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Terror's allure in Casablanca slum

Thomasville, Morocco, was home to several of last week's radical young suicide bombers.

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2003



THOMASVILLE, MOROCCO

One of his best friends noticed the stark changes over the past two years.

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"He grew a beard and stopped saying hello," says Radaa Abdullah of Mohammed Larossi, who died as a suicide bomber in a massive attack on Casablanca last Friday that killed 41 people. "When he did [greet you], it was only to talk about Afghanistan and those he called great holy warriors."

Mr. Larossi - like his colleagues in Assirat Al Moustakim, or the Righteous Path - had embraced an austere form of Islam that took law and judgment into its own hands. The devout young men worked on the premise that anyone not following the tenets of Islam should be punished in public - even waiting up at night to catch beer drinkers and womanizers walking home.

"Moustikam members would take you into an alley and beat you shouting, 'Allahu Akhbar [God is great]!" says Said Shuke, who was assaulted himself one night on the way home from the Cafe Noir, a once-jovial establishment near the Thomasville slum.

Yet the beatings did not overly alarm many residents of this tiny slum, formerly the estate of a French colonialist, Mlle. Thomas. Morocco has flirted with various forms of Islam, some moderate and some extreme, for centuries. Many of last Friday's suicide bombers continued to wear jeans and drink mint tea with friends who remained oblivious to their intentions.

Certainly the young men of Thomasville were not acting strangely enough for anyone to envision that eight of them from this and a nearby shantytown would go on a suicidal rampage. It wasn't until the Righteous Path's own jihad, or struggle,crossed paths with a larger international one commanded by Osama bin Laden that mass slaughter became possible, say Moroccan officials, Western diplomats, and local residents.

Moroccan investigators are now hunting for two of their countrymen who trained in Afghanistan and later took up residence in Belgium and the Netherlands. In a related development, a senior Saudi official said Wednesday that security officials had captured three Moroccans who, he said, appeared poised to try to hijack an airplane for a suicide mission. Saudi officials, who later gave conflicting accounts of the arrest, said the Moroccans were believed to be members of Al Qaeda. The Moroccans were not immediately linked to last week's suicide bombings in Riyadh though possible involvement was being scrutinized.

Mohammed Naji, a Thomasville resident, said he believed the local men were pushed from the outside "by bigger operatives who had more experience with international terror."

"I don't think they knew what they were stepping into when they strapped on those bombs last Friday night," he says. Indeed, early results of an investigation show the bombers were not highly trained - an indication of how easy it is for terror networks to turn disenchanted young men into time-bombs.

The bombing in Casablanca is now a subject of intense study by US, French, Belgian, Spanish, German, and Moroccan investigators. Forensics specialists from the FBI in Washington flew in this week to offer their expertise. Spain's defense minister, Federico Trillo, speaking from Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta this week, said operatives activated detonators on the attackers' vests using mobile phones. The more senior operatives, dialing in from Europe or elsewhere in Morocco, thus managed to set off five nearly simultaneous blasts.

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