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Moroccans Gain Prominence in Terror Groups

"I didn't see anything coming," said his mother, Zahra. "It's a situation none of us can understand. How can I judge him when I saw nothing like this coming along?"

The bombers' targets appeared to be Jews and Westerners; in addition to the Spanish cafe, they attacked a Jewish social club, a Jewish cemetery, a Jewish-owned Italian restaurant and a hotel in downtown Casablanca that catered to Westerners.

_____From This Series_____
Impervious Shield Elusive Against Drive-By Terrorists (The Washington Post, Aug 8, 2004)
U.S. Eyes Money Trails of Saudi-Backed Charities (The Washington Post, Aug 19, 2004)
In Search Of Friends Among The Foes (The Washington Post, Sep 11, 2004)
From a Virtual Shadow, Messages of Terror (The Washington Post, Oct 2, 2004)
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Moroccan authorities said they were still looking for about a dozen people who are thought to have helped plan the attacks and who recruited the bombers from the slums. Although the plot was allegedly engineered by Moroccans, investigators maintain they were working on behalf of al Qaeda. Moroccan officials cited a February 2003 speech by the al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, in which he warned that Morocco and several other countries would face retribution for helping the United States in its fight against the group.

Repressive Tactics

Morocco has long been one of the most reliable U.S. allies in North Africa and the Islamic world. It was one of the first nations to recognize the United States, formalizing diplomatic relations in 1787. Before his death in 1999, King Hassan II played a key role in U.S. efforts to negotiate peace deals involving Israel.

Since the Sept. 11 hijackings, Morocco's intelligence and security services have cooperated closely with the CIA in tracking and interrogating suspected Islamic militants. The United States, in turn, rewarded Morocco this year with a free-trade agreement.

The alliance is a sore point in some corners of Moroccan society, where there is a running conflict over Western influences. Vandalism is not uncommon at restaurants that serve alcohol or at hotels that cater to foreigners. In 1994, Muslim militants attacked a hotel in Marrakech, killing two Spanish tourists.

Islamic political parties and organizations are also becoming increasingly influential. While King Mohammed VI retains absolute authority and only government-endorsed parties are allowed to field candidates, Islamic movements retain broad public support and have gained power in recent elections. They have also established social welfare programs that in some cases are seen as more effective than those administered by the government.

The mainstream Muslim parties all strongly condemned the May 2003 bombings and espouse nonviolence. But they have clashed with the government over its response to the attacks, criticizing authorities for arresting hundreds of people just because they had ties to Islamic groups and for trying to turn public sentiment against religious parties.

Mustapha Ramid, a leader with the Party for Justice and Development, said government officials used the bombings as a pretext to force 1,000 Islamic candidates to withdraw from local races last year in a bid to weaken his party's growing influence.

He said he and other party officials were forced to step aside to avert a government threat to dissolve the party.

"They had to find a way to make us shut up," he said. "Morocco was on the right track. Since the beginning of the '90s, we were taking the right road toward more freedom and democracy. Since May 16, there is no doubt we have witnessed a regression in this."

Morocco's response to the Casablanca attacks has also drawn increasing scrutiny from international human rights groups. In June, London-based Amnesty International issued a report criticizing the government for "failure to take action on persistent allegations of torture and ill-treatment" in a prison used to detain suspects deemed security risks to the state.

While Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have praised Morocco in the past for ending the practice of capital punishment and instituting other reforms, they have warned that the government is in danger of losing its reputation as a leading progressive light in the Muslim world.

"There are huge pressures on Morocco from the U.S. and from Spain to make security improvements," said Jamil Dakwar, a researcher for Human Rights Watch and co-author of an upcoming report that is critical of the mass arrests. "And that usually means rounding up Islamic radicals, even if they are not the right people."

Mohamed Darif, a professor of law at Hassan II University outside Casablanca and an expert on Islamic militancy, said Morocco has its share of Islamic radicals. But he played down European concerns about a mounting terrorist threat emanating from Morocco, saying that only a few of the radicals embrace violence.

"Terrorism does not exist in our tradition," he said. "It is something coming from abroad. There is no pressure on society in this way. We don't feel constantly insecure that something is going to blow up. You can go to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan and people feel that terrorism is in the air. We don't have this feeling in Morocco."

But Fathallah Arsalan, a spokesman for the banned Justice and Spirituality Islamic movement, said the government passed stricter anti-terrorism laws after the bombings, enabling authorities to detain people without evidence and keep them incommunicado for up to 15 days. Such actions have led to deeper fissures in society, he said.

"With the repression, they are just pushing more and more people to radicalize," Arsalan said. "What can you expect when you put innocent people in jail? What can you expect when you keep people in these conditions? It can only fuel hate and passions."

Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

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