Across the Divide

11 minute read
Bruce Crumley and Scott MacLeod | Tangier

From the cliffs above the port of Tangier, the lights of the Spanish seaside town of Tarifa flicker like a mirage. A mere 30 km away, Tarifa might as well be on another planet for the clusters of young men who loiter on the streets of the Moroccan city, some of them smoking kif, the local name for marijuana. Most are unemployed; they’ve lost faith in their government and resent the West for perceived injustices against Muslims; and they want to get out — to Europe. Spanish border police say they caught 14,000 illegal immigrants trying to cross into Spain last year. Estimates for how many evaded the police and made it into the country number in the thousands, too.

On Rue Pasteur by the Place de France, Arabic music blares from street vendors’ stalls. Spanish tourists browse through trinket shops selling handmade leather belts and colorful ceramic plates. “All Moroccans want to be over there, in Europe,” says Driss Mbarke, 21. “If Allah wills it, you can go.” But Rafik, a slight 20-year-old, suddenly erupts with familiar Arab rage over the conflicts in Iraq and Palestine. “America is killing us!” he shouts. “You kill Muslims, Muslims kill you!”

Last week, Spain marked the first anniversary of the Madrid bombings, in which a terrorist cell made up mostly of Moroccan immigrants killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,500 others by detonating 10 bombs on four commuter trains during the height of the morning rush hour. On Friday at 7.39 a.m. at Atocha station, the exact moment when the first three bombs went off there, commuters stopped for five minutes of silence, a wordless memorial enacted all across Spain. One woman quietly left a bunch of flowers on the platform. “My daughter died in the tragedy,” she said, “and I wanted to be here on the first anniversary of her death.” Many survivors and families of the victims stayed away. “I prefer to stay at home and mourn my son, Daniel, alone,” said Pilar Manjón, president of the Association of 3/11 Victims.

But the agony of March 11 brought Spaniards, and all Europeans, together in the realization that the threat of terrorism is still real. The Moroccan connection to the Madrid bombings, and police raids of Muslim extremists across Europe over the past year, have sparked concerns that Moroccan jihadists may be on the move. “March 11 was an important precedent,” says a senior Spanish intelligence official. “Now Moroccans know that they can do it. Others may use that self-confidence to do it again.”

European counterterrorism and intelligence authorities say sweeps of suspected radical groups are turning up increasing numbers of Moroccans. Just last week, a Moroccan-born 21-year-old was arrested in a Madrid suburb on suspicion of having close ties to the 3/11 bombers. He was later released but has to remain available for further questioning. Though police say the Madrid plot was directed largely by a Tunisian, of the 22 people so far in prison pending trial in connection with the attacks, 15 are Moroccan.

In Belgium, around a dozen members of a Moroccan cell have been jailed over the last year. Last week, the government announced it would extradite to Spain 28-year-old Moroccan Youssef Belhadj, who was picked up in February on suspicion of being the person who claimed responsibility for the 3/11 strikes on behalf of “al-Qaeda in Europe” in a video discovered after the attacks. “Most of our arrests — about 80-90% — have been Moroccans,” says Lieve Pellens, spokeswoman for the Belgian Federal Prosecutor. In France, at least seven leaders of three Moroccan cells unearthed in the Paris area last year remain under arrest as officials investigate their ties to similar groups in Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey. And in the Netherlands, the murder of controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh last November — allegedly by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-born 27-year-old of Moroccan descent — led police to a terrorist ring called the Hofstad Network. So far, 13 ethnic Moroccans have been arrested and charged with membership of the group.

One main reason Moroccans are so prevalent in Europe’s latest arrests is simple: there are about 2 million in Europe and they make up the bulk of the Arab population in Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands. Moroccan officials say that their countrymen are targeted for recruitment by al-Qaeda and affiliated groups precisely because they are so well integrated in Europe. And since 3/11, they’ve come under more intense scrutiny from authorities. Still, for many, the involvement of Moroccans in terrorism is a surprise. The vast majority of Moroccans abhor what the terrorists have done. After the Casablanca attacks in May 2003, in which 45 people died when suicide bombers simultaneously hit five separate sites, tens of thousands marched against terrorism. The Madrid bombings were denounced by all major Moroccan parties, including Islamic fundamentalists. King Mohammed VI, who last week paid tribute in Madrid to the victims, condemned the terrorists as “villains” who tarnished the Muslim faith.

Counterterrorism officials say that Moroccan cells in Europe are especially adept at hiding in plain sight. “They work hard at day jobs and family lives that provide total cover for clandestine activity,” says a French investigator. Other hallmarks of what this source calls “the Moroccan model” include more covert recruitment to avoid detection; high, if not total, Moroccan or ethnic-Moroccan cell membership; a loose affiliation with the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (gicm), an extremist group associated with al-Qaeda; and a degree of preparedness that the French investigator warns “could allow them to turn from logistical and other activity into an operative cell almost as soon as the decision is made.”

One Moroccan jihadist who underwent that transformation was Madrid bomber Jamal (El Chino) Ahmidan, one of the seven suspected 3/11 terrorists who blew themselves up in an apartment in the Madrid suburb of Leganés last April as police closed in. Ahmidan grew up in the rundown Moroccan city of Tetuán, where his father ran a clothing shop, and came illegally to Madrid in 1990 aged 19. He started dealing hashish and living the fast life of a drug-using petty criminal. But that wasn’t the whole picture.

In April 2000, according to a Spanish antiterrorism official, Ahmidan was placed in a Madrid detention center for illegal aliens prior to deportation. “He set himself up as an imam and told the guards he would come back and kill them,” says the official. “No one took him seriously then, but he already had quite a following.” A subsequent prison stint in Morocco only increased his sense of mission. According to police sources, after spiriting himself back into Spain, Ahmidan reconnected with some of his followers and resumed his drug-peddling — but as a committed jihadist.

Police say Ahmidan was in touch with remnants of the Soldiers of Allah, an al-Qaeda-linked network set up in 1994. Police believe their initial goal was to recruit fighters for Bosnia and Chechnya, and increasingly turned to local Moroccans to use drug-dealing, credit card fraud and minor theft to finance jihad. Part of the tragedy of 3/11 is that Ahmidan, like other members of the cell, was known to police — but only as a drug dealer. The poor vigilance was partly grounded in a basic misreading of the jihadists’ intent: Spanish police never believed this cell would become operative.

But Ahmidan did. In fact, authorities say he became a key operator for the 3/11 attacks. The proceeds from his hashish trade funded not only his BMW 500 and Volkswagen Golf, but also helped pay the rent on the cottage near Morata de Taju�a, 30 km southeast of Madrid, where police believe the 3/11 conspirators assembled their bombs. Spanish investigators say the 200 kg of Goma 2 Eco explosives used in the attacks were purchased with drugs and drug proceeds.

Ahmidan was also a key link to many of the other members of the cell, according to the senior Spanish antiterror official. Some of them knew him through drug-dealing, others from the streets of the poor Madrid neighborhood of Lavapiés or from the mosque. “Many of these Moroccans weren’t part of the original Islamic fundamentalist tradition,” says the official. But following Ahmidan’s zealous lead, they embraced the fanatical jihadist doctrine of Al-Takfir wa’l-Hijra (excommunication and exile), which legitimizes the killing of all “infidels” — including fellow Muslims — as a sacred duty.

Why do some Moroccans seem primed to join extremist groups? One factor is the legacy of the late King Hassan II, who ruled from 1961 to 1999. Hassan II’s repression of political opponents gave Moroccans a taste for violence, some believe, while his bankrupt education system helped produce a generation of unemployed youth ripe for poisonous thinking. To combat the antimonarchist challenge of Morocco’s burgeoning homegrown Islamic movement, Hassan II encouraged the intolerant Wahhabi doctrine of Islam — exported from Saudi Arabia — in which Osama bin Laden was schooled.

Under Hassan’s son, Mohammed VI, the Moroccan regime has tried to offset the appeal of fundamentalism through modernization. The government held Morocco’s most transparent parliamentary elections ever in 2002, passed landmark women’s rights legislation, and is encouraging foreign investment to create new jobs. The king has also reformed religious education and actively promotes the moderate Maliki school of Islam practiced in Morocco for centuries. A new Equity and Reconciliation Commission will investigate cases of torture and other human-rights abuses committed mainly during Hassan II’s reign and compensate victims. “We do not consider ourselves a country that produces terrorists,” Moroccan Prime Minister Driss Jettou told Time, “but a country that has always been recognized for the peace that prevails within it.”

Critics say these changes are not enough, and that the now familiar amalgam of economic despair and political frustration could fuel radicalism anew. There’s no good way out, but there are lots of bad ones — drugs, Islamist extremism, illegal immigration or some combination of the three. “Sadly, the only way to protest the regime is Islamism now,” says Ali Lmrabet, a Moroccan editor who has lived in Spain since he was pardoned last year after serving part of a prison term for writing an article the government claimed undermined the monarchy. Lmrabet says nothing in Morocco will change until it finds a democratic path between “feudal monarchy and violent Islamism.” Says Mohammed Najib Boulif, a Moroccan M.P. from the moderate Islamic Justice and Development Party: “If there is social harmony, jobs, equality before the law, there will never be extremism; if injustice increases in Morocco, there will always be extremists.”

Last year in Tangier, the Community House for Women, which offers self-help programs to poor women, hosted a discussion about the Madrid attacks. Organizers expected a handful of people to turn up, but dozens packed the room — mostly mothers with sons living, legally or illegally, in Europe. “They were really scared that their children are turning to terrorism,” says Mounira Bouzid el Alami, president of the Darna Association in Tangier, which runs the Community House for Women. “For the first time, they realized that you don’t become a terrorist just because you meet somebody and he tells you to put a bomb somewhere. Morocco prepared them for terrorism. When you have no future, anybody can work on your brain.”

Once in Europe, many Moroccans face discrimination for jobs and housing and find themselves back at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. “When they go to Europe, they are not prepared for the realities,” says Naima Benyaich, sister of Salaheddin and Abdulaziz Benyaich, who are jailed in Morocco and Spain, respectively, on terror-related charges. “They want to recover their religious values and resort to the mosques there. What do they find? A more rigid mentality than the one they left behind.”

The aftershocks of 3/11 are making life even harder for young Moroccans in Europe. In Lavapiés, the poor, bustling immigrant Madrid neighborhood where many of the 3/11 terrorists lived, a 29-year-old unemployed construction worker named Avdun loiters in the chilly sunlight. Eight years ago, Avdun received his residence permit and moved in among the area’s fruit stands, bars and phone shops. But the dream has soured. Since last March 11, he says, police are everywhere. As he speaks, a team of officers move through the square, demanding papers from the idling men. Mohammed, a 23-year-old Tangier native who lost his construction job six months ago, grumbles that since the attacks, Spaniards view Moroccans as “all either drug traffickers or terrorists.” Avdun agrees: “The economic situation is worse in Morocco, but they treat you like a person there. Here you lose your dignity.”

In fact, very few incidents of revenge or xenophobia have been directed against Moroccans in Spain since the Madrid bombings. Spain’s Socialist government has launched a program to grant residence permits to illegal immigrants with jobs, and Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos says the government is committed “to re-establishing a sense of trust and mutual confidence” with Morocco. Still, authorities on both sides of the Mediterranean will keep a close watch on the tiny minority of Moroccans committed, like Ahmidan and his fellow jihadists, to the kind of unspeakable violence that last week silenced Madrid.

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