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N. Africa attacks put West on alert

More strikes are feared as suicide bombers in Casablanca appear to target U.S. Consulate and a language center.

April 15, 2007|Josh Meyer and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Bombings in Algeria and Morocco and other militant activity across North Africa have put U.S. and European authorities on alert that their interests in the region may be targeted for attack, officials say.

On Saturday, two brothers with explosives-laden belts blew themselves up in Morocco's largest city, Casablanca, injuring one woman. Moroccan authorities later arrested at least one man suspected of being linked to the bombings, according to the official MAP news agency.

The U.S. State Department said one bombing occurred near the U.S. Consulate and the second near an American language center. Both facilities are located along a main boulevard in Casablanca.

The bombings followed a series of attacks in the region last week, including strikes Wednesday on the prime minister's office in Algiers and a suburban police station that killed 33 people. The new violence underscored concerns about escalating extremist activity in North Africa.

A day before the Algiers attacks, Moroccan police confronted a group of suspected terrorists in Casablanca. Three of them detonated suicide vests and a fourth was killed by police gunfire. U.S. officials said the men were part of a group plotting attacks against tourist targets and Western interests.

In Tunisia, police recently engaged in a deadly shootout with gunmen linked to Al Qaeda's new regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, a term referring to the North African nations west of Egypt. The gunmen allegedly planned to attack foreign embassies.

"The cancer is spreading, and it is very troubling," one senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said Saturday. "These groups are expanding beyond what their initial local targets were, and striking at the U.S."

But are the perpetrators linked? Or might they be local militants with separate but related grievances against the United States and Europe, as well as their own governments?

Counter-terrorism officials in Washington and Europe said they might not know the answers to those questions for months.

"Naturally, there are a lot of people in a lot of different places looking very hard at this, not just in the places affected, but in Europe and this country as well," said a second U.S. counter-terrorism official, who was interviewed before the Saturday bombings. Both U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations headed by other countries.

Terrorist alliance

The officials said Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, the Algerian-led network that claimed responsibility for the Algiers bombings, has been working to form an alliance stretching from northwestern Africa to the Sahel region, the vast and rugged terrain below the Sahara desert that has become a haven for some militant groups. The war in Iraq has helped North African networks converge as their fighters move back and forth to the battle zone.

European and U.S. counter-terrorism experts say the regional alliance remains a work in progress.

The timing of the attacks suggests coordination, but officials haven't indicated they have evidence they were connected.

"That there are relations between Moroccans and Algerians [committed to militant causes] has been unquestionable for two or three years," said Louis Caprioli, former anti-terrorism chief of France's DST intelligence service. "Whether the two cells were in some way connected is another question.

"The Algerians are really structured, with active military operations and a guerrilla presence in the countryside. I am not convinced there is a unified command yet. It could be they are moving toward this."

Western and North African authorities are also looking for signs that the Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan are directing or funding the North Africa operations.

"No one has suggested that there is an ironclad, direct connection from Al Qaeda central to these particular groups; that's not the way it generally functions," said the second U.S. counter-terrorism official. "There is a certain amount of autonomy."

The capture three years ago of Amari Saifi, who had orchestrated the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in the Sahara, weakened the Algerian organization, then known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat.

But it has revitalized itself by seeking alliances with groups in neighboring countries and taking advantage of an amnesty in which Algeria released several thousand Islamic militants. The group also made about $6 million in ransom money for the tourists, and profits from drug trafficking.

U.S. Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, who oversees North Africa operations, told Congress last month that the military had seen signs of increasing cooperation between Al Qaeda and various North African terrorist groups.

Recruiting for Iraq

The Iraq war has helped the North Africans connect activities in North Africa, Europe and Iraq, a top French intelligence official said.

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