Suicide Bombers Strike N. Africa Again

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 15, 2007

BERLIN, April 14 -- Suicide bombers struck in North Africa on Saturday for the third time in a week, targeting the U.S. Consulate and an American cultural center in the Moroccan port city of Casablanca. U.S. officials warned that more terrorist attacks in the region could be imminent, describing specific plots in Algeria.

In Casablanca, two brothers wearing belts packed with explosives blew themselves up within moments of each other outside the consulate and the American Language Center, a privately run school and cultural center on the same street, several blocks away. Police said the brothers apparently were unable to breach security barriers at the sites. The only casualty was a bystander who was reported slightly injured.

Security concerns across North Africa have escalated since Tuesday, when three suicide bombers from the same cell in Casablanca blew themselves up after a confrontation with police. The following day, in neighboring Algeria, 33 people were killed when car bombers attacked the Government Palace in the capital, Algiers, and a suburban police station.

Both countries are bracing for further violence. In Algiers, the U.S. Embassy issued a public warning early Saturday that the Algerian state television headquarters and the central post office in Algiers were possibly being targeted for attack. Last month, the embassy issued a warning of threats to commercial airliners carrying Westerners who work in Algeria's oil and gas fields.

Counterterrorism officials in Algeria and Morocco said there is no evidence to connect the attacks in Casablanca and Algiers, but they have not ruled out a link. No organized group has asserted responsibility for the Casablanca suicide bombings. The operations in Algeria were carried out by the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a regional affiliate of Osama bin Laden's global network that analysts said is trying to coordinate local cells across North Africa.

"These groups are working together, and the level of organization has changed completely," said Isabelle Werenfels, a North Africa expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "This is starting to look like a real campaign. I definitely think things are getting worse."

Saturday's bombings in Casablanca were the first terrorist attacks on a U.S. target in Morocco, a moderate Muslim nation and longtime ally of the United States. Moroccan and U.S. counterterrorism officials have been warning of an increased threat there since May 16, 2003, when 33 people were killed by a dozen suicide bombers in Casablanca.

Moroccan authorities identified the brothers who blew themselves up Saturday as Mohamed Maha, 32, and Omar Maha, 23, both of Casablanca, according to the state-run MAP news agency.

Later Saturday, police arrested three suspects in the vicinity of the U.S. Consulate, including one who was carrying explosives; another belt packed with explosives was recovered outside a nearby upscale hotel, an Interior Ministry official told the Associated Press.

Investigators said the suspects and the bombers belonged to the same cell that police confronted Tuesday. That day, three of its members detonated similar explosives belts after being cornered by officers; a fourth bomber was killed by a police sniper.

Moroccan officials had been looking for the bombers since March 11, when another member of the cell blew himself up in a Casablanca Internet cafe after the proprietor noticed he was surfing radical Islamic Web sites. Security officials had said they suspected the group was plotting against hotels and cruise ships in Casablanca's port, but did not single out U.S. interests as being at risk.

MAP reported Saturday that investigators had arrested the leader of the cell, but did not say when he was detained or give details.

U.S. and European counterterrorism officials have said they are particularly concerned about the emergence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has been recruiting and training fighters from across the region. Maghreb is an Arabic word for the region of North Africa stretching from Mauritania to Libya.

"It's quite a serious threat, and it bodes ill for things to come," said Emily Hunt, a research fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington who has studied terrorist threats in North Africa. "These groups very much consider themselves to be part of the global jihad now. It's not just local groups acting on their own."

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was formerly an Algerian insurgent group known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Founded in 1998 in the midst of Algeria's long-running civil war, it was dedicated to the overthrow of the country's secular government.

A few years ago, however, the group began making a public outreach to al-Qaeda.

Last September, al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced that his movement had formalized a partnership with the Algerians and publicly urged them to attack U.S. and French interests.

In January, the Algerian group renamed itself as an al-Qaeda affiliate and has stepped up its operations since then.

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