Authorities in Morocco said Monday they were searching for nine escaped prisoners who had been convicted of terrorist offenses. The prisoners were convicted in connection with multiple suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003. The nine men were among hundreds of Islamist suspects rounded up after the terrorist attacks, but were not considered to be among the masterminds.
News of the Moroccan militants' jailbreak came on the third day of a closely watched trial in London of eight men accused of plotting to bomb several passenger planes bound for the US in 2006, reports Agence France-Presse. The alleged plot, which was disrupted by British security forces, involved disguising homemade bombs as soda bottles. That prompted the global clampdown on liquids carried onto flights.
Both the trial and the escape relate to an apparent escalation of terror-related activity in Europe. In early March, US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, "One of the reasons we're seeing more attacks in Europe is because they think it's easier," reported the Washington Post.
Moroccan Muslims were reportedly among the extremists that bombed a train station in Madrid in 2004 and have also been recruited to fight in Iraq, says the BBC. Authorities there have sought to crack down on militants to show Western allies that Morocco is a reliable partner in the US-led efforts to combat Islamist violence. The escaped prisoners apparently dug a tunnel out of the jail after protesting their innocence and saying the legal system had failed them. Human rights groups are skeptical of the soundness of some criminal convictions in the wake of the Casablanca bombings.
The 2003 Casablanca attacks were blamed at the time on the banned Islamist group Salafia Jihadia, which Moroccan security officials have accused of links to Al Qaeda, reports London's The Guardian. Bombs detonated at five locations in the city, including a Jewish community center and the Belgian consulate, killing 45 people. The attacks were a huge blow to Morocco, a fairly liberal Islamic country in North Africa with a substantial foreign tourist industry.
About 700 people were put on trial for offenses linked to the bombings. Four men were sentenced to death for their involvement in the attacks.
The alleged mastermind, Abdelhaq Bentassir, died in custody, prompting an outraged response from civil rights groups.
Most of the suspected bombers came from a Casablanca shantytown, with the attacks highlighting the lack of opportunities for poor Casablanca residents.
Morocco continues to grapple with militant violence, reports the Associated Press. Last year, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside an Internet cafe in Casablanca, which authorities linked to an alleged plot against tourist sites across the country. The following month, two brothers strapped on explosives that they detonated near the US consulate in Casablanca, killing themselves but nobody else.
Last week, a court in London began the trial of eight suspects accused of what prosecutors say was a plot in August 2006 to blow up seven transatlantic flights in midair using liquid explosives. Prosecutors said the alleged attack, had it succeeded, would have caused a tragedy that the "world was unlikely ever to forget." The suspects, mostly British Muslims of Pakistani origins, have all denied charges of murder and conspiracy to commit an act of violence likely to endanger aircraft.
The trial follows Britain's largest-ever counterterrorism operation to thwart what authorities categorized as the most ambitious terrorist plot since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US, says The Washington Post. The targeted flights from London's Heathrow Airport to destinations in the US and Canada were due to leave within hours of each other.
Perhaps the most dramatic courtroom moment came when [prosecutor Peter] Wright screened a computer animation of the flight paths of the seven planes that showed how the planes would all have been airborne over the Atlantic Ocean at the same time at the height of the summer vacation season.
Once the first bomb went off, "the authorities would be unable to prevent the other flights from meeting a similar fate as they would already be in midair and carrying their deadly cargo," he said.
On Monday, the court heard that alleged ringleader Mohammed Yasar Gulzar used a false passport to fly to Britain in August 2006, triggering a flurry of activity by the other defendants who were under police surveillance, reports Britain's Daily Telegraph. Mr. Gulzar, who claimed to be a Muslim missionary on a honeymoon to Britain, was arrested at an unfurnished apartment in London where police found Pakistan-made batteries and a mobile phone with the number of another suspect, Assad Sarwar.
When police raided Mr Sarwar's home they found a computer memory stick hidden in the garage which contained the suicide videos of six of the eight defendants and information on bomb-making an[d] possible targets, which Mr Gulzar had accessed on his laptop.
Last week, prosecutors alleged that Salwar had gathered detailed information on other targets that included a European gas pipeline, Britain's electricity grid and nuclear power stations, says the Associated Press. Salwar had allegedly decided not to join the other defendants in carrying out their suicide attacks on transatlantic flights, indicating that he had other terrorist plots in mind, prosecutors told the court.
The BBC reports that authorities believe the suspects may have been inspired by the 2005 suicide attacks on London's transport network. One of the suspect carried photos of the four London bombers. Other extremist materials were also recovered from raids on suspects' homes, said the lead prosecutor.
Prosecutor Peter Wright QC said every one of the eight men played a vital role in the conspiracy to detonate homemade bombs aboard flights bound for north America.
"From commanding officer through quartermaster to foot soldier, each of them was a necessary component part; of those who had assembled in the UK ready, able and willing to play their part in this plot to try and bring terror to the skies in a way that the world was unlikely to ever forget," he said.
Several members of the group played tennis together as they allegedly prepared their attacks, says the Press Association (UK). The jury was shown surveillance footage of the apartment in London where the prosecution said bombs were assembled and suicide videos taped. Undercover police also watched some of the men play tennis near the top-floor apartment, the court was told.
The bombmakers allegedly sought to inject liquid explosives into 500 ml bottles of sports drinks that appeared to be unopened, reports Reuters. After smuggling the bottles onto the flight, the suspects would have used a detonator hidden in a hollowed-out battery and powered by a disposable camera or another electronic device to trigger them.