World

Islamists aim to retake initiative in Morocco attack

PARIS: Hard-line Islamists may have bombed a Moroccan tourist cafe in a probably fruitless bid to retake the initiative in Arab politics after being sidelined by pro-democratic revolts, experts said.

One day after a powerful blast ripped through the crowded Marrakesh eatery, killing at least 15 people including many foreign tourists, experts told AFP an Islamist extremist group such as Al-Qaeda’s North African arm was probably to blame.

Jean-Yves Moisseron, editor-in-chief of specialist journal Maghreb-Machrek, said that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had been trying to set up a cell in Morocco for several months. “The mode of operation suggests a professional organization, because Djemaa al-Fna square is under tight surveillance,” he said.

“The Argana cafe is a place that attracts foreigners,” he explained, noting that Marrakesh has a reputation among conservative Islamists as a haven for the sinful merry-making.

By striking such a venue, he said, radicals may be trying to restore their voice in the political debate, after it was effectively silenced by a series of revolts by citizens seeking democratic rights, not Islamic theocracy.

“Since the start of the Arab Spring, Al-Qaeda networks have fallen silent because they did not know how to position themselves,” said Anne Guidicelli, a consultant specializing in terrorism in the region.

She said authoritarian regimes in the region had brandished the threat of Al-Qaeda to justify their repressive response to the revolts, and thus shared a common cause with the militants in trying to emphasize their role.

Many experts were surprised it was Morocco that was hit. The relatively stable kingdom has not seen a successful terror attack since 2003.

On April 14, King Mohammad VI freed several political prisoners, including Islamists, and announced a raft of constitutional reforms.

Foreign-based experts agreed that in itself the bombing was not a threat to long-term democratization.

Guidicelli warned, however, that in striking at tourism the attackers had struck at the heart of the Moroccan economy, which can only increase poverty, “the seedbed of terrorism.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 30, 2011, on page 10.

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