Terrorist Networks Lure Young Moroccans to War in Far-Off Iraq

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

TETOUAN, Morocco -- In the Arab world, this hilly North African city is about as far as you can get from Iraq. But for many young men here, the call to join what they view as a holy war resonates loudly across the 3,000-mile divide.

About two dozen men from Tetouan and nearby towns in the Rif Mountains have traveled to Iraq in the past 18 months to volunteer as fighters or suicide bombers, according to local residents and officials. Moroccan authorities said the men were recruited by international terrorist networks affiliated with al-Qaeda that have deepened their roots in North Africa since the invasion of Iraq four years ago.

To stanch the flow, U.S. intelligence and military officials have tried to trace the fighters' steps. On the basis of DNA evidence recovered from the scenes of suicide attacks, as well as other clues, officials have confirmed that at least two bombers came from Tetouan, a city of more than 320,000 across the Strait of Gibraltar from southern Spain.

One of them, Abdelmonaim el-Amrani, a 22-year-old laborer, abandoned his wife and infant child in Tetouan to go to Iraq. On March 6, 2006, just before sunset, he drove a red Volkswagen Passat stuffed with explosives into a funeral tent in a village near Baqubah, Iraq, according to witnesses. Six people were reported killed and 27 injured. It was months before Amrani's family in Tetouan learned of his fate from Moroccan police.

Foreign fighters in Iraq account for only a small percentage of the combatants attacking U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies. U.S. military officials and independent analysts peg the number at no more than a few thousand. But as the war drags on, it continues to serve as a powerful rallying tool for radical Islamic networks around the world that have developed recruiting pipelines as far afield as Europe and Southeast Asia.

Moroccan authorities said they have identified more than 50 volunteers who have gone to Iraq since 2003, and many more are believed to have made the journey undetected. Security officials here said the problem is worse in other Arab countries.

Under U.S. pressure to act, Moroccan officials have tried to disrupt the recruiting networks in recent months, arresting more than 50 people since November.

"We have chosen to be extremely vigilant," Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa said in an interview in Rabat, the capital. "These cells all have international connections. They can function because they certainly all have support, especially in regard to training and in regard to logistics."

But Morocco and its neighbors are finding it increasingly difficult to suppress the militants. Several networks that used to operate independently in North Africa have put aside their differences, united in part by the ongoing violence in Iraq.

Last month, for example, a group in Algeria that has waged a decade-long insurgency against the government there announced that it had changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- a reference to African lands north of the Sahara -- and joined forces with affiliates in Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Mauritania.

The organization asserted responsibility for a coordinated operation on Feb. 13 in which seven targets, mostly police stations, were bombed in a district east of Algiers. Six people were reported killed and 13 injured. In a telephone call to the Arab satellite television network al-Jazeera, an unidentified spokesman said the group was looking to expand its targets to focus on American interests. "Wherever we can find a U.S. presence, we will, God willing, pursue it and its agents," he said.

In December, the same group attacked a bus loaded with foreign contractors in a military-controlled zone of Algiers, killing the Algerian driver. Nine people were wounded, including four Britons and an American.

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