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ISIS apparently claims responsibility for Tunisia museum attack; 9 arrested

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(CNN) –In an audio statement posted online Thursday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the deadly terrorist attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia.

The statement says Abu Zakariya al-Tunisi and Abu Anas al-Tunisi were two people who carried out the attack, which it warns is “just the start.”

CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of the audio statement.

A U.S. official told CNN that there is no reason to doubt the claim’s authenticity. That said, American officials are trying to verify the platform that the statement went out on, including to the extent it is tied to the group calling itself the Islamic State.

The current U.S. thinking is that the attack may have been carried out by local “franchise” adherents to ISIS, rather than centrally directed by the Islamist extremist group’s leadership now thought to be in Syria.

[Previous story, posted at 11:42 a.m. ET]

Tunisian authorities have arrested nine people in connection with a bloody terrorist attack at a museum in the heart of that country’s capital, a mass shooting that has shaken the birthplace of the Arab Spring and stirred questions about militants in the country.

Four of those detained are directly linked to Wednesday’s Bardo Museum bloodshed, according to a statement from Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Earlier Thursday, Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid identified two suspects, Yassine Labidi and Saber Khachnaou, in an interview with French radio station RTL.

Labidi was “known to the security services, he was flagged and monitored,” Essid said. But he added the man wasn’t known or being followed for anything special.

Health Minister Said Aidi said Thursday that 23 people are believed to have been killed, including at least one who died of wounds overnight.

The foreigners who died were of various backgrounds — from a Spanish married couple to a Colombian mother and son — and included three Italians, three Japanese, two French, two Poles, a Belgian and a Briton, according to their respective governments. Three Tunisians, one of them a security officer and another a job applicant, were also killed, according to Aidi.

Another 36 people remain hospitalized, while eight others were treated and released.

While foreigners suffered most directly, Essid said the attackers also sought to undermine Tunisia itself.

“It’s a cowardly attack mainly targeting the economy of Tunisia,” he said Wednesday. “We should unite to defend our country.”

Taxi driver: ‘They hit … our livelihood’

Nine of those killed had been aboard the MSC Splendida, a cruise ship with more than 3,700 passengers and nearly 1,300 crew that docked in Tunis hours before the bloodshed. Three more victims came from a similar vessel, the Costa Fascinosa, which was at port in the Tunisian capital at the same time.

Two Spaniards, Juan Carlos Sanchez and Cristina Rubio, hid overnight in the Bardo Museum only to be later found safe, a Spanish Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

The Bardo had been a logical stop for these tourists, housed next to Tunisia’s Parliament in a 19th century palace and cast as a “jewel of Tunisian heritage,” with its exhibits showcasing the country’s art, culture and history.

Its prominent place in Tunisia’s economy — which banks heavily on tourism, with millions visiting the country each year — also made it a logical target for terrorists.

That’s why CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank called the attack “the biggest crisis faced by Tunisia since the (2011) revolution,” given how any impact on tourism may rock an already teetering economy.

“They hit the heart of our livelihood,” said Mohammed Ali Troudi, a taxi driver in Tunis.

It’s too early to tell how tourists will react to the attack. Both the MSC Splendida and the Costa Fascinosa have since left Tunis, even as the search continues for some of their missing passengers — at least four from the Splendida and two from the Fascinosa, according to their respective companies.

The question is whether more passenger-packed cruise ships, as well as commercial airliners filled with tourists, will come to Tunisia in the future.

Was ISIS involved?

Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told national radio that the attackers were Islamists, but authorities haven’t been more specific than that.

The siege took place just days after a Tunisian jihadist tweeted that a pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, was coming soon, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist propaganda.

In his message, the jihadist claimed to belong to Jund al-Khilafah in Tunisia, a group that in December pledged allegiance to ISIS, even though that vow hadn’t seemed to have fully registered with the Islamist extremist group. His post comes after an ISIS fighter in the extremist group’s stronghold of Raqqa in Syria recently appeared in a video questioning why militants in Tunisia had not pledged fealty.

“This raises the possibility that the museum attack could be ISIS’ debut on the Tunisian stage, timed to precede a pledge of allegiance from Tunisian jihadis for maximum impact,” CNN’s Cruickshank said.

The attack was celebrated by ISIS supporters online, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility from the group, which refers to itself as the Islamic State.

“It appears likely that this was an attack by the Islamic State, but we have to remember that there are also other possibilities,” said Christopher Chivvis, a security expert at the RAND Corporation. “It could have been Ansar al Shariah in Tunisia, which is a local group. It could have been al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”

Arab Spring success story

Since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 2011 ouster in what’s called the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia has managed to avoid the chaos that engulfed Libya or the military seizure of power that derailed Egypt’s democratic experiment.

“Tunisia is the sole country to have emerged from an Arab Spring revolution with its political process intact,” Jon Marks, a North Africa expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said in a commentary for CNN.

Yet that doesn’t mean everything has been peaceful or gone smoothly, something that is not surprising in a country whose powerful leader of 24 years is suddenly gone and hadn’t had a democratic election in decades until recently. Among the issues was a surge in the numbers and actions of Islamist militants.

While moderate Islamists participated in the political process, extremists have made threats against “Tunisia’s outward-looking, investment-friendly majority,” Marks wrote.

The government has been battling a jihadist presence in the Chaambi Mountains. There have been several apparent political assassinations.

And in February, the country’s Interior Ministry announced the arrests of about 100 alleged extremists and published a video allegedly showing that the group possessed a formula for making explosives and a photograph of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

These actions illustrate that Tunisia has been fighting terrorism for years, for the most part successfully, said Imad El-Anis, a North Africa expert at Britain’s Nottingham Trent University.

“(The) tragedy will serve to strengthen the resolve of both the Tunisian people and their government, as well as others around North Africa and the Middle East,” El-Anis said. “Nevertheless, it will take some time for the international community to regain trust in Tunisia’s ability to protect its own citizens and foreign visitors.”

Economics and terrorism

That’s what Tunisian lawmaker Sabrine Ghoubantini is worried about, telling CNN from Tunis that the next tourist season could be slowed significantly because of the attack on what she called “a symbol of sovereignty in Tunisia.”

“It’s really sad,” she said, “and I hope that it won’t really affect our economy.”

After emerging from decades of dictatorship, Tunisia is plagued by high youth unemployment and sparse opportunities — something that likely contributes to the fact that up to 3,000 Tunisians are believed to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight as jihadists, more than any other country, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in London.

Mehrezia Labidi, another parliamentarian, says many more young Tunisians have been stopped from going abroad to fight. Still, that doesn’t take away from the fears about those who do go and come back home, nor from the root causes of why they leave to join Islamist militant groups.

“Life in Tunisia, life in democracy is better than what some people try to sell them and tell them you have to be a jihadist,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. In addition to addressing lack of good economic opportunities, “We have really to work on the culture, the level of ideas.”

Cruickshank said there is concern that “Tunisian security forces, traumatized by the attack on the capital, could once again embrace repression in their struggle to contain the jihadi threat.”

One challenge is to properly combat terrorism being proactive, not reactive, according to Emna Ben Mustapha Ben Arab, a Tunisian professor and former legislator. Another is to wage this fight without undermining the country’s fledgling democracy — though Tunisians inside the country are united on this front.

“They are trying to terrify us. But the whole Tunisian people is unified — all the parties, all the civil society organizations, all the countries are unified,” Ghoubantini said. “… I’m sure that we will fight terrorism and that we will really eradicate it from our country.”