WASHINGTON – Bombings in Algeria and Morocco and other militant activity across North Africa have put U.S. and European authorities on alert that their interests in the region may be targeted for attack, officials say.
On Saturday, two brothers with explosives-laden belts blew themselves up in Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca, injuring one woman. Moroccan authorities later arrested at least one man suspected of being linked to the bombings, according to the official MAP news agency.
The State Department said one bombing occurred near the U.S. Consulate and the second near an American language center. Both facilities are located along a main boulevard in Casablanca.
The bombings Saturday followed a series of attacks in the region last week, including a strike Wednesday on the prime minister’s office in Algiers that killed 33 people. The new violence underscored concerns about escalating extremist activity in North Africa.
A day before the Algiers attack, Moroccan police confronted a group of suspected terrorists in Casablanca. Three of them detonated suicide vests and a fourth was killed by police gunfire. U.S. officials said the men were part of a group plotting attacks against tourist targets and Western interests.
In Tunisia, police recently engaged in a deadly shootout with gunmen linked to al-Qaida’s new regional affiliate, al-Qaida in the Maghreb, a term referring to the North African nations west of Egypt. The gunmen allegedly planned to attack foreign embassies.
“The cancer is spreading, and it is very troubling,” one senior U.S. counterterrorism official said Saturday. “These groups are expanding beyond what their initial local targets were, and striking at the U.S.”
But are the perpetrators linked? Or might they be local militants with separate but related grievances against the United States and Europe, as well as their own governments?
Counterterrorism officials in Washington and Europe said they might not know the answers to those questions for months.
“Naturally, there are a lot of people in a lot of different places looking very hard at this, not just in the places affected, but in Europe and this country as well,” said a second U.S. counterterrorism official, who was interviewed before the Saturday bombings. Both U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations headed by other countries.
The officials said al-Qaida in the Maghreb, the Algerian-led network that claimed responsibility for the Algiers bombing, has been working to form an alliance stretching from northwestern Africa to the Sahel region, the vast and rugged terrain below the Sahara desert that has become a haven for some militant groups. The war in Iraq has helped North African networks converge as their fighters move back and forth to the battle zone.
European and U.S. counterterrorism experts say the regional alliance remains a work in progress.
The timing of the attacks suggests coordination, but officials haven’t indicated they have evidence they were connected.
“That there are relations between Moroccans and Algerians (committed to militant causes) has been unquestionable for two or three years,” said Louis Caprioli, former anti-terrorism chief of France’s DST intelligence service. “Whether the two cells were in some way connected is another question.”
Western and North African authorities are also looking for signs that the al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan are directing or funding the North Africa operations.
“No one has suggested that there is an ironclad, direct connection from al-Qaida central to these particular groups; that’s not the way it generally functions,” said the second U.S. counterterrorism official. “There is a certain amount of autonomy.”
The Iraq war has helped the North Africans connect activities in North Africa, Europe and Iraq, according to a top French intelligence official. Algeria’s Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by the French initials GSPC, led recruiting in North Africa and Europe for the Iraq conflict. It was aided by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Iraq-based al-Qaida leader, until he was killed by U.S. forces last year. The network, which later renamed itself al-Qaida in the Maghreb, has groomed fighters at small, mobile training facilities in the deserts of southern Algeria, Mali and other Sahel countries.
Algerian and Moroccan police helped European investigators break up several GSPC plots that allegedly targeted cities such as Paris and Bologna, Italy.
After renaming itself al-Qaida in the Maghreb, the group launched small-scale attacks against convoys of foreign oil workers in December and February, killing at least one Russian worker and wounding several Americans and Britons.
Also in February, Spanish police arrested a Moroccan named Mbark Jaafari, a semi-professional boxer known as “The Tiger,” in the town of Reus in northeastern Spain. Police accused him of sending 32 recruits to train or fight in Algeria, Iraq and Afghanistan during the past year, a sign of North African networks working together on common fronts.
U.S. anti-terrorism agents helped Spanish police focus on Jaafari, warning that they suspected him of plotting against U.S. targets in Europe, a senior Spanish law enforcement official said.
“He was clearly a recruiter,” said the Spanish official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the issue. “And he was also someone who, if he gets an order, carries it out. He was dangerous.”
Police are now examining possible ties between Jafaari and events in Morocco.
On the night of March 11, a young man wearing a bomb belt blew up in an Internet cafe in Casablanca; he was killed, and four others were wounded. Police believe that the dead man and a second would-be bomber stopped at the cafe en route to an attack.
The explosion took place during a scuffle with the cafe’s owner, who confronted the two when he noticed that they logged on to an extremist Web site, possibly to get instructions.
The bombing occurred in the slum where the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group planned suicide bombings that killed 52 people in Casablanca in 2003. And the duo apparently chose a symbolic date: the third anniversary of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, in which the group was implicated.
Days before the foiled bombings, police in Casablanca stormed into another Internet cafe and arrested a top fugitive: Saad Housseini.
A university-trained chemist, Housseini was a founder of the GICM in 2001 at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan and led its military wing, according to Italian court documents. He provided explosives training at an Afghan camp before returning to Morocco, where he was allegedly involved in the 2003 attacks and may have overseen the latest Casablanca incident, police say.
The question is whether Housseini and younger Moroccan operatives have joined forces with the more hierarchical and paramilitary Algerian leadership of al-Qaida in the Maghreb, investigators say. A third U.S. counterterrorism official said there is a lot still to learn.
“We haven’t been really paying attention to that part of the world because we have been consumed by Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.