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.
In Tunisia, a cell belonging to the same network engaged in a gun battle Jan. 3 with police outside Tunis, the capital, resulting in 12 deaths. According to European news media, the cell had drawn up plans to attack the U.S., Italian and British embassies.
Despite the surge in local strikes, North African intelligence officials and analysts said that al-Qaeda affiliates in the region remain focused on Iraq and rely on the faraway conflict as a recruiting tool.
"The big state for al-Qaeda is Iraq," said Mohamed Darif, a political science professor and terrorism expert at Hassan II-Mohammedia University in Morocco. "Al-Qaeda has the same strategy as the United States: It wants to win in Iraq so it can transform the whole region. They are fixated on Iraq."
In Tetouan, the local economy and culture lean more toward Europe than the Middle East. The narrow streets and whitewashed buildings appear to have changed little since the first half of the 20th century, when the city was the colonial capital of Spanish Morocco. Most storefronts feature signs in both Spanish and Arabic. Young men wear the jerseys of their favorite European soccer teams, particularly those from Barcelona and Madrid.
Although it is still not clear why so many men from Tetouan decided to abandon their lives and go to Iraq, there are some clues. Relatives and friends said several of the men were well-educated -- many took classes at local community colleges -- but struggled to make ends meet. They noted that the men's religious beliefs appeared to have deepened and that they had begun wearing long beards and loose-fitting Afghan-style clothes.
Moncef ben Masaoud, 21, died in a suicide attack in Baqubah last fall, according to neighbors and relatives. Skilled in computers and math, he had attended college classes in nearby Tangier. On July 27, 2006, he left home as usual for school, but never returned.
"He told me he'd be coming back the same day," his father, Haj Ahmed Masaoud, a tire dealer in a Tetouan market, told the Moroccan newsmagazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire. "In mid-August, he called me and told me he was doing fine. He said he was in Syria. That was the last contact we had with him."
Masaoud was a close friend of Amrani, the young father who also carried out a suicide bombing near Baqubah, as well as a third Tetouan man, Yones Achebbak, 23, who left for Iraq last fall. Achebbak's fate is unknown.
All three men attended the same mosque in Tetouan, a white-arched building perched on a slope in the slum district of Mezouak. The mosque's imam, Fatal Abdelillah, was arrested in November as part of the investigation into the Iraqi recruiting ring.
It was not the first time the mosque and the Mezouak slum had drawn the attention of counterterrorism investigators. Five men from the area are suspects in the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid, which killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800.
Al-Qaeda recruiters have focused on Tetouan because it has several extremist mosques but also because of its proximity to Europe, Moroccan officials and analysts said. Spanish counterterrorism authorities have warned that recruiting networks are also active in the nearby Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla, enclaves on the northern Moroccan coast that are a holdover from the days when the region was a Spanish colony.
"Al-Qaeda was working very hard to create coordination cells in Tetouan, because it's a close point of contact to Europe," said Darif, the Moroccan terrorism analyst. He said the Moroccan cells smuggle recruits and other operatives across the Mediterranean Sea to Spain, where they pick up false passports and move on to Turkey or Syria before slipping into Iraq.
The recruiters screen rigorously, according to counterterrorism officials. Designated "watchers" hang around radical mosques and other places to look for young men angry about the conflicts in places such as Iraq and the Palestinian territories. For months, the watchers try to whip up the potential volunteers' emotions further and convince them that they have a religious duty to intervene.
"The recruitment does not exclusively take place in the poorest parts of society, nor in the category of illiterates," said Benmoussa, the interior minister. Instead, he said, recruiters "target a category of people that is extremely sensitive to what they consider international injustice."
Candidates are subjected to psychological assessments from a distance to determine if they are really willing to die for the cause. Background checks are run to ensure that they are not informers, officials said. Those who make the final cut are assigned to "handlers," who arrange the trip to Iraq.
The volunteers are sometimes trained to use explosives and weapons before they leave, but it is rare that they are taught more than the basics, said Nick Pratt, a retired Marine colonel and terrorism expert at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
The recruits are valued more for their zeal than their skill because of their primary mission: suicide attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces, as well as Shiite foes in the nation's sectarian conflict. Pratt said research has shown that suicide bombings are embraced by networks affiliated with al-Qaeda because they are more lethal and generate more publicity. He said a suicide attack, on average, causes six times as many deaths and 12 times as many injuries as a conventional attack, such as a roadside bomb explosion.
"The recruiters for al-Qaeda are some of the most important players right now in that organization," Pratt said. "They have a profile, and they know what they're looking for in terms of recruits." Counterterrorism officials, he added, are more concerned with stopping the recruiters than the volunteers. "They're not so much concerned with the guys who become cannon fodder," he said.
Moroccan authorities have made several rounds of arrests since November, many of them in Tetouan. Most recently, on Jan. 4, the government said it had arrested 26 people and "smashed a terrorist structure with international connections specializing in the recruitment and transport of volunteers to Iraq."
Some Moroccan lawmakers and relatives of those arrested said U.S. officials have pressured Morocco to act since they discovered the Tetouan connection to Iraq. The U.S. Embassy in Rabat declined to comment.
Mustapha Khalfi, a member of Parliament from the opposition Justice and Development Party, said the government was arresting suspects, based on little evidence, to please U.S. officials. "They are pushing us to do some bad things," he said. "This conflicts with U.S. policy to strengthen democracy and to strengthen human rights."
Khalfi said the number of Moroccans joining the fight in Iraq had been exaggerated. At the same time, he added, as long as the U.S. military remains in Iraq, many Moroccans will feel duty-bound to help the resistance.
"There's a long tradition in the Muslim world of solidarity against occupation," he said. "It's rooted in our society. To explain it and understand it is easy."
Special correspondent Hasan Shammari in Baqubah, Iraq, contributed to this report.