CASABLANCA, Morocco -- In the aftermath of Morocco's worst-ever terrorist attacks in May 2003, King Mohammed VI lifted the hopes of his most impoverished subjects last year when he toured Casablanca's sprawling slums, home to a dozen suicide bombers who had blasted targets across the city. The monarch said he was appalled at the conditions and vowed to raze the shantytowns, promising new housing for an estimated 150,000 people.
Almost 18 months later, the tin-roofed shacks and squatters' colonies are still here. While a few families have been relocated, the most visible change is a freshly built police station that keeps a closer eye on the slums, part of an ongoing crackdown against alleged Islamic extremists that has resulted in more than 2,100 arrests across the North African nation.
Moroccan government officials tout the arrests and the absence of additional attacks as evidence that they have neutralized the threat of terrorism. But officials in nearby European countries have expressed fears that Morocco, a country with a tradition of Islamic moderation, is becoming more radicalized.
There are numerous signs that Moroccans -- both at home and abroad -- are playing a bigger role in global networks of Islamic militants. In recent months, authorities in Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands have broken up apparent terror cells composed primarily of Moroccan immigrants.
In Germany, two Moroccans are facing trial on charges of helping to carry out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, and warrants in the case have been issued for two other people of Moroccan descent. Saudi Arabia's list of most-wanted terrorism suspects also names two Moroccans, the only ones from outside the Arabian Peninsula.
"We cannot exaggerate the threat," said Claude Moniquet, a terrorism researcher and president of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center in Brussels. "The terrorist threat in Morocco and the Moroccan community in Europe is real."
In July, Baltasar Garzon, a Spanish magistrate who has handled many of the country's high-profile terrorism cases, said police and intelligence data indicated that 100 al Qaeda cells had taken root in Morocco, calling them "the gravest problem Europe faces today with this kind of terrorism." His comments came as part of the Spanish investigation into the March 11 bombings of four rush-hour commuter trains in Madrid, in which 190 people were killed and more than 1,800 injured. Most of the suspects arrested in the case have been Moroccan immigrants.
Although they are among the largest immigrant groups in Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands, Moroccans had not attracted much attention from counterterrorism investigators. Muslim radicals from Morocco were not known for embracing violence, unlike those from other North African nations such as Algeria and Egypt.
Those perceptions changed suddenly with the May 2003 attacks in Casablanca, in which 45 people died, including 12 suicide bombers. Since then, the Moroccan government has acknowledged it does not know the whereabouts of about 400 of its citizens who allegedly trained at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, some of whom are now thought by the Moroccan authorities to be in Europe.
Moustafa Sahel, the Moroccan interior minister, said the country's security services were slow to detect the growth of radical groups. There was "a long maturation process that we witnessed without reacting," he told Spain's El Pais newspaper in an interview published last month.
He dismissed the idea that Moroccans posed an outsized threat in Europe and suggested that it was xenophobic to single out a particular immigrant group. "Does it mean that Algeria or Saudi Arabia should be accused of exporting terrorists?" he said, noting that Algerian immigrants were responsible for a wave of bombings in France in the 1990s and that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States were Saudis.
Seeking a Motive
In Casablanca, however, a tour of slums and other parts of the city suggested that many Moroccans were still struggling to understand what prompted last year's suicide attacks.
In a shantytown known as Carriere Thomas on the outskirts of the city, the mother of one suicide bomber wept quietly and said her son's motives remained a mystery 18 months later.
Abdel Fattah Boulikdane had lived with his mother in the same two-room shack for almost all of his 27 years. He was not overly religious, she said, and had a decent if low-paying job in a shoe factory. On May 16, without even the slightest warning to family or friends, he strapped on a belt of explosives and detonated them at a Spanish cafe on the other side of town.