Thunderbolt in Casablanca

“Things here will never be the same,” said one shop-owner in Casablanca, a city in a state of shock following the Friday night suicide bombings that claimed 41 lives and left at least 100 people wounded, 14 of them seriously.

Seven foreigners, including three French nationals, three Spaniards and an Italian, were killed in the second major attack within a week in an Arab kingdom with historically close ties to the US.

“The image of Morocco as a warm and welcoming country has been shattered forever. Those who carried out the attacks are not alive to see the damage they have caused their country,” lamented the shop-owner, expressing a sentiment that seemed to prevade the country.

Moroccan authorities were quick to link the Casablanca attacks to Al-Qa’eda. Their country and Saudi Arabia, Osama Bin Laden’s birthplace, were among Muslim states listed as “most eligible for liberation” in a tape purportedly made by Al- Qa’eda’s leader and broadcast last February. US officials too believe there is a plausible link between the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington and the Moroccan bombings. US President George Bush said the attacks in Casablanca and Riyadh “demonstrate that the war against terror goes on”.

In the Moroccan capital, Rabat, security was unusually tight around Western embassies. It had already been stepped up due to the Anglo-American led war on Iraq, which was opposed by most Arab states. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had warned that the Iraq conflict would create “one hundred new Bin Ladens”.

If a link between the Casablanca attacks and Al-Qa’eda is established, then Mubarak’s warning would prove to have been prophetic; a wake-up call for those who were asserting that Al-Qa’eda is a spent force. Terrorism analysts now see that signs of the militant Islamist network’s re-activation in Afghanistan and Chechnya were only a prelude to that in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Toby Dodge, an Arab expert at Britain’s Warwick University, said the resentment caused by the war to topple Saddam Hussein may have brought new recruits and funding to Al-Qa’eda, at a time when Muslims are already enraged by US backing for Israel. “For those thinking of supporting Al- Qa’eda, the American invasion of Iraq proved their worst fears of what they see as a dominant power with possibly limitless ambitions,” he said.

Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East programme at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, said Al- Qa’eda might have kept its powder dry during the Iraq conflict to avoid giving the impression it was defending Saddam Hussein. “The US-British invasion of Iraq had served Al-Qa’eda’s purposes by inflaming Muslim sentiments,” she said, but also suggested the surge of violence could backfire if it is seen as hurting the livelihood of Muslims in Morocco and elsewhere.

But some commentators in Morocco are doubtful about the suspected link to Al-Qa’eda. “If Al-Qa’eda is behind the raids, how is it that no American interests were targeted?” asked Abu Bakr Jamai, editor of the Casablanca-based Le Journale Hebdomadaire. “The political dimension of the targets is not obvious,” he said. Jamai might have a point considering that the five almost simultaneous blasts were aimed at mainly Jewish and Spanish targets.

Moroccan authorities had singled out radical Islamists for responsibility for the attacks, saying that the Friday night bombers are linked to some elements currently being tried at the Appeal Court in Casablanca. Some indications suggest they are linked to a group calling itself Assirat Al-Moustaquim (The Righteous Path). This illegal and underground organisation is believed to be a splinter group of another radical Islamist organisation, Salafia Jihadia. One of the spiritual leaders of this group, Abdel-Wahab Raqiqi, alias Abu Hafs, was jailed this year for inciting violence against Westerners. Abu Hafs, a 28-year-old cleric who was among the Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, had expressed clear support for the 11 September attacks and hailed Osama Bin Laden as a hero.

When the suicide bombers struck Morocco’s business hub last Friday, they also shattered the kingdom’s image as a safe tourist destination and dealt a fresh blow to an economy vulnerable to fears over terrorism. Tourism is Morocco’s second largest source of revenue, employing more than 600,000 people. The transport and handicraft industries are closely tied to tourism, a sector the government has earmarked for massive development. Morocco wants to quadruple the number of foreign visitors to 10 million by 2010 and has sought tenders for five seaside resorts as part of an ambitious US $4.2 billion project.

But a senior fund manager said Friday night’s attacks meant investors would now question the country’s stability. “Morocco’s image as a rare haven of religious co-existence suffered a great deal from these attacks. The authorities must focus their efforts on restoring this image, because it has been our main asset,” he said. Amine Boughaleb, head of Partners Hotels, said Morocco needed to learn from others hit by terrorist attacks. “We should do what Egypt did earlier after the Luxor shooting incident,” he said.

Egypt appointed Western consultants to polish its image as a safe tourist destination after Muslim militants massacred 58 foreign tourists in November 1997.

Morocco’s tourism revenue plunged almost 19 per cent last year in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, which triggered a collapse in international air travel. But the fall was nothing in comparison to the 80 per cent collapse in revenues after the 1991 Gulf war. Friday’s bombing came like a thunderbolt to a nation that has always considered itself a tolerant society where foreigners are always welcome.

For the time being, Moroccans are still in shock. In their worst dreams, Moroccans never expected terrorism to strike in their own country. Now that it has happened, they have to live with this reality and deal with the consequences.