Targeting Tourists: Al Qaeda Hits Ivory Coast

PHOTO: rian soldier stands guard in front of the Etoile du Sud, one of the hotels attacked by heavily armed men on March 13, 2016 in the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam.
WATCH Ivory Coast Attack Claimed By Al Qaeda

An al Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility for a deadly assault on an African beach town Sunday, the latest in a string of jihadist attacks targeting popular tourist destinations.

Sixteen people were killed, including two soldiers, when gunmen opened fire at a beach resort in Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said three "heroes" had carried out the operation, though Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara said Sunday six attackers had been killed by authorities, according to The Associated Press.

A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said Sunday night that the U.S. "condemns in the strongest terms today's terrorist attack" and continues "partnering with regional govenrment and international partners to fight the terrorists who seek to undermine efforts by West African governments to build tolerant and inclusive societies, improve governance, and expand economic opportunity."

Ivory Coast's interior minister, Hamed Bakayoko, indicated his government had anticipated such a tragedy, if only because it follows a series of attacks on tourist hotspots in Africa, especially those frequented by Westerners.

"There was anticipation. You know that our country has been targeted for a few years. We did whatever we could," he said, according to the AP.

In January, AQIM claimed responsibility for an attack on a popular hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso that left 28 dead, including an American national. In November 2015 gunmen stormed a hotel in Mali, killing 21. In June ISIS, an al Qaeda splinter group based in Syria, attacked a beach resort in Tunisia, killing 39.

"Al Qaeda is really seeking to carry out attacks in places that they can where it's very difficult to defend civilians who are at a cafe or at a hotel or today, in Ivory Coast, on a beach," said Matt Olsen, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. "Al Qaeda is trying to go after sites that they think will inflict maximum damage and will really terrorize both local populations, but also foreigners who may be visiting these countries."

Olsen, now an ABC News consultant, said that it's "quite easy for a handful of gunmen" to carry out attacks on so-called "soft targets."

ABC News' Emily Shapiro contributed to this report.