Initial signs point to Islamist terror groups as culprits in the attack that killed 17 in Marrakech. What does it mean for the reform promises from King Mohammed VI?
RABAT – The deadly explosion in Marrakech's central square and marketplace known as Djemaa el-Fna has left Morocco stunned. The kingdom had not been on terrorist alert, and the threat of jihadist groups seemed to be waning over the past few years.
By midday local time Friday, authorities put the death toll for the previous day's attack on the popular Argana café at 17, including as many as eight French citizens. No group has yet taken responsibility, and investigators have not yet given a detailed account of how the attack was carried out.
More recently, the country's political dynamic was generally moving in a positive direction in the face of the "Arab Spring" movement across the region. The March 9 speech by King Mohammed VI announced the launch of a significant constitutional reform, and a gust of liberty was blowing through the country. The protests launched by the February 20 movement, which had several goals in common with the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, had set in motion a democratic transition, and the king appeared ready to revive a push toward modernization.
Mohammed said he intends to change the justice system, fight corruption, and become more transparent. The constitution is slated to be modified in order to establish a parliamentary monarchy, though exactly how this will be done is still unclear. In any case, the office of the Prime Minister will actually govern the country, no longer being reduced to a subordinate role that simply ratifies the decisions of the King.
The youth uprising in the region had indeed created a wave of excitement, and a notable uptick in the freedom of expression across the country, including unprecedented political debates broadcast on television. The protest movement does not have a designated leader, orders are given on Facebook, and opinions often clash. Some, in the name of human rights, even claimed to be able to eat in public spaces during Ramadan. Others dared to question, in the name of religious sectarianism, the role of the commander of the faithful, Mohammed VI.
It is in this context that the attack in Marrakech is being absorbed. "It's the worst event that could have happened to us. A blow with a club," says Karim Boukhari, the editor at TelQuel magazine. "This will be exploited by the conservative circles and by the hawks, partisans of excessive repression. And there are many."
The target was a café frequented by tourists, and there are some reports that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. Both facts would likely point to a jihadist group, however such groups have been rather quiet in recent months. In Morocco, Islamic terrorism reached its peak in May 2003 with the Casablanca attacks that killed 45. Fourteen suicide bombers who had come from Sidi Moumem, a slum of the economic capital, blew themselves up downtown.
Were the young 2003 kamikazes manipulated? The question, legitimate in the eyes of well-informed observers, remains unanswered. It had come at a time of tightening security. The police force had dismantled a series of networks used to send Moroccan fighters to Iraq. Many cells had been linked to AQMI, Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, whose hunting grounds are Algeria and the Sahara. Hundreds of sympathizers of the Islamist cause had been arrested, and tortured in some cases, to set an example, and then condemned to lengthy prison sentences after a series of mass trials.
The attacks had marked the first fracture during the reign of Mohammed VI. The liberal views of this king, who rose to the throne in 1999, were slowly giving way to a more cautionary wait-and-see attitude.
Some jihadists pardoned
Worried and wanting to stay one step ahead of the protests, the king released prisoners on April 14. Among them were Saharan tribesmen close to the Polisario Front a national liberation movement working for the independence of the Western Sahara from Morocco as well as members of the Islamist movement Salafia Jihadia, considered as the crucible for radical extremism. Ninety-six detainees were released at once, 41 of them had their sentences reduced, and 53 were given a provisional release.
Specifically, the royal pardon granted freedom to five militants of an Islamist group, as well as a journalist, who had been sentenced in July to 10 years of prison for having "formed a terrorist cell targeted at overthrowing" the government. Organizations defending human rights had insisted that there was both a lack of evidence and a lack of connections between the accused and a Belgo-Moroccan network that had prepared a wave of attacks. These prisoner releases were welcomed by the partisans of reform who viewed the goodwill of the king as a sign of conciliation.
A radical Islamist figure, Mohammed Fizazi, has also been released from his prison in Tangier after years of incarceration. This Salafist ideologue had been described as one of the masterminds of the movement who committed the suicide bombing attacks in April 2003. His comrades remain imprisoned, yet nevertheless managed to circulate videos of their demands on the Internet, a feat that had put security officials on edge. And that was before Thursday's attack.
Read the original article in French.
Photo - MCaporilli