Morocco attacks fit terror pattern

Government officials Tuesday linked a series of suicide attacks to 'international terrorism.'

It is hard to find a Moroccan who understands the motivations of the 14 "kamikazes" who stormed a restaurant, a hotel and three other downtown locales late last week, leaving horror and broken lives in their wake.

But Fathallah Arsalan, spokesman for the banned Moroccan political party Justice and Charity, says he does. And he wonders why so many in his homeland, including foreigners and government officials, are now scratching their heads in disbelief.

"There is a common denominator in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco," says Arsalan, who broke off an interview to pray. "The system we have now is totalitarian, exclusive, manipulative, and lacks all credibility. As the status quo continues, the situation becomes more and more explosive."

Linking the Morocco attacks to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, he insists that Morocco and the rest of the Arab world are headed for more mayhem at Al Qaeda's hands unless repressive governments like his own ease their grip on moribund economies and corrupt political systems.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bin Laden's group, stealthy and sometimes invisible, is successfully capitalizing on local and national issues across the Arab world to foment international terror, say terror experts and Western diplomats.

Morocco, a country of 30 million citizens, has long been considered by Western travelers to be a Francophone paradise of sandy beaches, orange groves, and exotic birds. But it has been plunged into crisis and uncertainty this week with the realization that it faces a possible wave of homegrown - and internationally connected - terrorism.

Moroccan officials have identified two fundamentalist groups - the Righteous Path and Retrenchment and Excommunication - believed to have helped organize last Friday's attacks.

Police and military units swooped down on poor neighborhoods across the country Monday and Tuesday, seizing more suspects in last Friday's attacks. In some neighborhoods, veiled mothers and wives told investigators that their sons and husbands had already fled the police sweep.

Though officials are questioning two Egyptians in connection with the attacks, which killed 41 civilians, they have identified a majority of the 14 suicide bombers, two of whom survived, as locals. Eight bombers have been identified as of Tuesday morning, and all are said to be from the impoverished suburb of Sidi Moumen, southeast of Morocco's economic capital, Casablanca.

They are known here as "kamikazes," and officials say they have links to international terror - Al Qaeda topping their list of suspected groups. "The arrest of the two terrorists who are still living enabled remarkable advances in terms of intelligence," Interior Minister Mustapha Sahel told state television late Monday, revealing that 12 assailants, not 13 as initially reported, had died during their five-pronged assault on Friday.

Yet, while the Righteous Path and its sister party had not been linked to bin Laden's organization prior to the Casablanca attacks, Al Qaeda's links here were already documented. Moroccan officials, working with the CIA, arrested three Saudi nationals in June, 2002 for plotting to attack NATO vessels in the straits of Gibraltar. The Economist, a national daily newspaper, detailed new Moroccan links In Tuesday's editions, pointing out that leaders had been "schooled" in Afghanistan, along with some 300 other Moroccans, a dozen of whom remain incarcerated at a US detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Those arrests, which included a senior Saudi operative, Mohammed Tabiti, exposed bin Laden's broader plans to disperse Al Qaeda cells and foment terror through local affiliates.

The three Saudis, now imprisoned for life here, told Moroccan interrogators that they escaped Afghanistan, met in the Afghan city of Gardez, and arrived in North Africa on a mission to attack US and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar, senior Moroccan officials said at the time. The Saudis also claimed to have been with bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, as US bombers began their assault there. They insisted that the terror chief dropped out of sight in late November, 2001, but used his closest envoys to direct them to launch new terrorist attacks once they had become established in "familiar areas."

Cells were to operate in the regions of the world that they knew best.

"Terror cells spread out and melded themselves into Islamic organizations and newly formed terror groups," says Charles Heyman, Editor of the London-based Jane's World Armies. "Instead of one Al Qaeda network, you now have 100 mini-Al Qaeda networks operating with a global scope."

Impoverished Islamic countries like Morocco are fertile grounds for Al Qaeda's brand of extremism, say Islamic leaders like Mr. Arsalan. "This new extremism, to be precise, is a reaction," he insists. "Our youth want to leave the country because of the massive unemployment, poverty, and ignorance. When they can't get out, they seek solutions in drugs and even in suicide bombings."

Many suspected members of radical Islamist groups have been arrested in Morocco in recent months, and US officials have praised Rabat's cooperation in exchanging intelligence and actively pursuing individuals believed to be associated with Al Qaeda. But both human rights groups and Islamic networks have a new antiterror law, which they contend gives security forces authority to arrest suspects on paper-thin evidence.

A leading human rights activist, while agreeing that poverty fuels the flames of terror, blames the government for what he says has been its policy to bring Islamic political parties into the mainstream. "These parties are undemocratic by nature," says Mohammed El Boukili. A front-page editorial in Tuesday's Economist newspaper agreed, blasting authorities for surrendering to the demands of Islamists.

The Party of Justice and Development, a leading Islamic party - as well as the largest opposition party - appears poised to make major gains in upcoming local elections scheduled for September. A European diplomat said, however, that Islam is integral to Moroccan politics and can not easily be excluded. He credited the government with trying to integrate religion into the political sphere and combat terror at the same time.

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