- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Investigators yesterday were questioning scores of suspected Islamic militants to determine whether Friday night’s suicide bombers were acting on instructions from outside groups like al Qaeda, as first thought, or were working alone.

Those who have been rounded up since the attacks — which left 41 persons dead including 13 of the 14 terrorists — include members of two underground local Islamic groups — the Salafia Jihadia, which is suspected of ties to al Qaeda, and the smaller, more violent Assirat Al Moustaquim, or “The Righteous Path.”

The bombings that simultaneously struck a Spanish club, an upscale Italian restaurant, an Arab-owned hotel and a Jewish community center in the economic capital, Casablanca, were initially denounced by the Moroccan monarchy as the work of “international blind terrorism.”

However, investigators are now focusing on the more unsettling idea that the young Moroccan suicide bombers could have been a product of home-nurtured Islamic extremism.

In Casablanca, evidence of miscalculations surfaced yesterday that suggested the attackers were not as well trained as first believed.

For example, the suicide bombers attacked a Jewish community center when it was closed and empty. A day later, the building would have been packed.

Another attacker blew himself up near a fountain, killing three Muslims. He apparently mistook it for one near a Jewish cemetery not far away. The cemetery was undamaged.

The apparent missteps “could explain a number of things” about planning and execution of the attack, or indicate the attackers were simply recruited from poor neighborhoods, government spokesman Nabil Benabdellah said.

“The experts were the ones behind the scenes,” Mr. Benabdellah said. The attackers “were used, they were simply trained how to act,” he said.

In Rabat, the Moroccan capital, a Western diplomat said, “There was an initial spin here at least to suggest it was external. And I think you will continue to see that. It’s part of the denial — it can’t be us.”

He added that while there might perhaps be no “operational link” between local extremist groups and al Qaeda, there is “definitely an ideological link.”

Local news media, quoting unnamed police sources said most of the attackers — ages between 18 and 25 — were from Sidi Moumen, a poor neighborhood in Casablanca that is also said to be the primary base for Assirat Al Moustaquim.

Khalid Alioua, the minister of higher education and editor of Al Ittihad al Ichtiraki, a local newspaper, said the slums of Sidi Moumen are well known for their lack of security. He added that the government had even found some mosques there that had been used for recruiting and training young radicals.

Despite the surprise and shock universally expressed by residents here in the aftermath of the attacks, that Morocco was a terrorist target should have come as no surprise to the country’s authorities. In recent years, there have been growing signs that Morocco could be as vulnerable to terrorism as its Arab neighbors.

“Many al Qaeda members who were arrested in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay [in late 2001] were Moroccan,” said Mr. Alioua. “That was the first indication.”

Last June, security services here also dismantled an al Qaeda cell that had infiltrated Morocco. The three Saudi men had apparently been planning to attack Western ships crossing the Strait of Gibraltar.

In a tape released in February, Osama bin Laden warned that countries allied with the United States, such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan, would be victims of terrorist acts. Four days before the Casablanca bombings, Saudi Arabia was attacked.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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