Advertisement

‘Local Hands’ Accused in Morocco Blast

Times Staff Writers

Investigators on Sunday said several of the suicide bombers who killed 29 people were Moroccan Islamists probably tied to global terror networks but who lived amid the tin shacks, dirt sidewalks and hashish dealers of this city’s northern slums.

The bombers and many of those arrested in the aftermath of the deadly attacks apparently belonged either to a local radical Islamic organization implicated in past violence, or to one of its splinter groups, Moroccan and European officials said. A U.S. official said the attackers were most likely working at the behest of Al Qaeda.

Coming on the heels of bombings in Saudi Arabia, the Casablanca bloodshed alarmed officials in Europe and in Washington who fear that the Al Qaeda terror network is widening its war on the West.

“This was a criminal act connected to international terrorism, even if it was carried out by local hands,” Communications Minister Mohammed Achaari said.

Advertisement

As King Mohammed VI visited the five sites of Friday night’s carnage, stepping gingerly through broken glass and blood-spattered ruins, officials released new details of their investigation. The synchronized bombings were the deadliest terrorism registered inside Morocco in many years and shattered a sense of calm that persisted despite a string of warnings that Islamic radicalism was growing in the North African kingdom.

For Morocco, the attacks are both an embarrassment and a quandary, since the king will have to crack down on Islamic fundamentalists without alienating his Muslim nation. Human rights organizations have accused Moroccan authorities of stifling dissent to keep Islamic political opposition in check.

Five teams of 14 suicide bombers hit Spanish, Moroccan and Jewish targets Friday night, killing 29 people, most of them Moroccans and including one who died Sunday of his wounds. Thirteen of the bombers were also killed; the 14th was wounded, seized by police and passing taxi drivers and was being interrogated.

“He gave the information on his criminal accomplices and helped identify those who were involved in this operation,” Moroccan Justice Minister Mohammed Bouzzoubaa told state television Channel RTM. Some of the bombers “came from a foreign country recently” but are Moroccan citizens, he said.

Advertisement

Communications Minister Achaari, in an interview, said six of the bombers have been identified as Moroccans, and investigators continued to attempt to identify the others. Dozens of people have been arrested, he said, most in raids on the Sidi Moumen and Mouliai Rashit slums north of Casablanca. Both are crowded neighborhoods of unpainted cinder block, tiny shacks with bricks holding down tin roofs, and idle men.

Neither Achaari nor Bouzzoubaa would confirm or deny a report on the Arab satellite TV channel Al Jazeera that two foreigners were among those detained: an Egyptian who spent time in Belgium and a former army officer from the United Arab Emirates who specialized in explosives.

Achaari and other Moroccan officials have singled out two loosely knit radical Islamic groups that may have been responsible. Many of the detained belonged to As-Sirat al Mustaqeem, a home-grown group based almost totally in Casablanca’s slums, according to Moroccan Islamic experts. Officials also point the finger at Salafiya Jihadia, an informal alliance of radical militants in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and North African immigrant communities in Britain, France and Belgium who are frequently accused of having ties with Al Qaeda.

Its associations go back to the “Afghan Arabs” of Al Qaeda, so named because they were radicalized and trained at Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s, European investigators said.

Advertisement

Many of the Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians who are the foot soldiers of Islamic terror are immigrants or European-born. They are often radicalized in Europe and use the continent as a base to plot activities in their home countries, where pressure from security forces on Islamic extremism is intense.

“It’s as much a concept as an organization,” a Belgian law enforcement official said. “It is part of a movement inspired and assisted by the Al Qaeda moujahedeen in Afghanistan. Everyone suspects these attacks are part of a larger, international context.”

Salafiya Jihadia is essentially an umbrella group, with As-Sirat al Mustaqeem, whose name means “straight path,” one of its offshoots, experts said. They preach a “pure” form of Islam with no tolerance for “infidels” in their midst.

Thirty of Salafiya Jihadia’s members were arrested last summer in connection with half a dozen killings around the country. One involved a man who drank liquor in public with a woman, according to local news reports at the time, and some of the victims were said to have been found with their throats slit.

Advertisement

Earlier last year, Moroccan authorities arrested, tried and convicted three Saudis living in Casablanca and seven Moroccans for what was described as a failed Al Qaeda plot to bomb American and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar.

And one of Salafiya Jihadia’s main spiritual leaders, Ould Mohammed Abdelwahab Raqiqi, was jailed this year for inciting violence against Westerners. A former Arab moujahedeen fighter in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, he praised Bin Laden and Al Qaeda for the Sept. 11 attacks

The nature of Friday’s attacks -- simultaneous, choreographed bombings of multiple Western targets -- points to Al Qaeda involvement. But a U.S. official in Washington said the CIA has also collected other intelligence pointing to an Al Qaeda role, although he declined to provide any details on the information.

“There may have been a local group involved,” the official said. “But it still appears it may have been done at the direction of Al Qaeda.” That no U.S. sites were targeted may have been because the group believed them less vulnerable.

Advertisement

“What they’re looking for to make a statement is to launch attacks that have a reasonable chance of success,” he said.

Capitalizing on poverty, ignorance and social disparity, Islamic fundamentalists have been gaining strength in Morocco, especially since King Mohammed ascended to the throne in 1999 after the death of his father and attempted to launch a campaign to modernize the country.

A moderate Islamic party that nevertheless wants to ban alcohol and veil women was the third top vote-getter in elections last fall, but the government postponed municipal elections this year, fearing new gains for the fundamentalists.

The king has long sought to contain the Islamists both in the interest of self-preservation and of staying on Washington’s good side.

Advertisement

“It’s a dilemma for the king, and for your president, and for all of us,” said a diplomat who is no longer posted in Morocco. “What do you do when Islamists win a democratic election?”

As funerals were being held Sunday and families clamored outside the city morgue for bodies still not identified, Moroccans across the board were having a hard time coming to terms with heinous deeds being committed by their own people. Many said they were convinced that a foreign influence had to have been in play, and they sounded frightened.

At a second-floor walk-up apartment around the corner from the hardest-hit site, the Casa de Espana social club, the women in Abdel Khader Fassi’s life gathered to remember him. The men had left to bury him.

The 57-year-old father of three had gone to the club as he did most nights, to see friends and eat. He died when three men with explosives strapped to their bodies entered the restaurant and blew up.

Advertisement

His widow, Zahra, who dug through bodies and parts of bodies to find him, sat Sunday with other female relatives, neighbors and friends, all dressed in pastel, shroudlike abayas, their heads covered with scarves. Asked who they thought had committed this act of brutality, the room erupted: “Not Moroccans! Not Moroccans!”

“Someone wants to harm and give a bad name to Morocco,” said cousin Fatima Buterusen.

A neighbor, Zohra Hashimi, said U.S. and other world leaders shared the blame with Islamic radicals who have distorted the teachings of the Koran. The war in Iraq, the failure to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and “war on terrorism” rhetoric only provoke more violence, said the 45-year-old director of a tourism company.

“This is going to spread through the whole world,” she said, “and it will be the end of the world.”

Advertisement

*

Rotella reported from Paris, and Wilkinson from Casablanca, with contributions from Jailan Zayan. Greg Miller in Washington also contributed to this report.


Advertisement