Morocco: The New Face of Terror?

One year after the Madrid bombings, Europe confronts a rising extremist threat

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MANU FERNANDEZ / AP

MADRID: A year after the bombings, Moroccan radicals still threaten Europe

New Year's Eve 2003 was a working night for Jamal Ahmidan. The 33-year-old had drifted in and out of Spain for more than a decade, breaching the narrow Strait of Gibraltar to enter illegally from his native Morocco. Though he was known to Spanish police as a dealer of hash and ecstasy, he was generally considered a small-time delinquent. But Ahmidan had a taste for vengeance, which explains why he walked into a bar in Bilbao last New Year's to confront Larbi Raichi, a fellow drug dealer who owed him money. Without a word, Ahmidan, known by his nickname "El Chino," shot Raichi in the kneecap and walked out.

At the time, the encounter seemed an unremarkable example of the violent score settling that is typical in the drug underworld. But the shooting may have held ominous clues to a sinister plot. Spanish authorities now believe that Ahmidan and a group of associates--many of them fellow Moroccans who had immigrated to Spain--had been using profits from drug sales to finance jihadist terrorism. Their activity culminated in Madrid last March 11, when bombs hidden in backpacks exploded on four suburban trains, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,500. Three weeks later, Ahmidan stood in a circle with six other terrorists--four other Moroccans, a Tunisian and an Algerian--in their safe house in the Madrid suburb of Leganés, reciting a martyr's chant. Surrounded by police, they detonated a powerful explosive charge, killing one Spanish policeman and blowing themselves to pieces.

The profane was never far from a twisted notion of the sacred in the genesis of the Madrid attack, which Spain commemorated last week. After a year of investigation, Spanish police and their European colleagues are still unraveling the main threads of a conspiracy that has proved wider and more destructive than previously suspected. The cell behind the March 11 attacks is also believed to have planted a bomb that failed to explode on the tracks of a Spanish high-speed train, and its members were planning to blow up a shopping center. Officials in New York City said this month that a crude sketch of Grand Central Terminal was found in the apartment of one of the suspects, though it is not believed to be "an operational plan." Perhaps most worrisome, counterterrorism officials say, is that the attacks may signal a tide of rising extremism among the Continent's Moroccan population, which is the largest Arab group in such countries as Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. Of the 22 people still being held in jail, 15 are Moroccans. In recent years, the intense police scrutiny paid to other Arab populations in Europe, as well as the flow of drugs through Morocco, has led terrorist organizers to step up their recruitment of Moroccans, long viewed as minor players in the global jihad. A member of Hofstad, an extremist group composed largely of young ethnic Moroccans, is accused of the November murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. A total of 13 of the terrorist-group members have been arrested by Dutch police so far. Similar sweeps have led to arrests in France and Belgium, where at least a dozen members of a suspected Moroccan terrorist cell have been jailed over the past year. Lieve Pellens, spokeswoman for the Belgian federal prosecutor, says that 80% to 90% of those arrested since 2003 on terrorism charges are Moroccan. Says a French investigator: "The days of not worrying about Morocco are over."

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