- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Police said yesterday they have arrested 27 persons in connection with Friday night’s terrorist attacks, boosting hopes they will learn quickly who was behind the carefully coordinated attacks.

At least 41 persons were killed — 10 of them terrorists — and more than 100 injured in the nearly simultaneous attacks at five sites in Morocco’s largest city — a pattern closely following the coordinated attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, four days earlier.

Suspicions in both cases have centered on Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network.

Security guards at the Arab-owned Hotel Farah, one of the attack sites, captured a suspect as he tried to flee the hotel after his bomb failed to explode.

Seconds earlier, another terrorist managed to set off a bomb that had been attached to his belt, killing two hotel staff members and injuring several others.

Hotel spokesman Khalid Boukhari, the director of sales and marketing, said the two young men, probably between ages 18 and 20, tried to enter the building dressed in basketball sneakers and street clothes around 10 p.m., but were stopped by a security guard at the entrance.

One of the men then stabbed the guard to death before setting off his belt bomb, killing himself and a bellhop who had tried to restrain him. Mr. Boukhari said none of the guests at the 365-room hotel — which had been half full — was killed.

“There is no logic to this,” he said. “It makes no sense that they came here. Our hotel has nothing to do with Americans. The people who died, they were all Moroccan.”

All over Casablanca, people were stunned and bewildered that terror of such magnitude could have come to Morocco, a country known for its tolerance, which they had learned to consider safe.

“At first I thought it was a gas explosion,” said Abdullah Belhas, a butcher whose shop faces Casa de Espana, a private club popular with Spanish businessmen and diplomats that was also bombed. “I never believed in Morocco we would see explosions by terrorists.”

The explosion at Casa de Espana was also set off by suicide bombers around 10 p.m., killing or injuring scores of people and leaving a gruesome scene of carnage.

“I saw limbs everywhere,” said Fatima Zaghlouol, whose apartment faces the Spanish club. “A security guard was beheaded, and I heard flesh hitting the walls. It’s a catastrophe.”

Equally puzzling was the attack outside the Belgian Consulate, which killed a policeman and injured two others; it seems unlikely to have been carried out in retaliation for the war on Iraq, as Belgium strongly opposed the war.

The consulate issued a statement saying the three suicide bombers were actually targeting a Jewish-owned upscale Italian restaurant across the road, popular among well-heeled locals and tourists.

But Joe Kadoch, the 44-year-old owner of Positano, believes the consulate was the target.

“An attack like this takes a long time to plan,” he said. “How could they know I was Jewish? My restaurant is only 1 year old. Also, if you want to make a psychological impact, why not attack someplace better known?”

The attackers, who also bombed the Jewish cemetery and a Jewish community center, may have been trying to do just that.

The community center was closed at the time, yet three suicide bombers still set off their explosives, ripping apart themselves and most of the ground floor of the two-story stucco building.

Morocco has been swift to blame the attacks on outside rather than home-grown terrorists. “The acts perpetrated in Casablanca are the work of blind international terrorism,” said Hassan Aourid, a spokesman for Morocco’s King Mohammed. “Morocco is determined to punish terrorist acts without mercy.”

No group has claimed responsibility for the bombings, but the coordinated nature of the attacks put suspicion on al Qaeda, which President Bush warned in his weekly radio address was “not idle.” The address was taped before the Friday attacks, but U.S. officials believe the group was behind the attacks in Riyadh.

Officials were also looking for an al Qaeda connection to Friday’s attacks, noting that bin Laden described Morocco in an audiotape released in February as one of several U.S. allies “ready for liberation.”

While an FBI team investigated the Riyadh attacks, which killed nine attackers and 25 victims, fearful foreigners kept off the streets of the nation’s main port city, Jidda, after U.S. officials said the city could be a target.

The nation’s ailing King Fahd, in a rare public statement, declared that Saudi Arabia “will never allow any faction of deviated terrorists to harm the country and undermine the safety of its citizens and residents.”

U.S. authorities also remain worried about security in East Africa, announcing yesterday that staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya would be permitted to leave because of a “credible threat of attacks.”

An al Qaeda attack on the embassy in Nairobi in 1998 killed 231 persons, including 12 Americans.

Israel’s flagship airline, El Al, suspended flights to Kenya because of security concerns yesterday, following Britain, which banned flights to the country earlier in the week.

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