Sui­cide Bombers Strike N. Africa Again

Blasts in Casablanca Tar­get U.S. In­ter­ests; More Vi­o­lence Feared

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Craig Whit­lock

BER­LIN, April 14 — Sui­cide bombers struck in North Africa on Satur­day for the third time in a week, tar­get­ing the U.S. Con­sulate and an Amer­i­can cul­tural cen­ter in the Moroc­can port city of Casablanca. U.S. of­fi­cials warned that more ter­ror­ist at­tacks in the re­gion could be im­mi­nent, de­scrib­ing spe­cific plots in Al­ge­ria.

In Casablanca, two brothers wear­ing belts packed with ex­plo­sives blew them­selves up within mo­ments of each other out­side the con­sulate and the Amer­i­can Lan­guage Cen­ter, a pri­vately run school and cul­tural cen­ter on the same street, sev­eral blocks away. Po­lice said the brothers ap­par­ently were un­able to breach se­cu­rity bar­ri­ers at the sites. The only ca­su­alty was a by­s­tander who was re­ported slightly in­jured.

Se­cu­rity con­cerns across North Africa have es­ca­lated since Tues­day, when three sui­cide bombers from the same cell in Casablanca blew them­selves up af­ter a con­fronta­tion with po­lice. The fol­low­ing day, in neigh­bor­ing Al­ge­ria, 33 peo­ple were killed when car bombers at­tacked the Gov­ern­ment Palace in the cap­i­tal, Al­giers, and a sub­ur­ban po­lice sta­tion.

Both coun­tries are brac­ing for fur­ther vi­o­lence. In Al­giers, the U.S. Em­bassy is­sued a pub­lic warn­ing early Satur­day that the Al­ge­rian state television head­quar­ters and the cen­tral post of­fice in Al­giers were pos­si­bly be­ing tar­geted for at­tack. Last month, the em­bassy is­sued a warn­ing of threats to com­mer­cial air­lin­ers car­ry­ing Western­ers who work in Al­ge­ria’s oil and gas fields.

Coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials in Al­ge­ria and Morocco said there is no ev­i­dence to con­nect the at­tacks in Casablanca and Al­giers, but they have not ruled out a link. No or­ga­nized group has as­serted re­spon­si­bil­ity for the Casablanca sui­cide bomb­ings. The op­er­a­tions in Al­ge­ria were car­ried out by the group al-Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb, a re­gional af­fil­i­ate of Osama bin Laden’s global net­work that an­a­lysts said is try­ing to co­or­di­nate lo­cal cells across North Africa.

“Th­ese groups are work­ing to­gether, and the level of or­ga­ni­za­tion has changed com­pletely,” said Is­abelle Weren­fels, a North Africa ex­pert at the Ger­man In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional and Se­cu­rity Af­fairs in Ber­lin. “This is start­ing to look like a real cam­paign. I def­i­nitely think things are get­ting worse.”

Satur­day’s bomb­ings in Casablanca were the first ter­ror­ist at­tacks on a U.S. tar­get in Morocco, a mod­er­ate Mus­lim na­tion and long­time ally of the United States. Moroc­can and U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials have been warn­ing of an in­creased threat there since May 16, 2003, when 33 peo­ple were killed by a dozen sui­cide bombers in Casablanca.

Moroc­can au­thor­i­ties iden­ti­fied the brothers who blew them­selves up Satur­day as Mohamed Maha, 32, and Omar Maha, 23, both of Casablanca, ac­cord­ing to the state-run MAP news agency.

Later Satur­day, po­lice ar­rested three sus­pects in the vicin­ity of the U.S. Con­sulate, in­clud­ing one who was car­ry­ing ex­plo­sives; an­other belt packed with ex­plo­sives was re­cov­ered out­side a nearby up­scale ho­tel, an In­te­rior Min­istry of­fi­cial told the As­so­ci­ated Press.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors said the sus­pects and the bombers be­longed to the same cell that po­lice con­fronted Tues­day. That day, three of its mem­bers det­o­nated sim­i­lar ex­plo­sives belts af­ter be­ing cor­nered by of­fi­cers; a fourth bomber was killed by a po­lice sniper.

Moroc­can of­fi­cials had been look­ing for the bombers since March 11, when an­other mem­ber of the cell blew him­self up in a Casablanca In­ter­net cafe af- ter the pro­pri­etor no­ticed he was surf­ing rad­i­cal Is­lamic Web sites. Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials had said they sus­pected the group was plot­ting against ho­tels and cruise ships in Casablanca’s port, but did not sin­gle out U.S. in­ter­ests as be­ing at risk.

MAP re­ported Satur­day that in­ves­ti­ga­tors had ar­rested the leader of the cell, but did not say when he was de­tained or give de­tails.

U.S. and Euro­pean coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials have said they are par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about the emer­gence of al-Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb, which has been re­cruit­ing and train­ing fight­ers from across the re­gion. Maghreb is an Ara­bic word for the re­gion of North Africa stretch­ing from Mau­ri­ta­nia to Libya.

“It’s quite a se­ri­ous threat, and it bodes ill for things to come,” said Emily Hunt, a re­search fel­low at the In­ter­na­tional As­sess­ment and Strat­egy Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton who has stud­ied ter­ror­ist threats in North Africa. “Th­ese groups very much con­sider them­selves to be part of the global ji­had now. It’s not just lo­cal groups act­ing on their own.”

Al-Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb was for­merly an Al­ge­rian in­sur­gent group known as the Salafist Group for Preach­ing and Com­bat. Founded in 1998 in the midst of Al­ge­ria’s lon­grun­ning civil war, it was ded­i­cated to the over­throw of the coun­try’s sec­u­lar gov­ern­ment.

A few years ago, how­ever, the group be­gan mak­ing a pub­lic out­reach to alQaeda.

Last Septem­ber, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, Ay­man al-Zawahiri, an­nounced that his move­ment had for­mal­ized a part­ner­ship with the Al­ge­ri­ans and pub­licly urged them to at­tack U.S. and French in­ter­ests.

In Jan­uary, the Al­ge­rian group re­named it­self as an al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate and has stepped up its op­er­a­tions since then.


In­ves­ti­ga­tors search for sus­pects in Casablanca af­ter two brothers blew them­selves up in at­tacks tar­get­ing the U.S. Con­sulate and an Amer­i­can cul­tural cen­ter.

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