Will Morocco Retrench on Reform After a Terror Attack?

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Abdeljalil Bounhar / AP

Police experts survey the scene of an explosion at the Argana cafe in Marrakech's Djemma el-Fna Square, Morocco on Thursday, April 28, 2011.

For many Moroccans, news of the blast that ripped apart a popular tourist cafe in Marrakesh — killing at least 14 people and injuring 20 — provoked a flashback to the Casablanca bombings of 2003 that claimed 45 lives. Like that attack, initial official speculation the explosions hadn't been the work of terrorists rapidly gave way to confirmation that the normally peaceful, tolerant kingdom had indeed been bloodied by a terrorist attack. Evidence also quickly suggested the bombing of the Argana cafe in Marrakesh was also the work of a likely suicide bomber.

"Morocco is confronted with the same threats it did in May, 2003, and will face them with diligence," declared Moroccan Communications Minister Khalid Naciri, telling French television Thursday afternoon the strike was terrorism. "According to the information I have, it could have been perpetrated by a suicide bomber," an official in the regional governor's office told AFP, appearing to echo claims witnesses had made that a young man who had entered the cafe and ordered a drink had been the origin of the ensuing explosion.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy went ahead and condemned the "terrorist attack" — which is thought to have killed six French nationals among the 10 foreigners and four Moroccan victims. He called it an "odious, cruel, and cowardly act." By focusing on the Argana — a large cafe that opens onto the Djemaa el Fna square popular with foreign travelers — it seemed clear the perpetrators sought to target both tourists and the $8 billion annual tourism industry that Morocco's economy and government relies on. In 2003, suicide bombers similarly selected a hotel, a Spanish social club, and venues associated with Casablanca's relatively large Jewish population.

In Marrakesh, everyone who heard the blast knew something portentous had occurred. "We heard this huge bang, and ran up to the roof, because we thought something had fallen on the riad [inn]," Michelle Greaves, a Londoner whose boyfriend's family owns a small inn just off Djemaa el Fna, told TIME from Marrakesh. "My first thought was that it was a bomb. Pretty quickly we realized something serious was happening — there were people with blood all over them, and people bleeding on the ground, and members of the restaurant staff trying to help them. The police arrived really quickly and cordoned off the area, and that's when the sirens started going."

Moroccan officials initially speculated the blast might have been an accident caused by gas canisters that somehow caught fire. Despite the Casablanca bombing in 2003, many Moroccans are unwilling to believe that a society known in the Arab world for its relative tolerance and loyalty of its monarchy might have produced mass killers. In the wake of the 2003 attacks, the Moroccan regime pursued a ruthless crackdown on Salafist groups — jailing hundreds of suspected radicals for years on end. Thursday's bombing comes in the wake of a series of moderate but (for Morocco) significant pro-reform protests echoing democratic movements seen elsewhere in the Arab world. King Mohammed VI not only promised opponents a range of political, social, and economic reforms, but also oversaw the release of 27 recently arrested suspected supporters of the terrorist of al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb that operates out of several North African countries. Mohamed Fizazi and Abdelkarim Chadli, both arrested for their supposed roles in the 2003 bombings, were released under the mid-April pardon. That was apparently part of a wider amnesty of imprisoned Islamists in Morocco's mini-thaw.

Now many observers are waiting to see if the regime responds to Thursday's deadly terror strike with new repression — or forges ahead with reforms in order to drain the domestic swamp of poverty and alienation that breeds extremism. Either way, some Moroccans on Thursday were already repeating the vow heard in 2003 that the kingdom will not allow itself to be undermined by radical violence.

"The king has given his speech on television, and he has said that they are going to take care of everything, and told the police and the security forces that they must work to the maximum possible to find out quickly who is behind this," remarks tourist guide Serrakh Abdelhafid, who says he won't hesitate returning to Djemaa el Fna square. "I trust him, and believe that there is nothing to be afraid of. We will go back, we will go."