Concern Grows over Terrorism in Morocco
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're going next to one of the cities of our imagination. In the Bogart movie "Casablanca" was the scene of Rick's Cafe Americain. If you travel to the real Casablanca, Morocco today and stop by the American consulate, you'll find it closed. It shut down after a pair of nearby explosions last month. And that is awkward for Moroccans who want Western development and tourism, not terrorism.
This is the second North African country we visited this week to trace the growth of violent Islamist groups. We've visited Algeria yesterday. Today we arrive in a country facing the same threat, though Morocco may be more ready to face it.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
PETER KENYON: Casablanca shantytowns and poor neighborhoods have been a source of young militants for years. In May of 2003, a dozen suicide bombers killed themselves and 30 bystanders in a coordinated attack aimed at Jewish and Western targets in Casablanca.
This year's bombings, although smaller and not obviously coordinated, were a grim reminder that Morocco is still a target.
At the top of a three-story walk-up building wedged between sporting goods stores, brothers Mohammad and Omar grew up in a shack on the roof. Neighbors remember the pair as ordinary boys playing soccer and going to school. Twenty-two year old Ali, in the alley around the corner, says he didn't notice anything about the brothers to suggest they were thinking about blowing themselves up near the U.S. consulate.
ALI (Casablanca Resident): (Foreign language spoken)
KENYON: I knew them since we were kids, Ali says. Mohammad was a little more religious than Omar, but it was an ordinary childhood. We played football, went to the beach, looked at the girls walking by. So when it happened, we were shocked. I couldn't sleep for a week.
Six weeks after the attack, the consulate remains closed, an embarrassment for the Moroccans. One politician remarked on the irony of having America's embassy in Iraq open but not the consulate in Casablanca. American officials say the consulate will reopen after new security measures are put in place.
Analysts and counterterrorism officials hesitate to draw out too clear a link between the Morocco bombings, the ones next door in Algeria and al-Qaida, but they say the circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that at the very least the flow of Islamist fighters in and out of Iraq may be providing recruits and possibly training for the North Africa attacks.
In Spain this week, authorities detained 16 North Africans suspected of recruiting volunteers to fight in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. Security forces in Algeria and Morocco have announced similar raids in recent weeks.
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KENYON: At a cafe in the Moroccan capital Rabat, analyst Manar Esslimi says the North Africa bombings are early signs of potential ties between terror cells in the region and al-Qaida, although he doesn't believe in the case of Morocco, at least, that the contacts are very far advanced.
Mr. MANAR ESSLIMI (Political Analyst, Morocco): (Through translator) The recent events show the beginning of contacts between local extremists and al-Qaida operatives in Europe. There is no evidence until now that al-Qaida exists in Morocco. What we have is cells composed of people who fought in Afghanistan or Iraq and groups trying to imitate al-Qaida.
KENYON: What's not clear yet is whether there's a coordinated effort by al-Qaida to destabilize North Africa. A Western diplomat in Rabat said he see no evidence of a link between the Casablanca and Algerian attacks, but there's no reason to conclude that the heightened activity, as he termed the spate of bombings this spring, has ended.
Officials and analysts say the difference in the challenges facing Morocco and Algeria in part reflects their progress or lack of progress in economic and political reform. Both countries have made efforts to integrate Islamists into mainstream politics with Morocco achieving greater success.
In Algiers, Abdelhamid Mehri, former secretary general of the ruling FLN Party, says Algeria has basically stopped its reform program and is relying exclusively on the army to address the problem of Islamist violence. He says his biggest fear is that the United States is making a similar mistake, dropping the push to bring democracy to the Arab world and leaving the region to a regressive cycle of bloody attacks and brutal repression.
Mr. ABDELHAMID MEHRI (Former Secretary General, National Liberation Front): (Through translator) My main concern is that the Americans will not learn from our mistakes. Our mistakes were fighting against terror only militarily. We have been doing that for 15 years and it's not working.
KENYON: In Morocco, meanwhile, the prospects for a brighter economic future, at least, are more apparent. Officials hope that a new port complex in Tangier, for instance, will lead to a job-generating boom in Morocco's shipping and import-export industries. The Western diplomat in Rabat said in five to 10 years time, he expects Morocco to feel, economically at least, much more like a European country than it does today. Personally, he said, I can't see a handful of guys with suicide bomb belts being permitted to block that.
But analysts in both countries say in the short term, the effort to recruit young North Africans to the cause of radical Islam are producing more than enough worries for both countries.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Rabat.
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