The arrest of 24 alleged al Qaeda activists in Morocco has cast a rare spotlight on Islamic extremism in north-west Africa, a phenomenon that is troubling both the region’s governments and western intelligence agencies.
Morocco says it detained the al Qaeda group in a sweep that focused on the sprawling port city of Casablanca. Others arrested are from the towns of Birrichid and Kenitra, according to Association Annassir - a group that represents Islamist detainees in Morocco. Four had previously served prison terms for militant activity, the Association said.
The Interior Ministry alleged in a statement on Monday that the group was “preparing to carry out assassinations and acts of sabotage within the country, notably targeting the security services and foreign interests in Morocco."
Officials allege the group was also recruiting other Moroccans to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not known whether any of those detained has been formally charged.
Abderrahim Mouhtad, head of the Association Annassir, says three of the group appear to have spent several months in Kenya recently, and were followed by the security forces when they returned to Casablanca. Just what they were doing in Kenya is unclear, but the country is sometimes used by Islamic extremists as a conduit to Somalia.
"Their families told me they were in Kenya,” Mouhtad said. “They had contacts and relations there in Kenya through the Internet. I do not think it’s related to the terrorism in the Sahel: they were supposed to be headed to other countries.”
Mouhtad says the three were arrested April 2nd as they tried to leave Morocco to return to Kenya. The others were arrested more recently.
Intelligence analysts say Morocco has probably imprisoned some 1,000 Islamists since 2003, when 12 suicide bombers struck five targets in Casablanca almost simultaneously. The attacks killed 33 bystanders and threatened Morocco’s image as a safe destination for international tourism. Moroccans were involved in the Madrid train bombings in 2004.
Two years later, al Qaeda announced with much fanfare the formation of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The region includes vast swathes of little-populated and inhospitable desert, where infrastructure and state authority is virtually non-existent, and where the borders of unstable countries meet in the drifting sand. It’s an ideal environment for terror groups.
AQIM has historically been strongest in Algeria, carrying out suicide and truck bombings – but groups claiming allegiance to al Qaeda have recently surfaced in Mali, Mauritania and Niger, kidnapping foreigners and occasionally clashing with security forces. It’s not clear whether these groups have deep-seated links to other parts of al Qaeda or are flying under a flag of convenience. In February a Frenchman who had been held for three months in Mali by AQIM was released as part of a deal in which four militants were freed from jail in Mali. France denied paying a ransom for Pierre Camotte’s release. Last week, another Frenchman was kidnapped in Niger.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration is also concerned about Islamic extremists making common cause with drug traffickers and profiting from the transit of cocaine across the Sahara. The evidence of involvement is spotty at best, but last December three Malian men were whisked from Ghana to a court in New York to face charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine – in association with AQIM and the far-left Colombian group FARC.
Analysts say the Moroccan government is always keen to show that it’s on top of any Islamist threat, but human rights groups say the trials of alleged Islamic militants are rarely fair.
Some see another reason for this flurry of arrests. Earlier this month, four countries (Mali, Algeria, Niger and Mauritania) agreed a joint security approach to confront al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and fellow-travelers. Morocco, whose relations with Algeria are strained, was excluded. “Is this operation related to national security or to politics?” said Abdellah Rami, an expert on national security at the Moroccan Center for Social Sciences. “I think, to analyze the politics of this operation, that there is in it a political message for the other countries of North Africa. Morocco is also threatened by terrorism,” he said.
France needs no persuading of that. In an interview with the Financial Times published Tuesday, Jean-Louis Bruguière, formerly the leading terrorist investigator in France, said that for his country “north Africa and the Sahara are strategically important. For us, the threat comes largely from this region.”
“We have to be very vigilant given the sleeper cells that could be reactivated on our territory but also on that of our neighbours,” Bruguiere said.