Saturday, July 12, 2008


RABAT, Morocco — Moroccan security forces foiled a terrorist plot to attack tourists this summer, in what has become a "near-daily" struggle to root out extremist cells increasingly linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, a top security official said Friday.

(The plot was similar to the "Marrakech Bomb Plot" in 2002 were three Saudi Arabian men, accused of being part of an al-Qaeda cell, were found to have plotted to blow up a cafe in the Moroccan tourist destination of Marrakech, and attack tourist buses. The three men, Abdullah Mesfer Ali al-Ghamdi, 22, Zouhair Hilal, 26, and Hilal El-Assiri, 31, were convicted on charges of attempted murder, attempted sabotage with the use of explosives and belonging to a "criminal organisation". The Moroccan wives of two of the men were sentenced to six months in prison for their part in the plot. Three other Moroccans received sentences ranging from four months to one year. All three Saudis admitted under interrogation that they had been trained in the use of weapons and explosives at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

Abdelhak Bassou, head of
Morocco's Renseignements Generaux domestic intelligence agency, told The Associated Press in a rare interview that four separate terrorist cells have been broken up so far this year. He said one of those groups, with 11 militants arrested in May, was preparing attacks "planned for this summer" in a plot aimed at tourist hotels in Morocco, which is a largely moderate Muslim kingdom and strong U.S. ally.

The country has seen a rise in radical
Islam in recent years, and the government has jailed hundreds of suspected militants since a string of bombings killed 45 people in 2003. Bassou said authorities had broken up "about 30 cells" over the past five years and predicted they would dismantle "another three or four" radical cells during the rest of this year. "At this point, it's become near-daily work," he said.

(In 2002, "Explosives on plane were bomb plot" French police have said explosives found aboard a Royal Air Maroc plane were part of a failed bomb plot and not just a provocation. Customs officials using sniffer dogs found the stick of explosives in between two passenger seats after the Boeing 747 had landed in eastern France. Police are still at a loss as to who secreted the 100-gram stick of explosive, wrapped in aluminium, aboard the flight to Metz-Nancy airport from Marrakesh Morocco.)

The investigations have revealed extremist networks that extended from

Europe to the al-Qaida terror operation in Iraq, he said. Most of the Moroccan cells support al-Qaida in Iraq via militant bases in neighboring Algeria, channeling cash, weapons and combatants, he said.

Three of the four alleged cells currently being prosecuted were focused on supporting insurgents in
Iraq and had smuggled "some 30 to 50 (Moroccan) fighters" into that country, Bassou said. "We have to continue to anticipate," he said, adding that the threat also comes from "loose elements" of one or two individuals who plan small attacks on their own. Some 1,100 alleged Islamic radicals are now behind bars, either convicted of terrorism charges or awaiting trial.

Bassou said a "huge improvement" in cooperation between Arab and Western intelligence services has helped limit terrorist attacks since the 9/11 assault on the U.S., but he said another factor is that many al-Qaida loyalists are focused on the war in Iraq. "It doesn't mean they wouldn't blow up a bus of tourists here if they have the opportunity," he said.

But the fact that al-Qaida is relying on many support cells in North Africa for fighters, money and guns is a sign that it is losing ground in Iraq, Bassou said. "If they don't show results, I don't give them five more years of existence," he said, contending that al-Qaida needs victories in Iraq to attract new recruits in the Arab world. Still, Bassou warned, the focus of Islamic extremists could easily shift closer to home, in Europe and North Africa, if al-Qaida in Iraq collapsed.

( Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organisation, driven out of Afghanistan and defeated in Iraq, is re-emerging in strength in three alternative safe havens for training, operational planning and recruiting – Pakistan, Somalia and Algeria – according to Western intelligence and defence sources. )

"It would become more dangerous, we'd have less visibility," he said. Bassou estimated 3,000 Moroccans are "imbued with jihadist creeds," with a similar number of sympathizers. Many rights activists, Islamist politicians and even some intelligence experts say Morocco's tough security crackdown, though efficient in preventing large attacks, could radicalize some members of Morocco's legal Islamic parties.

Bassou said that arrests are made on solid intelligence and that evidence includes money transfers, weapons and violent propaganda on computers or discs, as well as confessions. "Should we wait for people to execute their attack before we arrest them?" he asked. (Like the 2003 Casablanca bombings).

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