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How North African nations are dealing with Islamist resurgence

Leaders must subdue the Islamist movement without empowering radicals or undercutting moderates, analysts say.

By Jill CarrollStaff writer / April 12, 2007



CASABLANCA, Morocco

Two car bombs in Algeria Wednesday provided jarring reminders of the Islamic insurgency that wreaked havoc there in the 1990s. It was a signal that yet another large-scale battle with militants may be brewing.

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For weeks, the government has been fighting Al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the remote highlands of the North African nation. But these are the first attacks on the capital, Algiers, in years – one hit the prime minister's office in the city center and the other a police station in the eastern outskirts. Together the attacks killed at least 30 people.

In neighboring Morocco on Tuesday, three suspected terrorists exploded suicide belts and another was shot dead as police were chasing them. They were all wanted in connection with another suicide bombing on March 11.

The governments of this region, ruled by entrenched authoritarians, face a confrontation with a growing Islamist movement. Some groups are rising up to challenge the government in elections, and others are becoming more violent.

The challenge for the leaders of Morocco and Algeria, say analysts, is how to subdue the Islamist movement without empowering more radicals or undercutting mainstream, moderate Muslim forces.

"What the Moroccans did was smart, by opening the door slowly, by allowing in [several] Islamist [groups]. That's one way of diluting the power of any one party," says Marina Ottaway, head of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"The worst thing that can happen from the point of view of the government is what happened in Algeria [in the 1990s]," she says. "All of the sudden they uncorked the bottle, and all the [political] support goes to the Islamists," which the government then tried to suppress, sparking a brutal civil war that started in 1992.

Rita Katz, director of the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) institute in Washington, confirmed that Wednesday's attacks were carried out by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the newly renamed group of veteran Algerian fighters from the civil war.

"They changed their strategy in the last few months to Al Qaeda [style of] targeting military positions and foreign companies. I believe they carried out this attempted attack on the prime minister. It really looks like them," says Ms. Katz.

Morocco has seen only a smattering of such violence recently, but analysts say the way it handles political opposition will determine whether radical elements of Islamist groups are empowered.

Political parties based on religion are banned in Morocco, but parties with "an Islamic reference" are permitted to run in elections as long as they follow the monarchy's rules. That means acknowledging the authority of the king and submitting to election laws that make it impossible for any one group to dominate the parliament. Some groups are participating in elections and gaining limited political power, while others reject the system entirely but maintain grass-roots support.

"In the Islamic world, the Islamist movements are close to the people because the governments aren't there. The people go with the Islamists. In every small place, every alley, there is [The] Justice and Charity Organization," in Morocco, which rejects political participation, says Mohammed Darif, a political science professor at the Hassan II University in Mohammedia, Morocco. "Any Islamist group that supports the government will lose their popular support."

Another group, The Justice and Development Party, is taking a different route. It is the third-largest political party in the Moroccan parliament and the leading group with an "Islamic reference." It is expected to garner even more seats in parliamentary elections planned for September.

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