Terror cells lay dormant in the shanty towns of Casablanca

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The Independent Online

A crowd of lawyers wearing black courtroom gowns and white ruffs wailed verses of mourning from the Koran yesterday as two fellow lawyers killed in Friday's bomb blast at a Spanish social club in Casablanca were buried in the city's white-walled cemetery.

A crowd of lawyers wearing black courtroom gowns and white ruffs wailed verses of mourning from the Koran yesterday as two fellow lawyers killed in Friday's bomb blast at a Spanish social club in Casablanca were buried in the city's white-walled cemetery.

The cream of Morocco's professional class wept openly and embraced as the rough wooden coffins, draped in green and yellow flags, were laid to rest in the fierce midday sunshine.

These victims of the chain of five deadly explosions that ripped through the city were members of the prosperous middle classes, but several of their assailants ­ 13 of whom immolated themselves in the multiple blasts ­ hailed from Casablanca's poorest and most marginal shanty towns on the outskirts of the city.

Scores of suspects were rounded up after the attacks, and at least eight of them are from the sprawling industrial suburb of Sidi Moumen, the Justice Minister, Mohammed Bouzoubaa, said when he left the funeral. The booming bidon-ville is a magnet for young men who drift to the city from the countryside in search of work and opportunities.

Sidi Moumen has become a virtual no-go area for police, and has thrown up a number of semi-clandestine mosques. Observers have long suspected the disaffected youngsters could be a breeding ground for fundamentalists.

Last night, police investigators had yet to reach the dusty streets behind Sidi Moumen, which penetrate a warren of shanties. The homes are built of rubble and corrugated iron but each is topped with a satellite dish. Amid the stench of open sewers, hundreds of people teemed through the alleys, around the countless repair shops and vegetable stalls. Women gathered water from the well in the street, dodging mule-drawn carts and doing their shopping. The chief authority in the area seems to be a huge mosque, with an ironmonger tucked away near its entrance.

However, no one believes that the attacks that rippled across the city, on five separate targets with such split-second timing, could have been the unaided work of a handful of country boys from Sidi Moumen. Five separate cells, each comprising three people, are suspected of the attacks.

One local media commentator said: "We were expecting fundamentalists to gain ground in elections, by legal means, but we couldn't have predicted this kind of violence."

However, a senior Moroccan military source warned some 18 months ago that Islamic radicals, who call themselves the Salafist Jihad, had links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida movement, and said he had evidence that some had spent time in training camps in Afghanistan and had set up dormant cells in Morocco. Ten people were arrested in May last year, seven Moroccans and three Saudis, and were tried in Morocco and sentenced to 10 years in jail in March. Police thought they had foiled a terror campaign but now believe a network of dormant cells remained intact.

Police, present in large numbers yesterday, cordoned off city streets as local people continue to express their surprise at the complexity of Friday's terror attacks.

The horror began at 9.45pm local time (10.45BST) when people were strolling in the lively medina near the Jewish cemetery. Some thought the blast was a faulty gas canister exploding, which often happens in the city. But an attack on the cemetery produced a scene of bloody chaos. Neighbours brought out sheets, tablecloths, anything to cover the remains of four victims.

The panic had already spread by the time the Casa de España restaurant was attacked 15 minutes later. The barman saw three young men try to force their way into the restaurant, which was popular among professionals and diplomats. The porter, an elderly man known as "Haj", tried to block their way. They cut his throat and left him dying. They entered the room, shouted Allahu Akbar and the force of their self-destruction flung one of them into the courtyard of the Spanish consulate next door. Fifteen people died.

Ten minutes later, the bustling Hotel Farah, formerly the Safir and popular among visiting Israelis, was also hit. A security guard said: "We saw two men with backpacks near by and asked them to move off. One took out a knife and threatened us." They dropped the bag in the doorway and it went off, killing more people and adding to the panic. A Jewish cultural centre ­ deserted on the Sabbath ­ was the next target, at 10.15pm. The duty guard was killed. Widespread panic had taken hold of the city by then, even among the police, who didn't know which way to turn.

Five minutes later, as the Casa de España and the Safir were being cordoned off, a car bomb went off outside the busy Jewish-owned Positano restaurant, near the Belgian consulate. A four-wheel-drive vehicle outside was reduced to a mangled heap of metal.

The five attacks within 35 minutes killed 41 people and wounded at least 100. Morocco's timid moves towards modernity and openness under the young King Mohammed VI lie in shreds. The media had started to give space to Islamic radicals, but is now expected to be urged to rally behind the fight against terrorists.

Earlier this year, two Moroccan Islamists, Hassan Kitami and Abu Hafs, were arrested. During his trial, Abu Hafs said that Bin Laden was a hero and the United States was the devil. Morocco, one of the staunchest allies of the US, has been shown to be a soft target in the Muslim world.

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