to facilitate transnational crime through illicit trade of antiquities to fund other terrorist activities.

With its theft and deliberate destruction of cultural property that holds substantial historic, religious, political, and psychological importance to countries' heritage, ISIS is engaging in cultural property terrorism.

After the attack, officials responsible for the Bardo's security were fired, and questions arose concerning the ease with which the armed terrorists were able to gain undetected access to the area, and ultimately into the museum.

One major vulnerability was that there were no police in the vicinity of the museum. Four policemen were supposed to be on duty that day, but two were at a café, one was on a break eating a snack, and the fourth never reported for duty, leaving the museum unprotected.

Another vulnerability, according to former Prime Minister Habib Essid, was the inability to control access to the compound that houses the Bardo and the Parliament buildings. An after-incident report also revealed that the day before the attack, police and army officials had informed members of Parliament that they lacked adequate equipment to provide security to the area.

This incident, and the attacks on other cultural sites by ISIS, dem­onstrates the need for more robust security measures that can prevent cultural property terrorism, including surveillance technologies, protective barriers, and access control systems, as well as trained, armed security personnel.

These security personnel should be well-versed in identifying terrorist groups that may be conducting reconnaissance during the planning and preparation phase of their attack.

Another critical component in efforts to protect cultural property is the implementation of random patrols and procedures to prevent routine, predictable behaviors.

When terrorists conduct surveillance of a cultural site to understand its defensive posture, they look for patterns and weaknesses that allow for undetected or easy access. Randomly altering security procedures makes it more difficult for terrorists to obtain a clear picture of the site's defenses—minimizing the possibility of a successful attack.

Along with these traditional security measures, advanced technologies can also help prevent looting and the destruction of cultural property.

Biometric technologies, such as facial recognition, coupled with real-time computer technology to record, analyze, disseminate, and store biometric data could help identify potential perpetrators who attempt to gain access to a facility for nefarious purposes.

Facial recognition technologies have been used in the United States, such as during the Super Bowl, as well as in public buildings and government agencies, to screen entrants and control the access of individuals to different areas of a facility.

Without comprehensive antiterrorism mea­­sures, museums cannot be adequately protected against cultural property terrorism and terrorist attacks against museum staff and visitors. The attack on the Bardo Museum brought home the lesson that much more attention needs to be paid to museum security, especially to the implementation of adequate antiterrorism measures at these sites.


Michelle D. Miranda, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Security Systems and Law Enforcement Technology at Farmingdale State College, SUNY, in Farmingdale, New York, and specializes in criminal­is­tics and forensic investigations. Marie- Helen Maras is an associate professor in the Department of Secu­rity, Fire, and Emergency Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York city, and specializes in transnational security, transnational ter­rorism, and cybersecurity. ​