The Islamic State on Thursday claimed responsibility for the attack that killed 21 people at a museum in Tunisia, and retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden warned that more of these soft-target attacks could "absolutely" occur around the world — even in the United States.
"We are vulnerable, too," said Hayden, who directed both the CIA and the National Security Agency. "Sooner or later, we'll see attempts like that here.
"We're less vulnerable because we actually have a very welcoming immigrant culture here," he added. "And, we're a pretty tough target. We're pretty good at defending ourselves through intelligence and the FBI."
The attack Wednesday at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis killed 21 people
— and Tunisian authorities said Thursday that the two dead gunmen who had opened fire had blown themselves up with the explosives that they were carrying.
The gunmen had no clear links to extremists, authorities said, while analysts said that existing militant cell groups were being inspired by the group, rather than establishing its presence across North Africa.
Police arrested five people Thursday
who were described as directly tied to the gunmen — and four others said to be supporters of the cell also were arrested in central Tunisia, not far from where a group claiming allegiance to an al-Qaida branch has been active in the region.
Japanese, Italian, Spanish and British visitors, as well as three Tunisians, were among the victims. Twelve passengers from MSC Cruises — including Colombians, French and a Belgian — were among the dead, the company said, while a Spanish couple were found alive Thursday after hiding all night in the museum.
The assault was the deadliest attack involving foreigners in Tunisia since a 2002 suicide bombing in Djerba. The nation was the only one to emerge from the violent Arab Spring uprisings of 2010 to 2012 with a functioning democracy.
Tunisia relies heavily on foreign tourists to its beach resorts and desert treks.
In claiming responsibility Thursday, ISIS posted a statement and audio on jihadi websites applauding the dead gunmen as "knights" for their "blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia."
President Barack Obama pledged close counterterrorism cooperation in a telephone call to Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi. Obama offered his condolences, sympathy and support — later commending Tunisians for their response and called the nation's democracy a "powerful example" for the region.
Several well-armed groups in neighboring Libya have already pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State, which is based in Iraq and Syria, but the attack has raised concerns among Republicans in the United States about the spread of Islamic jihadism throughout North Africa.
"It's especially frightening, because what we have done is stretched the frontier of ISIS once more," Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger told Greta Van Susteren on her Fox News program.
Referring to the Islamic State's slaughter of Coptic Christians in Libya last month, he said, "We kind of woke up to the fact that ISIS was in Libya — and that was frightening enough.
"Now, you have ISIS trying to make a move into Tunisia," Kinzinger said. "ISIS is definitely on the march."
California Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he had no doubt that the Islamic State was behind the assault — since ISIS has recruited at least 3,000 fighters from Tunisia.
"When you have the largest recruitment effort in any region in the world coming out of Tunisia, you can readily see how easy it would be for ISIS to recruit and train fighters and send them back," Royce told Wolf Blitzer on CNN.
"This speaks to the problem that Tunisia is going to have in the future," he added, noting that ISIS has 2,500 fighters from Saudi Arabia, a key American ally.
"Saudi Arabia, may face as a consequence of these recruits not just being further indoctrinated but trained."
To Newsmax, Hayden also noted the Islamic State's extensive efforts to enlist Tunisians in its ranks.
"A lot of Tunisians have gone to fight for ISIS, so you've got that steady flow," he said. "Certainly, the way ISIS has been acting has inspired other groups to act in similar ways in local circumstances."
However, as this form of terrorism spreads, Hayden said that they will focus on soft targets. "They get maximum impact by killing the innocent," he said.
The retired general cited the January attack on the Paris headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamic extremists that left 12 dead — even the 164 deaths and 308 injuries from the 2008 assaults in Mumbai, India, by Pakistani extremists — as examples of the widespread targeting of ordinary citizens.
"When they bombed Mumbai, we said: 'Oh, hell, look at this,'" Hayden, who then headed the CIA, told Newsmax. "Here is an attack that has a global and strategic impact, conducted by about a dozen people armed with automatic weapons and cellphones.
"We saw the same thing with Charlie Hebdo — and here, we saw the same thing with the museum in Tunis.
"These are low-cost, relatively easier-to-do attacks that have great effect," Hayden said. "Yes, we're going to see more of these."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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