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Al Qaeda May Be Widening War of Terror

As death toll from Casablanca bombings rises to 41, authorities detain Islamic militants. Experts worry Bin Laden network may be opening two new fronts.

May 18, 2003|Sebastian Rotella and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Police fanned out across this coastal city Saturday, detaining Islamic militants for questioning following a rampage of synchronized suicide bombings that may be the work of Al Qaeda terrorists widening their war to Spanish and Moroccan targets.

The toll from the Friday night bombings was raised to an estimated 41 dead, including 10 suspected terrorists, and 100 wounded, according to Moroccan and Spanish officials. The death toll could rise, a Spanish Embassy spokesman said, since some of the approximately 45 victims still hospitalized are gravely wounded.

The five bombing targets included a crowded Spanish restaurant and cultural center. European law enforcement officials said the attacks suggest Al Qaeda has opened two new fronts in its war on the West: Spain, a leading ally of the U.S. in the war against Iraq, and Morocco, a moderate Arab regime that has cooperated with the U.S. in the global campaign against terrorism.

Authorities initially said car bombs were involved, but on Saturday they said the attacks were carried out by teams of suicide bombers on foot. In addition to the Spanish restaurant, bombs exploded at a hotel, a Jewish cemetery and near the Belgian consulate.

"It is clearly linked to the Al Qaeda movement," a Belgian investigator said.

Senior Spanish and French investigators said they also suspected Al Qaeda involvement, working with a group said to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, Salafiya Jihadia.

In the first hours after the string of attacks, Moroccan police said they arrested three Moroccan suspects, one a wounded suicide attacker who failed to detonate his explosives during a melee with guards at the Hotel Farah (formerly the Hotel Safir) in the city's historic district. Late Saturday, Reuters quoted an unnamed law enforcement official saying another 27 suspects were arrested in raids on hide-outs of Islamic extremists.

Police were patrolling downtown Casablanca's leafy streets Saturday night, and security vans and guard dogs were posted at hotels and other potential Western targets.

The FBI is putting together a team to assist Moroccan authorities in their investigation, an official in Washington said, while France and Spain are also expected to dispatch investigators to the North African country.

Moroccans were stunned by the attacks, which seem certain to damage the country's all-important tourism industry. Groups gathered outside the Hotel Farah and lit candles to honor the casualties.

"This is not Saudi Arabia. This is not Egypt," said Ahmed Ahmed, a businessman who runs a tourism and investment company. Like many Moroccans, he said he had believed that the government maintained tight control over any extremist groups within Morocco.

The worst carnage took place at the Casa de Espana, a popular restaurant and social club affiliated with the Spanish consulate. Three assailants slashed the throat of a security guard, rushed inside and blew themselves up among the diners, who were mostly Moroccans, authorities said.

About thirty people died in that blast, two of them Spaniards, said Ramon Iribarren, a spokesman for the Spanish embassy in Rabat. Other victims of the bombings included at least three French citizens, according to a senior French investigator. Two Italians also died, according to news reports.

Moroccan authorities said the terrorists unleashed the coordinated multi-target offensive at about 10 p.m. Friday. There was the usual good-sized crowd at the Casa de Espana, popular with Spaniards and Moroccans alike because of its paella, bingo parlor and liquor license.

When the three attackers were confronted by the doorman, one pulled a long knife and all but decapitated him, said the president of the Casa de Espana in an interview on Spain's national radio.

"It was very fast," said a distraught Rafael Bermudez. "They cut the guard's throat, the one at the door, and they came in and when they got to the center of the restaurant terrace, they set off the explosives they carried or threw themselves with the explosives, that's not clear."

The explosions left a grisly mix of blood, body parts and debris. Spanish authorities tentatively identified one of the dead as a businessman from Tarragona.

The strikes were crafted to send multiple messages, European investigators said. Coming four days after car-bomb attacks on expatriate housing compounds in Saudi Arabia that killed 34 people, the Casablanca bombings escalated Al Qaeda's campaign to show it remains an omnipresent menace, they said.

Unlike France or Britain, Spain has not been a target of Islamic terrorists since the last terrorist attack in Morocco, when extremist gunmen killed two Spanish tourists in an attack on a hotel in Marrakech in 1994. Al Qaeda operatives had preferred to use Spain as a base for recruitment, logistics and refuge. A dozen members of a Madrid cell, for example, face charges of playing a support role in the planning of the Sept. 11 plot.

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