Shaken by attacks, Morocco cracks down on militants

Tough sentences given to 43 men convicted of May bombings in Casablanca.

Morocco has launched a major legal crackdown on Islamic militants. At the same time, the US ally, once considered to be one of the most stable states in the Arab world, continues its struggle to integrate moderate Islamists into national politics.

A court last week imposed heavy sentences on Islamic militants involved in a wave of deadly terror attacks in Casablancalast May.

The verdict in the trial of 87 presumed members of the extremist organization Salafia Jihadia was a harsh one - four men were sentenced to death, while 39 others will serve life sentences. Four Islamic clerics not directly involved in the bombings were also convicted of inciting the murder.

"This verdict is excessive," says Abdelkrim el Khatib, leader of the moderate IslamicParty of Justice and Development(PJD). "This will not bring people back to reason and will create discontent."

These trials mark an attempt by Morocco to clean up the political and cultural wreckage left in the wake of an unprecedented attack.

Only three months after Osama bin Laden named Morocco an "apostate" country and four days after the Riyadh attacks in Saudi Arabia, the country experienced its first real encounter with international terrorism.

A new Morocco awakened on May 16, when five coordinated terrorist attacks took place in Casablanca, the country's largest city, hitting two international restaurants, a hotel, and two Jewish centers. Thirty-three people and a dozen suicide bombers were killed.

The bombers were all Moroccans, but they belonged to the Salafia, an underground movement close to Al Qaeda created by former Afghanistan fighters in the 1990s.

Since last May, Moroccan authorities have arrested 634 people in connection with the attacks; a French convert to Islam and 33 other suspected Muslim militantswere put on trial Monday.

According to Mr. Khatib, the Casablanca verdict will not have any impact on his more moderate party. Yet he denounces the breadth of the trial, saying that the people directly involved in the attacks must be convicted, not the "nebula created around this case. We're convicting people for what they think."

The attacks have been a serious blow to the PJD, Morocco's only official Islamic party and its leading opposition group.

Abdelilah Benkirane, a prominent member of the PJD, rejects comparisons between his party and extremist organizations like the Salafia.

"The [Salafia] has transformed itself into a politically violent movement after the jihad in Afghanistan and the Gulf War," he says.

"We knew it would be difficult for us because, like us, they have an Islamic background."

Since the attacks, the PJD has adopted a low profile, voicing its opposition to violence and supporting the new government's antiterrorism policy. Yet the party has been accused of having created a climate which enabled the bombings to take place.

In its daily newspaper Attajdid, the Movement for Unification and Reform (MUR) - the most influential but also extreme branch of the PJD - has criticized Jews, denounced stores selling alcohol, and called for the closing of what they call "debauchery places," such as liquor stores and discos.

Answering his party's critics, Mr. Benkirane is quick to point out that the PJD has avoided acts of violence for 20 years. "Moroccans should thank us because if our movement had not called for moderation and participation, things would have been much worse," he says.

When it was first created in 1997, the main purpose of the PJD was to contain the Islamist movement by attracting Islamic militants into a "moderate" party. Its charismatic leader El Khatib, who once led Morocco's resistance movement against French colonialism, and - above all - is a man from a family allied with the monarchy, has remained a moderate force.

However, in light of the recent terrorist attacks, many question the party's ability to oppose the spread of religious extremism.

According to political analyst and Islamism expert Mohamed Tozy, the PJD can play a role in the integration of political Islam at a national level, but it is "beyond their competence" to contain the influence of radical groups.

"Morocco is, of course, caught up by jihadism like other countries," Mr. Tozy says.

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