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Morocco's nightmare

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

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Outside the restaurant in Casablanca, where a blast took place on the morning of May 17.-JALIL BOUNHAR/AP

Outside the restaurant in Casablanca, where a blast took place on the morning of May 17.-JALIL BOUNHAR/AP

ON May 17, suicide bombers struck in Casablanca, the biggest city in Morocco. Initial estimates indicate that the attacks on the country's commercial capital left 41 persons dead, including 10 suicide bombers, and injured more than 100. The five simultaneous attacks occurred at around 9 p.m. as Moroccans were getting ready for a weekend holiday. The targets of the attacks were a hotel, a Jewish community centre, a Jewish cemetery and a Spanish nightclub. Another bomb went off near the Belgian consulate. The authorities said that the majority of those killed and injured were Moroccans. They said that the attacks appeared to have been the work of a Moroccan organisation with international terrorist links.

U.S. State Department officials had issued a global advisory that the Al Qaeda network was planning to strike lightly defended targets worldwide. However, Morocco was not listed among the countries that were under threat from the terrorist organisation. Among the countries named were South Africa, Kenya and Malaysia. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed was not pleased with his country figuring in the U.S. list. He said that after the invasion of Iraq, the Americans were "afraid of their own shadows". U.S. officials had mentioned that the Malaysian state of Sabah, in the island of Borneo, was unsafe for travel. The British government unilaterally cancelled all flights to Kenya, citing a terrorist threat to British citizens. The Kenyan government had issued a warning about the entry of a high level Al Qaeda operative from Somalia into Kenya. Kenya's economy, like that of Morocco, is dependent to a great extent on revenues from tourism.

The Kingdom of Morocco was an important U.S. ally in the Cold War and Rabat, the capital, was the hub of Western and Israeli intelligence agencies. Moroccan troops were used to prop up puppet regimes in Africa at the behest of France and the U.S. King Mohammed, who ascended the throne in 1999 after the death of his father King Hassan, has tried to institute some political reforms. The hardline Islamist parties remain banned, and ultimate power still resides with the Palace. Elections scheduled to be held in April were postponed when it became clear that the parties with Islamist leanings were going to triumph.

On the issue of Iraq, the King, like almost all his fellow Arab heads of state, was initially for a peaceful solution. In March, Rabat had witnessed one of the biggest anti-war demonstrations, with more than 200,000 Moroccans participating in it. Once the war started, Morocco, like many other Arab countries, became a tacit supporter of U.S. aggression.

Islamists have had a strong presence in North Africa since the 1980s. Radical Islamists have been waging a guerilla warfare against the Algerian state for more than a decade now. Tens of thousands of people have been killed on both sides. The Islamists have been put down with a heavy hand in Tunisia and Libya. In April 2002, a truck bomb killed 21 people, mainly European tourists visiting a synagogue, in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba. Three Saudi Arabian nationals were arrested in 2002 in Casablanca for their alleged role in an Al Qaeda plot to attack U.S. warships passing through the Strait of Gibraltar. The Saudi Arabians were awarded 10-year prison terms after they admitted on interrogation that they had been trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the use of weapons and explosives.

Thabet bin Qais, claiming to represent Al Qaeda, was quoted in the Arab and international media on May 7 as saying that a series of dramatic attacks had been planned. An e-mail sent to a London-based Arabic magazine, Al Majalla, in the same week by Abu Mohammed Ablaj, who claimed to be an Al Qaeda operative, said that "martyrdom squads" were on the verge of targeting "the heart of America" and executing operations in the Gulf countries and against the allies of the U.S. U.S. intelligence agencies, led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), describe the terrorist attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca as part of the "blowback" phenomenon arising out of the war in Iraq. However, some critics of President George W. Bush point out that his administration's single-minded focus on Iraq had allowed Al Qaeda to regroup and stage lethal attacks.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 06, 2003.)

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