Is Al Qaeda's influence spreading to Morocco?

Islamists are charged with plotting to attack the US Embassy in Rabat.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Troubling signs are emerging that Morocco is becoming fertile ground for more sophisticated militant groups.

The latest evidence: A trial of 50 Islamists who allegedly planned to attack the US Embassy in Rabat, a military base, and tourist destinations. And unlike the groups behind previous terrorist bombings in this moderate Muslim monarchy, this group was drawn not from the slums of Casablanca, but from the society's upper echelons.

There is also evidence of NorthAfricans working with Al Qaeda insurgents in Iraq and Pakistan – raising concerns that they will return home with their newfound skills.

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"We're at a tipping point now," says Evan Kohlmann, an counterterrorism consultant in New York who tracks militant Islamic groups. "If you look at the demographics of who joins terrorist groups, a lot are educated, a lot are prosperous."

The group on trial, called Ansar al Mehdi, includes middle-class Moroccans, some drawn from the Army, and four women, two of whom are married to Royal Air Maroc pilots, according to statements government officials have made to Moroccan media. That's a significant shift.

Before now, the bombers who killed 33 people in Casablanca in 2003, another young man who blew himself up March 11, as well as those who Spanish police say participated in the Madrid train bombings in 2004 were all drawn from the slums outside Casablanca and Tetouan in the north.

"The stereotype [about suicide bombers] is that everyone is stupid and poor," says Mr. Kohlmann. Until now, that's been true in Morocco, he says. But Kohlmann notes that isn't the right approach to stopping terrorism, "hoping your adversaries are making small bombs and are incapable."

Security services in Morocco, as well as neighboring Algeria, have aggressively cracked down on militant Islamist groups seen as a threat to the regimes. That has produced short-term results, but human rights groups say that innocent people are being arrested and tortured in the pursuit of terrorists, possibly creating more militants.

"The North African [militant] groups have suffered significantly in the past four to five years because of law enforcement and military action and intelligence action by the North African countries and the US," says Rohan Gunaratna an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of a book on Al Qaeda. But, "These groups have proved very resilient. That means despite sustained action against them, they have survived."

The Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, Tunisia Islamic Fighting Group, and an Algerian group that recently renamed itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb "have a presence in the Federally Administered Tribal Area [in Pakistan] and without exception all those groups are in Iraq," says Mr. Gunaratna.

Thus the concern that "amateur hour" for Moroccan militants may be over if fighters return from Iraq with greater expertise. "Many people are worried about North Africans going to Iraq," says Kohlmann, noting that groups from across the region have been suicide bombers in Iraq. "The concern is these Moroccans are going to learn things in Iraq, come back, and link up with Algeria."

Once considered on the verge of extinction, Algerian militants have made a startling resurgence in recent weeks. Since officially joining Al Qaeda in September, under the new name Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, they've launched a string of attacks against foreign workers as well as Algerian police and soldiers. The group, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, has spent years fighting the Algerian government.

In January, the head of the group issued an open letter that amounted to a call to arms and a statement of targets broader than the Algerian government. "As for the evil alliance that is led by America militarily, by France culturally, and backed by NATO, the joining of Algeria [alongside it] and the deceleration of allegiance to you [Osama bin Laden] has become a lump in their throats and heartache in their chests," said Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, also known as Abdelmalek Droukdal in the message posted on Kohlmann's website.

In recent weeks in Algeria "there has been an unprecedented set of attacks targeting foreign workers and these communiqués being putting out," says Kohlmann, noting that Algerian militants appear to be using tactics learned from insurgents in Iraq.

Morocco's Interior Ministry says they haven't found links between militant Moroccan groups and Al Qaeda. Indeed, a March 11 suicide bombing in a busy Internet cafe in a Casablanca slum killed only the bomber who appeared to have set it off in panic after a cafe owner told him to stop looking at jihadi websites. But the Ministry of Interior said the veteran Algerian militants rebranding themselves as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb may serve to "inspire" Moroccans seeking jihad.

Falah Abdejalil lives next to the Internet cafe in Casablanca's slum where the suicide bomber killed himself March 11. He says the horror of what he saw that day keeps him up at night. Still, he says, he knows why a young man would resort to violence.

"You know the reason this man blew himself up? George W. Bush. Bush loves his dog more than the Muslim people," he says, pretending to kiss a dog while standing in the street outside his house surrounded by friends who, like him and many Moroccans, can't find a job.

Next week: Security efforts versus Moroccan judicial reforms.

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