Rabat, Morocco - Last month Hicham Doukkali packed a gas canister with explosives and blew himself up next to a bus full of tourists in the imperial city of Meknes. No one was hurt besides Doukkali, who lost an arm, but the attack was particularly troubling nonetheless.
Doukkali was not a young discontent from the slums of Casablanca, like the suicide bombers who killed dozens in 2003 or those behind a series of attacks this spring. He was a civil engineer working for the tax authorities, and the day he set off to bomb the tourist bus in Meknes was his 30th birthday.
More troublesome still, Doukkali was not a hardened terrorist who had spent years training in Al Qaeda camps. His guide to Islamic extremism, from the ideology itself to the practical aspects of manufacturing an explosive device, was the Internet.
“You don’t need to go to Afghanistan or Iraq anymore,” said Abdallah Rami, a former Islamist militant who monitors radical Web sites closely. “What you now see is a spontaneous generation that is being mobilized online.”
As Al Qaeda has shifted from a top-down organization toward a movement inspiring homegrown terrorists, the Internet and satellite television have become borderless ideological incubators. Here in North Africa, Al Qaeda activity has spiked since the main terrorist group in the region, the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s network earlier this year.
In April, Algeria suffered its first suicide bombings, a series of attacks on military sites that claimed 32 lives. Another attack in July killed 10, and earlier this month two strikes claimed more than 50 lives.
In Morocco, meanwhile, no fewer than nine terrorists struck this past March and April. Among the Moroccan operatives were two brothers who blew themselves up, respectively, near the American consulate and an American cultural center in Casablanca. Like Doukkali, they hailed from a middle-class family and had not been on the authorities’ radar.
Khalid Zerouali, a senior Interior Ministry official who heads Morocco’s effort to combat transnational crime, said that of the 83 terrorist cells dismantled since 2003, only 17 had proven external ties.
“The others are individuals with no clear link with anyone, and it makes it harder for us to identify them,” Zerouali told the Forward. What Morocco’s security services did find, he said, were jihadist Web sites featuring what he described as “sensitive targets,” such as government, military and industrial installations.
Mohammed Darif, a political scientist at Mohammedia University in Casablanca who is writing a study of the suicide bombers that struck Morocco this year, distinguishes between organized networks planning carefully targeted attacks and more random incidents. “The biggest danger today is to have those isolated individuals join hands with the recruiting networks,” he said, noting that some of this spring’s incidents were caused by police operations that disrupted ongoing operations and, as such, could well have been part of an organized cell. In addition, several of the Casablanca operatives purposefully avoided killing civilians. “They seemed to be following recommendations to spare the population and target the security forces or foreign targets,” Darif said.
More than a few analysts in Morocco point to the violence in the West Bank and Gaza as a major catalyst for terrorists, such as Doukkali, who never went to Afghanistan, Chechnya or Bosnia to gain the on-the-ground experience. Four years ago, for example, two 14-year-old sisters were arrested for allegedly planning a terrorist attack here in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. The twin girls claimed that their decision had been motivated in part by images they saw of Mohammed al-Dura, a young Palestinian boy whose death in an Israeli-Palestinian crossfire in 2000 was captured on camera and since replayed endlessly on the Internet and on Arab satellite channels.
To date, there is no known instance of a Moroccan going to Gaza to fight against Israel, but an estimated several hundred Moroccans have traveled across North Africa, southern Europe and Syria to join Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Iraqi government has said that around 25% of foreign suicide bombers in Iraq hail from North Africa. “For now, Iraq is Al Qaeda’s priority,” Darif said. “And it is easy to recruit people to go and kill U.S. soldiers over there.”
While Moroccan authorities fear the eventual return of well-trained operatives from Iraq — “We track them carefully,” said Zerouali, the Interior Ministry official — their more immediate concern is neighboring Algeria, where several suicide bombings against military and governmental targets have occurred in recent weeks and operatives are known to train in camps. The threat has become more immediate since January, when the main Algerian Islamist network changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, fueling concerns about a coordinated Islamist campaign in the region. The most sophisticated operations have occurred in Algeria, but the growing number of incidents in Morocco prompted the authorities to raise the alert level this past summer.
Mouad Rhandi, a Moroccan journalist who reports on terrorism-related issues, said that the authorities were inevitably surprised each time the threat developed. While the poorer neighborhoods of the country’s largest cities have been the main focus of government surveillance, he noted, last year a group of military officials was arrested for allegedly plotting attacks against Moroccan officials. The year before that, Karim Mejjati, a private-school graduate from a well-off Moroccan family who became a top operative of Al Qaeda, was killed in a shootout in Saudi Arabia.
“The security services always claim things are under control,” Rhandi said. “They do a good job in general, but the terrorists are often a step quicker.”