Back with a vengeance

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The Independent Online

The threat of international terrorism against Western targets loomed larger last night than at any time since 11 September after a string of deadly suicide bombings in Casablanca appeared to confirm fears that al-Qa'ida has regrouped.

The threat of international terrorism against Western targets loomed larger last night than at any time since 11 September after a string of deadly suicide bombings in Casablanca appeared to confirm fears that al-Qa'ida has regrouped.

US officials said that al-Qa'ida has reorganised in East Africa, and had opened at least one training camp in Sudan. Regrouping has also been detected in Pakistan and Checnnya. The CIA and the FBI have picked up signs of further attacks in the near future and that new members are being recruited and trained. Exactly where new attacks would take place is unclear, but potential threats to Western interests and "soft targets" extend from Arab countries to East Africa and Indonesia.

Forty-one people died and scores were injured in the Casablanca attacks, which came just four days after synchronised suicide bombings on expatriate residences in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Shortly after 9pm on Friday night, five suicide bombings in 30 minutes rocked the Moroccan city, striking a variety of targets, including a Spanish club and restaurant, a Jewish community centre, the Belgian Consulate and an international hotel.

The bombers struck just hours after the US warned that Osama bin Laden's network was preparing to strike again,

Ten suicide bombers were among the dead. Most of the victims were Moroccans, but at least six Europeans died, including two Spaniards, two Italians and two French.

There has been no claim of responsibility, but suspicion fell immediately on a North African cell of al-Qa'ida. No Moroccan extremist group has been known to use suicide bombings.

The Moroccan Interior Minister, Mustapha Sahel, said the attacks bore "the hallmark of international terrorism". All five attacks involved suicide bombings, and car bombs were not used, according to a government official. In recent days, the United States and Britain have issued warnings of possible attacks in Kenya and other East African countries, but not Morocco. Increased communications "chatter" intercepted by US and British surveillance, coupled with some specific references reaching Western intelligence services last week, prompted warnings.

Anti-terror specialists in Washington noted that responsibility for the Casablanca attacks had not been claimed, and that there seemed to be no US victims. "But given that the explosions happened nearly simultaneously, it is plausible it was an al-Qa'ida attack", one official said.

President Bush sounded a similar warning in his pre-recorded weekly radio address, though he referred only to the car bombs in Riyadh last Monday in which 34 people were killed, including eight Americans. Al-Qa'ida had been "weakened but was not idle" after US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In fact, experts have long warned that, in the short term at least, the Iraq campaign and the resentment it had caused in the Muslim world would heighten the likelihood of new terror attacks.

Senior US government officials point to the secret arrests of two Arab men in the United States, suspected of having been sent by leaders of al-Qa'ida to reconnoitre for new attacks.

The two recently arrested men, whom the officials would not identify, were said to be conducting "pre-surveillance" activities. The two were connected to a suspected active service unit of about six al-Qa'ida followers also arrested in recent months. The presence of so many al-Qa'ida operatives has led the US authorities to the conclusion that al-Qa'ida is prepared to go to any length to carry out attacks on American soil.

The attacks shattered Morocco's image as a stable Arab country and a safe and popular tourist destination. It has one of the Arab world's most pro-Western leaderships and a record of amicable relations with Israel – but Islamic fundamentalism has also been on the increase.

Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is the only person so far charged in the United States in connection with the 11 September 2001 attacks on US cities.

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