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In Morocco, an unlikely group of terror suspects

THE WORLD

The 35 netted in raids include professionals and politicians, with influences said to be both Sunni and Shiite.

February 27, 2008|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

RABAT, MOROCCO — They are politicians and businessmen, bureaucrats and pharmacists, a police commander and a TV journalist.

Police arrested them and seized an arsenal in nationwide raids this month, the biggest crackdown in Morocco since suicide bombings killed 45 people, including the 12 bombers, in Casablanca five years ago.

During the last week, Moroccans have clustered on rainy mornings around kiosks along this capital's colonnaded downtown avenues, marveling at the latest newspaper reports on the case. The profile of the 35 suspects contrasts sharply with the Casablanca bombers, a dozen young men from a slum who assembled homemade explosives and died wearing identical wristwatches that were a last gift from their handler.

The recently arrested alleged leader of the group was a well-off Moroccan immigrant in Belgium who is accused of financing his activity with multimillion-dollar hold-ups and committing assassinations in that European country dating back 20 years. Moroccan Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa said in an interview that the group plotted to assassinate Cabinet ministers, military chiefs and Jewish leaders to destabilize this moderate Muslim nation.

Benmoussa and other investigators say the alleged plot helps illustrate threats converging here. Morocco finds itself in the eye of a storm radiating across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

"The leaders of this network had the opportunity to train in Afghanistan, to meet leaders of Al Qaeda, and to go to Algeria to train in [rural outposts] in 2005," Benmoussa said.

Some aspects of the case against the suspects perplex analysts. The three politicians arrested belong to small parties that mix Islamist and leftist ideologies. Their defenders say they are moderates.

Their longtime ties to Shiite Muslim movements, including Hezbollah, may have been a factor in their arrests. Sunni Muslims are the majority here, but authorities worry about the danger of extremism among the small Shiite minority and sympathetic Sunni radicals.

Sunni and Western governments fear that the recent assassination of a Hezbollah military chief in Syria could foment Shiite-inspired violence around the world, says Abdellah Rami, an expert on Islam at the Moroccan Center for Social Studies.

But Rami sees contradictions in the official version alleging that the Moroccan group of suspects was influenced by both Sunni-led Al Qaeda and Shiite Hezbollah.

"I find it hard to believe that all these movements were mixed together in the same cell," said Rami, who knows the jailed politicians.

Authorities say they have documented connections, such as attempts to arrange training with Hezbollah in 2002. The jailed journalist, Abdelhafid Sriti, was a correspondent for Hezbollah's Al Manar network. Al Manar has been banned from broadcasting in France, Spain and the U.S., which accuse it of airing extremist and anti-Semitic programming.

Western security experts agree that there are unanswered questions.

"It's a real mix of things, kind of bizarre, but if everything is confirmed I think it is a big, big affair," said Claude Moniquet, director of a Brussels think tank who works with the Moroccan government.

Morocco is relatively open and democratic, modernizing quickly and trying to reduce inequality. The monarchy promotes a tolerant Islam in which the king is the leader of the faithful, an effort to maintain a bulwark against extremism. But its geography makes it a gateway to Europe and a crossroads for migration, crime and extremism.

"The Moroccans have worked hard since Casablanca so they haven't had more attacks," said a Belgian anti-terrorism official who knows North Africa well. "But they have a lot of radicals to watch, guys going to Iraq who could come back. And there are all the problems [in countries] around them, like a sandwich effect."

On the east, Algeria has endured a campaign of suicide bombings by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a network also blamed for recent gun attacks to the south in Mauritania on French tourists and the Israeli Embassy. The threat of extremist violence caused the cancellation last month of the annual Dakar Rally off-road race to have run from Portugal to Senegal. Next year it will be held in South America instead.

Meanwhile, Moroccan militants flow abroad for training and combat. Some fight in Iraq; some trek to clandestine training outposts in the deserts of southern Algeria and northern Mali, the vast and lawless Sahel region.

"We know that there are several pipelines that connect to Iraq, others to Algeria, others to the Sahel," Benmoussa said. "Some of these pipelines function with the goal of creating a reserve of fighters down there. And others with the idea of training them to come back to Morocco. . . . What is going on in the Sahel worries us a great deal."

Extremists benefit from a boom in Europe-bound cocaine along traditional smuggling routes, said Benmoussa, 49, who is an MIT graduate.

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