Mistakes in Morocco attacks point to lack of planning, training

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

CASABLANCA, Morocco -- The suicide bombers attacked a Jewish community center when it was closed and empty. A day later, the building would have been packed.

Another attacker blew himself up near a fountain, killing three Muslims. He apparently mistook it for one near a Jewish cemetery not far away. The cemetery was undamaged.

These and other miscalculations indicate that the suicide attackers who killed 29 people in Casablanca in five near-simultaneous assaults Friday were not as well-trained as first believed. One attacker survived and was arrested.

Authorities raised the number of bystanders killed on Monday after determining that just 12 of the attackers died in the explosions.

'Behind the scenes'

The apparent missteps "could explain a number of things" about planning and execution of the attack, or indicate the attackers were simply recruited from poor neighborhoods, government spokesman Nabil Benabdellah said.

"The experts were the ones behind the scenes," Benabdellah said. The attackers "were used, they were simply trained how to act," he said.

A high-level Moroccan official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity, that investigators suspect the bombings were the work of homegrown Islamic groups working on instructions from al-Qaida.

Morocco's interior minister, Moustafa Sahel, said 12 attackers -- not 13 as Moroccan authorities first said -- died in the bombings.

One suspected attacker was captured on Friday and another on Sunday, "allowing us to make remarkable progress in terms of information and to confirm our suspicions that links exist with international terrorism," the minister said.

He said all the suspects had been identified, although he did not elaborate.

Officials stressed that no firm conclusions had been made.

"We're not in a position to explain it all just yet," Benabdellah said. "But I can tell you the investigation is quite far along and we've assembled nearly all the elements."

'There's nothing there'

In the apparent attempt to attack the Jewish cemetery, the bomber detonated his explosives at a fountain about 150 feet from the graveyard. The head of the local police unit suspected the bomber meant the explosion to take place at a similar fountain at the cemetery entrance.

"This was the wrong place -- there's nothing here," said the officer.

The same for the Jewish center, which was heavily damaged, but closed at the time of the attacks.

The government has said most of the attackers were from Casablanca's Sidi Moumen neighborhood, known as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.

Justice Minister Mohamed Bouzoubaa was quoted by the official news agency MAP as saying the bombers were all Moroccans with modest backgrounds, including some students. One of those captured had worked as a parking lot attendant, he said.

Interior Ministry officials said Monday the attackers were between 20 and 24 years old.

"If these were professionals, they would have waited until Saturday to attack the Jewish center -- it's packed on that day," said Mohamed Kabi, 59, a tourism industry worker, as he fed pigeons during a lunch break in front of city hall.

Some Moroccans were eager to connect the attacks -- which also damaged a Spanish restaurant, the Hotel Farah, the Belgian consulate and a Jewish-owned Italian eatery -- to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.

The Gazette de Maroc newspaper had a headline reading, "Carnage signed by bin Laden," with a front-page photo of the terrorist leader. Moroccan officials have repeatedly said international terrorism was to blame, while President Bush said Monday that American officials were looking for clues coming out of Morocco about a link between the attacks and al-Qaida.

King Mohammed VI spoke by phone with Bush, French President Jacques Chirac and Spain's King Juan Carlos on Monday, MAP reported. All three offered "their cooperation," it said, without giving details.

King Mohammed also visited the injured at Casablanca's Ibn Rochd Hospital, where 31 people, including 10 police officers, are being treated, MAP reported.

Investigators were busy on Monday looking for evidence of overseas ties to the bombers. Police were trying to determine if the attackers were linked to the extremist group Salafia Jihadia, which is accused of ties to al-Qaida.

Another Moroccan group suspected is the Attakfir wal Hijra, also believed to have al-Qaida links, a security official said.

Agents carried out raids around the North African kingdom over the weekend in search of suspected Islamic militant groups. Several dozen militants were apprehended.

Agents were probing whether the bombers had any contacts with three Saudis sentenced to 10 years in prison in February for their part in an al-Qaida plot to attack U.S. and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar, another security official said Monday on condition of anonymity.

Investigators of the three Saudis revealed during their trial that the suspects had actively sought recruits in working-class areas of Casablanca and other Moroccan cities. Abdellah Lamari, a defense lawyer for the Saudis, declined to comment to The Associated Press about the possible link.

The justice minister said eight Europeans -- three French, four Spanish and one Italian -- were killed in the attacks. Their bodies were turned over to their embassies, he said.

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