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Al Qaeda May Be Widening War of Terror

Times Staff Writers

Police fanned out across this coastal city Saturday, detaining Islamic militants for questioning following a rampage of synchronized suicide bombings that may be the work of Al Qaeda terrorists widening their war to Spanish and Moroccan targets.

The toll from the Friday night bombings was raised to an estimated 41 dead, including 10 suspected terrorists, and 100 wounded, according to Moroccan and Spanish officials. The death toll could rise, a Spanish Embassy spokesman said, since some of the approximately 45 victims still hospitalized are gravely wounded.

The five bombing targets included a crowded Spanish restaurant and cultural center. European law enforcement officials said the attacks suggest Al Qaeda has opened two new fronts in its war on the West: Spain, a leading ally of the U.S. in the war against Iraq, and Morocco, a moderate Arab regime that has cooperated with the U.S. in the global campaign against terrorism.

Authorities initially said car bombs were involved, but on Saturday they said the attacks were carried out by teams of suicide bombers on foot. In addition to the Spanish restaurant, bombs exploded at a hotel, a Jewish cemetery and near the Belgian consulate.

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“It is clearly linked to the Al Qaeda movement,” a Belgian investigator said.

Senior Spanish and French investigators said they also suspected Al Qaeda involvement, working with a group said to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, Salafiya Jihadia.

In the first hours after the string of attacks, Moroccan police said they arrested three Moroccan suspects, one a wounded suicide attacker who failed to detonate his explosives during a melee with guards at the Hotel Farah (formerly the Hotel Safir) in the city’s historic district. Late Saturday, Reuters quoted an unnamed law enforcement official saying another 27 suspects were arrested in raids on hide-outs of Islamic extremists.

Police were patrolling downtown Casablanca’s leafy streets Saturday night, and security vans and guard dogs were posted at hotels and other potential Western targets.

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The FBI is putting together a team to assist Moroccan authorities in their investigation, an official in Washington said, while France and Spain are also expected to dispatch investigators to the North African country.

Moroccans were stunned by the attacks, which seem certain to damage the country’s all-important tourism industry. Groups gathered outside the Hotel Farah and lit candles to honor the casualties.

“This is not Saudi Arabia. This is not Egypt,” said Ahmed Ahmed, a businessman who runs a tourism and investment company. Like many Moroccans, he said he had believed that the government maintained tight control over any extremist groups within Morocco.

The worst carnage took place at the Casa de Espana, a popular restaurant and social club affiliated with the Spanish consulate. Three assailants slashed the throat of a security guard, rushed inside and blew themselves up among the diners, who were mostly Moroccans, authorities said.

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About thirty people died in that blast, two of them Spaniards, said Ramon Iribarren, a spokesman for the Spanish embassy in Rabat. Other victims of the bombings included at least three French citizens, according to a senior French investigator. Two Italians also died, according to news reports.

Moroccan authorities said the terrorists unleashed the coordinated multi-target offensive at about 10 p.m. Friday. There was the usual good-sized crowd at the Casa de Espana, popular with Spaniards and Moroccans alike because of its paella, bingo parlor and liquor license.

When the three attackers were confronted by the doorman, one pulled a long knife and all but decapitated him, said the president of the Casa de Espana in an interview on Spain’s national radio.

“It was very fast,” said a distraught Rafael Bermudez. “They cut the guard’s throat, the one at the door, and they came in and when they got to the center of the restaurant terrace, they set off the explosives they carried or threw themselves with the explosives, that’s not clear.”

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The explosions left a grisly mix of blood, body parts and debris. Spanish authorities tentatively identified one of the dead as a businessman from Tarragona.

The strikes were crafted to send multiple messages, European investigators said. Coming four days after car-bomb attacks on expatriate housing compounds in Saudi Arabia that killed 34 people, the Casablanca bombings escalated Al Qaeda’s campaign to show it remains an omnipresent menace, they said.

Unlike France or Britain, Spain has not been a target of Islamic terrorists since the last terrorist attack in Morocco, when extremist gunmen killed two Spanish tourists in an attack on a hotel in Marrakech in 1994. Al Qaeda operatives had preferred to use Spain as a base for recruitment, logistics and refuge. A dozen members of a Madrid cell, for example, face charges of playing a support role in the planning of the Sept. 11 plot.

But the Spanish government’s post-Sept. 11 crackdown on Islamic extremists and its dogged support of the Bush administration’s war on Iraq may have pushed Spain into the crosshairs, European officials said.

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“The attack clearly seems to have been aimed at Spain,” said Antonio Ramirez, a spokesman for the government in Melilla, a Spanish enclave bordering Morocco that closed its frontiers to incoming traffic Saturday. “It can be understood because of the position of Spain with respect to the war in Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam.”

Later Saturday, a top Spanish diplomat said he doubted that Spain’s pro-war politics motivated the attacks. But several senior counter-terrorism officials in Europe, two of them Spaniards, said they believed there was a connection between the Iraq issue and the Casablanca attacks.

Spanish diplomatic installations here toughened security when the war in Iraq began, Iribarren said. But he said the approximately 8,000 Spaniards in Morocco did not feel any increased sense of menace. Because of its proximity to Spain, Morocco has been a key transit point for Al Qaeda operatives, including suspects linked to the Sept. 11 attacks, either fleeing from police in Europe or returning there from training camps intent on committing terrorist acts.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar dismissed criticism Saturday by leaders of the political opposition who declared that Spain had paid a price for backing the Iraq war despite widespread public criticism.

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“I want to renew our commitment, of the utmost determination, decisiveness and firmness, and of course the utmost cooperation and collaboration, with all those who, like us, have to confront a terrorist menace,” Aznar said.

In addition to singling out Spain, the Casablanca bombers hit a Jewish community center known as the Israelite Community Circle, and a Jewish cemetery. The focus on Jewish targets was consistent with two attacks in Africa last year blamed on Al Qaeda: a bombing of a historic Tunisian synagogue and an attack on Israeli tourists in Kenya.

The blast ripped tiles and bricks from the front of the community center, but no Israelis or any of Casablanca’s Jewish residents were among the casualties, Israeli officials said. Nine Israelis were staying at the Hotel Farah, and were evacuated, Israel’s Army Radio reported. Several thousand Israelis and Jews had traveled to Morocco in recent days for a religious festival.

As Arab countries go, Morocco has relatively good relations with Israel and once was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Arab world. About a quarter-million Moroccan Jews have immigrated to Israel since its establishment, but many return to Morocco for visits.

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The circumstances of the two other Friday night bombings were less clear. Despite initial reports that a car bomb badly damaged the Belgian consulate and killed two Moroccan police guards outside, Belgian authorities said surveillance camera footage showed the explosion was actually caused by suicide bombers on foot who tried unsuccessfully to force their way into a nearby, Jewish-owned Italian restaurant.

“We have been informed by our liaison officer there that it was an attack on the Italian restaurant,” said federal magistrate Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman for an anti-terror prosecution unit in Brussels. “It was not an attack on Belgians.”

Nonetheless, a senior Spanish investigator said he was not convinced that the Belgian consulate was hit unintentionally. Belgium opposed the war in Iraq, but a major terror trial is scheduled to begin Thursday in Brussels of 23 suspected Al Qaeda operatives. And the building that houses the Belgian consulate once housed a U.S. diplomatic facility, making it possible that the attackers took it for an American target, according to Spanish officials.

Judging from the damage, either the consulate or the restaurant or both could have been the targets. Windows three stories up were blown out of the consulate, while the foyer of the restaurant was charred black and plants were ripped from their planters.

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“There were pieces of bodies ... a head ... a leg,” said the 34-year-old proprietor of a cafe located midway between the Belgian consulate and the Jewish community center, about one block from each. He didn’t want to give his name. “This is inconceivable.”

In the fifth bombing at the Hotel Farah, one suicide bomber attempted to gain entry to a dining area and another to higher floors, according to news reports, and at least one employee was killed. There was speculation that the bombers chose the hotel because a joint U.S.-Moroccan seminar on counter-terrorism had been held there, Spanish officials said.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who returned to Washington on Friday from a Middle East trip aimed at promoting a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, issued a statement Saturday condemning “the despicable terrorist bombings” in Morocco. Powell said, U.S. officials are “communicating with Moroccan officials at the highest levels ... to offer whatever assistance we can in this time of sorrow and grief.”

The U.S., Powell said, “will continue to stand together with Morocco against this threat to both our nations and all peace-loving people.”

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Rotella reported from Paris and Wilkinson from Casablanca. Cristina Mateo-Yanguas in Madrid contributed.


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