Bombings in Algeria and Morocco and other militant activity across North Africa have put U.S. and European authorities on alert that their interests in the region may be targeted for attack, officials say.
On Saturday, two brothers with explosives-laden belts blew themselves up in Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca, injuring one woman. Moroccan authorities later arrested at least one man suspected of being linked to the bombings, according to the official MAP news agency.
The U.S. State Department said one bombing occurred near the U.S. Consulate and the second near an American language center. Both facilities are located along a main boulevard in Casablanca.
The bombings followed a series of attacks in the region last week, including strikes Wednesday on the prime minister’s office in Algiers and a suburban police station that killed 33 people. The new violence underscored concerns about escalating extremist activity in North Africa.
A day before the Algiers attacks, Moroccan police confronted a group of suspected terrorists in Casablanca. Three of them detonated suicide vests and a fourth was killed by police gunfire. U.S. officials said the men were part of a group plotting attacks against tourist targets and Western interests.
In Tunisia, police recently engaged in a deadly shootout with gunmen linked to Al Qaeda’s new regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, a term referring to the North African nations west of Egypt. The gunmen allegedly planned to attack foreign embassies.
“The cancer is spreading, and it is very troubling,” one senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said Saturday. “These groups are expanding beyond what their initial local targets were, and striking at the U.S.”
But are the perpetrators linked? Or might they be local militants with separate but related grievances against the United States and Europe, as well as their own governments?
Counter-terrorism officials in Washington and Europe said they might not know the answers to those questions for months.
“Naturally, there are a lot of people in a lot of different places looking very hard at this, not just in the places affected, but in Europe and this country as well,” said a second U.S. counter-terrorism official, who was interviewed before the Saturday bombings. Both U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations headed by other countries.
The officials said Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, the Algerian-led network that claimed responsibility for the Algiers bombings, has been working to form an alliance stretching from northwestern Africa to the Sahel region, the vast and rugged terrain below the Sahara desert that has become a haven for some militant groups. The war in Iraq has helped North African networks converge as their fighters move back and forth to the battle zone.
European and U.S. counter-terrorism experts say the regional alliance remains a work in progress.
The timing of the attacks suggests coordination, but officials haven’t indicated they have evidence they were connected.
“That there are relations between Moroccans and Algerians [committed to militant causes] has been unquestionable for two or three years,” said Louis Caprioli, former anti-terrorism chief of France’s DST intelligence service. “Whether the two cells were in some way connected is another question.
“The Algerians are really structured, with active military operations and a guerrilla presence in the countryside. I am not convinced there is a unified command yet. It could be they are moving toward this.”
Western and North African authorities are also looking for signs that the Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan are directing or funding the North Africa operations.
“No one has suggested that there is an ironclad, direct connection from Al Qaeda central to these particular groups; that’s not the way it generally functions,” said the second U.S. counter-terrorism official. “There is a certain amount of autonomy.”
The capture three years ago of Amari Saifi, who had orchestrated the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in the Sahara, weakened the Algerian organization, then known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat.
But it has revitalized itself by seeking alliances with groups in neighboring countries and taking advantage of an amnesty in which Algeria released several thousand Islamic militants. The group also made about $6 million in ransom money for the tourists, and profits from drug trafficking.
U.S. Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, who oversees North Africa operations, told Congress last month that the military had seen signs of increasing cooperation between Al Qaeda and various North African terrorist groups.
Recruiting for Iraq
The Iraq war has helped the North Africans connect activities in North Africa, Europe and Iraq, a top French intelligence official said.
The Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by the French initials GSPC, led recruiting in North Africa and Europe for the Iraq conflict. It was aided by Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, until he was killed by U.S. forces last year. The GSPC network has groomed fighters at small, mobile training facilities in the deserts of southern Algeria as well as Mali and other Sahel countries.
Algerian and Moroccan police helped European investigators break up several alleged GSPC plots targeting cities such as Paris and Bologna, Italy.
After renaming itself Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, the group launched small-scale attacks against convoys of foreign oil workers in December and February, killing at least one Russian worker and wounding several Americans and Britons.
Also in February, police in Spain arrested a Moroccan named Mbark Jaafari, a semiprofessional boxer known as “The Tiger,” in the northeastern town of Reus. Police accused him of sending 32 recruits to train or fight in Algeria, Iraq and Afghanistan during the last year, a sign of North African networks working together on common fronts.
U.S. anti-terrorism agents helped Spanish police focus on Jaafari, warning that they suspected him of plotting against American targets in Europe, a senior Spanish law enforcement official said.
“He was clearly a recruiter,” said the Spanish official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the issue. “And he was also someone who, if he gets an order, carries it out. He was dangerous.”
Police are now examining possible ties between Jaafari and events in Morocco.
On the night of March 11, a young man wearing a bomb belt blew up in an Internet cafe in Casablanca; he was killed, four others were wounded. Police believe that the dead man and a second would-be bomber stopped at the cafe en route to a target.
The cafe’s owner confronted the two when he noticed that they logged on to an extremist website, possibly to get instructions. This led to a scuffle that set off the explosion.
The incident occurred in the slum where the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, known as GICM, planned the suicide bombings that killed 45 people, including 12 bombers, in Casablanca in 2003. The duo apparently had chosen a symbolic date: the third anniversary of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, in which the GICM has been implicated.
Days before, police in Casablanca stormed into another cyber cafe and arrested a top fugitive: Saad Housseini.
A university-trained chemist, Housseini was a founder of the GICM in 2001 at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and led its military wing, according to Italian court documents. He provided training in explosives at the camp before returning to Morocco, where he was allegedly involved in the 2003 attacks and may have overseen the latest Casablanca incident, police say.
The question is whether Housseini and younger Moroccan operatives have joined forces with the more hierarchical and paramilitary Algerian leadership of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, investigators say. A third U.S. counter-terrorism official said there was still a lot to find out.
“We haven’t been really paying attention to that part of the world because we have been consumed by Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.
Meyer reported from Washington and Rotella from Nice, France.