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Militant attacks kill up to 60 on three continents

ISIS claimed a mosque blast. In Tunisia, 37 bathers died.

CAIRO - Militants struck within hours of each other on three continents Friday, wielding bombs, firearms, and a gruesome display of a decapitated head in a demonstration of the growing global reach of Islamist violence.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of a Shiite mosque in Kuwait, and there were signs that attacks on a gas factory in France and a seaside resort in Tunisia may have been at least inspired by the extremist organization, now controlling large parts of Iraq and Syria, which has sought to expand its influence well beyond the Middle East.

As many as 60 people were killed in the attacks, more than half of them by a gunman who went on a rampage outside a hotel popular with foreign tourists on the sunny Tunisian coast. Up to two dozen people died in the bombing of the mosque, and one man was beheaded in France. The violence marred the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

An Islamic State leader this week had called on acolytes to use Ramadan, traditionally a time of spiritual reflection and acts of kindness, as an opportunity instead to bring "calamity for the infidels."

"Be keen to conquer in this holy month and to become exposed to martyrdom," Abu Mohammad Adnani, a spokesman for the Sunni militant group, said in an audio message released Tuesday. He urged followers to mount attacks in Libya, Syria, and Iraq against Westerners, Shiite Muslims, and any Sunni Muslims who opposed the Islamic State.

He also warned President Obama of retaliation for the air raids that U.S. forces have helped carry out against the militants.

The nearly half-hour audio message was a fresh example of the Islamic State's sophistication in disseminating its extreme worldview through online and social media, tools that allow the group to project its gospel of violence far outside the territory it rules with an iron fist.

The Islamic State "has definitely proved itself a lot more capable than major groups in the past at spreading that propaganda, whether it be blogging, the Internet," said Alan Fraser, a Middle East expert at the London-based risk consultancy AKE. "And part of the brutality of Islamic State's activities in Iraq and Syria [is] designed to get that kind of media attention.

"That's one of its tactics. It's very hard to combat."

Savagery akin to that seen in the group's slickly, and sickly, produced videos of mass executions and beheadings was evident in the attacks Friday, which struck places of work, worship, and relaxation in Europe, Asia, and Africa, respectively.

The severed head of a previously killed man was hung from a fence near the U.S.-owned gas factory in southeastern France that attackers tried to blow up by ramming a car into the plant about 9:30 a.m. Friday. Flags with Arabic inscriptions lay close by, French media reported.

French President Francois Hollande said a message had been written on the decapitated body. He added that there was no doubt it was a terrorist attack, and French antiterrorism prosecutors have opened an investigation.

Two other people were injured in the explosion at the Air Products factory in the small town of Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, outside the city of Lyon, Hollande said.

A suspect was quickly arrested after the incident and, though prosecutors said he refused to talk, was identified as 35-year-old delivery truck driver Yassin Sahli, who was known to workers at the plant. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that French intelligence services had designated Sahli in 2006 as a potential extremist but stopped monitoring him two years later for undisclosed reasons.

Before being detained for questioning, a woman who said she was Sahli's wife told Europe 1 radio that she had been married to her husband for a decade and that they and their three children were "normal Muslims" who led "a normal family life."

"I don't know what's going on. It's not possible," she said in an increasingly distraught voice, describing her husband as "very, very calm."

French media reported that the beheaded man was Sahli's employer, the boss of a local transport company.

Security was stepped up at other sites in the region where Friday's assault occurred, for fear that the incident might either serve as a prelude to a larger attack elsewhere or inspiration for copycats.

In Tunisia, a gunman disguised as a bather killed at least 37 people with a Kalashnikov rifle that he hid under a beach umbrella and used to strafe the pool and shore area of a hotel in Sousse, a popular vacation spot about 90 miles south of the capital, Tunis.

Terrified swimmers dashed out of the surf to find cover. Sunbathers were shot dead in their lounge chairs on the private beach fronting the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba.

Many of the dead were European travelers, according to Tunisian officials. Britain confirmed that at least five British nationals were killed.

Vacationer Steve Johnson told the BBC that he and others barricaded themselves in the hotel spa to wait until they were told it was safe to come out.

"We heard what we thought was fireworks," he said. "Then people were screaming and starting to run in all directions."

An official from the Tunisian Interior Ministry told Tunisian radio that the gunman was killed by security forces. The official identified the attacker as a student from the city of Kairouan, 35 miles inland from Sousse.

It was the second major strike in three months on the crucial tourist industry in the North African nation, which had been one of the few bright spots to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings that tried to bring more democracy to the region. In March, attackers shot dead 21 visitors, most of them Egyptian cruise passengers, at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.

Militants declaring allegiance to the Islamic State claimed responsibility for that assault.

The group did not claim to be behind Friday's massacre, but the rampage was praised on a forum associated with the Islamic State. A Tunisian calling himself Abou Anas said gleefully on Twitter: "Didn't we tell you that this is a month of conquests, a hard blow to tourism."

He characterized the dead as "apostate crusaders" and added: "Hahahaha."

In the only one of Friday's three attacks that the Islamic State said it directly instigated, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Shiite Muslim mosque in Kuwait. The Persian Gulf nation has witnessed a recent rise in sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Video footage showed dazed, white-clad worshippers milling about in the smoke from the blast, which killed up to two dozen people.

Despite the close timing of the three attacks in France, Tunisia, and Kuwait, a Pentagon spokesman said it was "too soon to tell" whether they were "coordinated centrally or coincidental."

"We continue to look into it," U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren said. "We're collecting intelligence as rapidly as possible."

He noted that other militant groups in the Middle East have recently begun "re-branding" themselves as part of the Islamic State to "gain access to additional resources, additional recruiting, and things of that nature."