Morocco bombing bears hallmark of Al Qaeda group

Thursday's bombing in a popular Morocco tourist spot killed at least 16, and could give Moroccan leaders reason to halt reform efforts instigated by prodemocracy protests.

Tarik Najmaoui/AP
A police officer stands outside a cordon off building after an explosion ripped through a cafe popular among foreign tourists in the Moroccan city of Marrakech, Morocco, Thursday, April, 28, killing and wounding people in what the government called a suspected criminal act.

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The death toll has risen to 16 in a Thursday bomb attack at a popular tourist spot in Marrakesh, Morocco. While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, security experts told Reuters that it bore similarities to previous attacks by Islamic militants.

At least 10 of those killed in the Argana cafe overlooking the city's Djemma el-Fna Square were foreigners, according to the BBC. It is the first suicide attack since 2003, when suicide bombers killed 45 people, including themselves, in Casablanca. The square is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the top visitor spots in a country that relies heavily on tourism revenue – according to Reuters, it is the country's second largest industry, after agriculture.

"You can't find a more emblematic target than Jamaa-el-Fnaa square," a restaurant owner told the Guardian. "With this attack and amid the worrying unrest in the region, tourism will hit the doldrums."

The North African Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is active in neighboring Algeria, but Morocco has been largely quiet since the 2003 attacks in Casablanca. A chief concern of the Moroccan government is that AQIM will eventually expand beyond Algeria and the Sahara desert and establish a base in Morocco, which it has so far failed to do, Reuters reports.

Government spokesman Khalid Naciri was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that Moroccan security regularly halts terrorist plots and discovers terrorist cells.

Moroccan authorities have rounded up thousands of purported terror suspects in recent years and while they "regularly discover terrorist cells ... nothing led us to foresee an act of this magnitude," Mr. Naciri said.

"Morocco has an international image of welcome, hospitality and tourism," he said "An act of this magnitude will leave its mark."

The government announced in January that it had arrested 27 suspected terrorists with links to AQIM in the southern region of the country. But a video appeared on YouTube last week featuring men claiming to be Moroccan members of AQIM and threatening to "attack Moroccan interests," the Guardian reported.

The Casablanca attack in 2003 was the work of a local Islamic militant group and did not have ties to Al Qaeda, according to an analyst quoted by Reuters.

"Would-be attackers in Morocco are usually youths from deprived urban areas who have low terrorist capabilities and no connections with established groups," said Anna Murison of Exclusive Analysis.

But several analysts said they suspected AQIM involvement in the latest bombing. U.S.-based corporate intelligence firm Stratfor said an attack on a soft target popular with tourists, as in the Marrakesh blast, "fits AQIM's target set."

The bomb attack in Morocco highlights a key worry of both Western countries and Middle Eastern leaders attempting to tamp down terrorism in their countries: that the unrest and distraction caused by the region's prodemocracy movements is providing an opening for terrorist groups. The US is particularly concerned about Yemen, where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is based.

Morocco has been relatively stable the last couple months. In contrast to its North African neighbors, King Mohammed VI ceded to some of the protesters' demands for political reform quickly, bringing protests earlier this year to a quick end. However, the king does still retain final say on most government matters and the country's most prominent Islamist party is banned from the political process, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Now there are concerns that the government could halt its reform efforts, which it would justify with the need for increased security in light of the Thursday attack – an excuse that many other Middle East autocrats have fallen back on.

Earlier this week, thousands of Moroccans demonstrated, calling for further political reforms before the new constitution (a concession made by the king earlier this year) is presented in June, according to CNN. They disagree with the new constitution because it was crafted by a group of people designated by the king. Last month, King Mohammed agreed to cede some of his powers and to make the Moroccan judiciary independent.

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