/ 11 April 2007

Bombings rip away Morocco’s sense of security

For a long time, Moroccans felt relatively safe from the Islamist terrorism plaguing neighbouring Algeria, but that sense of security is now definitively gone.

A recent string of suicide bombings and arrests has exposed the vulnerability of the kingdom in a region where al-Qaeda is extending its reach.

Moroccan terrorists are still amateurish, but widespread poverty and a lack of opportunities for young people provide a fertile ground for extremism to grow, local analysts said.

An Algerian-based, al-Qaeda-linked umbrella organisation is now coordinating North African Islamist cells that are also believed to train their activists in Africa’s Sahel countries.

In the most recent Moroccan development, four terrorist suspects and a police officer were killed during a wild chase in Casablanca on Tuesday. Three of the suspects blew themselves up, and one was shot dead.

The four were suspected of links with the Casablanca suicide bombings that killed 45 people, including 12 bombers, in May 2003. They were also wanted in connection with an accidental suicide bombing that injured four people at a Casablanca cybercafé a month ago.

The Islamist cell they belonged to, which allegedly planned attacks against the Casablanca port and hotels, was only one among dozens of cells dismantled by police since 2003.

One of the cells was Ansar el Mahdi, whose members included several retired paramilitary police officers and which intended to set up guerrilla bases in the northern Rif mountains.

Violent Islamism is on the increase not only in Morocco, but also in other parts of North Africa, where it has been coordinated by the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) since 2006, according to Moroccan police sources.

The GSPC has established an umbrella organisation called al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, which propagates its ideology on the internet and acts as an intermediary between independent Islamist cells.

With a ”strong ideological link” to al-Qaeda, the networks ”wants to recruit, train and coordinate extremists,” Moroccan Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa said.

Al-Qaeda-linked fighters are now being trained in Sahel countries such as Mali, Niger and Mauritania, which press reports have dubbed the new Afghanistan. Awash with arms and immigrant traffickers and rebel groups, the vast and poorly controlled Sahel zone also houses increasing numbers of al-Qaeda activists, according to Benmoussa.

Morocco’s most important al-Qaeda-linked organisation is the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, which is believed to have helped to stage the Madrid train bombings in March 2004.

Nearly 200 people were killed in Spain’s worst terrorist attack, for which 29 mainly Moroccan accused are currently on trial.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, who is the official leader of the country’s Muslims, has joined forces with the United States and other Western allies to smash an Islamist network reaching from Africa to Europe. Thousands of suspects have been detained since the 2003 Casablanca bombings.

Human rights groups have alleged arbitrary arrests, torture and unfounded sentences, apparently contributing to the royal pardon granted to some of the prisoners.

Morocco’s attempts to uproot terrorism are hampered by its poor relations with Algeria over the Western Sahara conflict, which affect the information flow between security services.

Morocco cooperates far more efficiently with its Western allies, which had warned it about the increase of terrorist activity months ago.

Islamist hotbeds include the northern cities of Tetouan, where a cell was dismantled after sending 30 fighters to Iraq, and Casablanca, where slums house large numbers of unemployed young people.

The increase of violent Islamism may undermine political Islamism, taking votes from the Islamist party Justice and Development in the September elections, analysts say. — Sapa-dpa