Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Al-Qaeda linked to deadly Casablanca bombing attacks

AP , RABAT, MOROCCO

The suicide bombers responsible for near-simultaneous attacks in Casablanca in May that killed 44 people had direct ties to al-Qaeda and were part of a hidden network of Islamic extremists planning other operations in the country, according to a top Moroccan official.

The official, speaking late Thursday on condition of anonymity, said an ongoing investigation has shown that the suicide bombers took orders directly from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian fugitive believed to be a lieutenant of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

"This network was in direct operational relation with the leaders of al-Qaeda," said the official.

Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the May 16 attacks that targeted Jewish and European sites and a major hotel in Casablanca.

German officials say al-Zarqawi, who is also known as Ahmed al-Kalaylah, was an al-Qaeda combat commander appointed to orchestrate attacks on Europe.

The investigation has also shown that some 300 Moroccans trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan before returning to the North African nation in late 2001 to plot terrorist attacks on Moroccan soil, the official said.

Authorities had intelligence early this spring that attacks were being planned, and placed the country under maximum terrorist alert starting in March, the official said.

"We had intelligence of an imminent terrorist action targeting notably Casablanca," the official said.

The May 16 attack in Casablanca, Morocco's largest city, left 32 bystanders dead and a hundred others injured. The suicide bombers used homemade explosives stuffed into backpacks and detonated at almost precisely the same time in five locations. Twelve of the 14 attackers -- all Moroccan -- died.

Officials also believe that some 50 potential suicide bombers were gearing up for a wave of attacks planned for May 23, a week after the Casablanca bombings, in three popular tourist destinations -- ?Marrakech and the beach resorts of Agadir and Essaouira.

Looking to finance and arm themselves, the extremists were believed to be planning robberies of banks and arms depots, the official said, citing the investigation's findings.

But a series of sweeps and arrests in the days following the Casablanca bombings thwarted the planned follow-up attacks, officials said.

Pierre Robert, a Frenchman who converted to Islam and trained at Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda camps, is believed to have been a supervisor of a Moroccan cell based in Tangiers, 250km north of Rabat, the official said. That cell had close ties to another that was active in Fez, 200km east of Rabat.

Robert, an explosives expert, was taken into custody two weeks after the May 16 attacks. Prosecutors last week dropped their case against him in connection with the Casablanca attacks after the investigation showed he was not directly involved.

Robert is still to face trial for his suspected involvement in plotting other attacks.

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