Barely a fortnight ago, a few rash souls in the Western intelligence establishment were allowing themselves to think that al-Qa'ida was beaten. The network made infamous by 11 September had been gravely, perhaps even terminally, weakened.
One by one, names and faces on those organograms of its most wanted were crossed out – most importantly that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, arrested on 1 March at a villa in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi where he lived in hiding.
He was believed to have been the mastermind of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington: the photos released afterwards of him, dazed and stubble-chinned after being dragged from his bed, seemed a metaphor for the disarray of the entire organisation. On 29 April, obscured by the aftermath of war in Iraq, came another major success, with the seizure in Karachi of Walid Ba'Attash, believed to have had a hand in the 11 September attacks as well as in the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in October 2000.
Alas, far more prescient was the judgement of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London in its annual survey released only last Wednesday but written well before the carefully plotted, synchronised car bombings at Western housing compounds in the Saudi capital. After being driven from Afghanistan, the organisation had reconstituted itself, argued the IISS.
It was doing business in a different manner but one "more insidious and just as dangerous as in its pre-11 September incarnation". And now Casablanca, with a modus operandi similar to that employed in Riyadh: five suicide bombings within 30 minutes, aimed at a variety of Jewish, Spanish and Belgian targets. No one has claimed responsibility, but they have hardly needed to. Everyone suspected that the Iraq war would prove an unmatched recruiting tool for Islamic extremism. The surprise, if any, is that Riyadh and Casablanca have happened so soon.
By the standards of 11 September, they were relatively low-tech, carried out with car bombs, or by suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their bodies. But even if no elaborate preparation was required, the cells responsible were in existence long before the war with Iraq.
But why Morocco? The targets chosen in Casablanca – at least one of them Jewish – and the method employed are perhaps signs of the internationalisation of the suicide bomber. One recent such attack in Israel was carried out by British citizens, and in North Africa, potential recruits abound. Morocco may be among the most pro-Western Arab nations, and its king Mohammed VI a would-be moderniser; but Islamic fundamentalism is the country's fastest growing political force.
Next door, in Algeria, a particularly filthy civil war pitting the government against radical Islam is only now winding down after a decade in which more than 100,000 people died. The fanaticism and hatred it bred have inevitably, in some cases, been re-channelled into the international terrorist movement, with bridgeheads in the large North African and Arab communities in European cities such as Paris and London.
But Morocco may confirm the message of the Bali nightclub bombings: that the greater anti-terrorist vigilance in the US, Britain and elsewhere in the West is forcing al-Qa'ida and its kin to hit soft targets in less protected countries. Mao Tse-tung, who knew a thing or two about insurrection and clandestine warfare, once declared: "Guerrillas are like fish, and the people are the water in which the fish swim. If the temperature of the water is right, the fish will thrive and multiply." So it is now in much of the Arab and Islamic world.
Widespread anger and humiliation at the almost effortless US-led military campaign to remove Saddam Hussein have surely rendered the water temperature perfect in countries such as Morocco. By contrast, in the US, the environment in which terrorists must operate has grown more difficult since 11 September – one reason why there has been no significant terrorist attack on US soil since.
But as one American official told The New York Times yesterday, al-Qa'ida was still a threat, still capable of sophisticated attack, "and still trying to strike in the United States". Again, whether it is al-Qa'ida itself, or related or successor groups, is almost irrelevant. The raw material of terror is out there waiting.
Some US specialists believe that the organisation's membership has halved since the late 1990s, to "only" 3,000 or so today. In the 20 months since 11 September, estimates the IISS, some 2,700 known or suspected terrorists have been rounded up, among them very big fish such as Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, al-Qa'ida's former operations chief, as well as important cells in Yemen and Pakistan.
But a dozen or more of the senior leadership are at large, probably including Bin Laden himself. And what of the rest of the estimated 20,000 people who passed through al-Qa'ida's camps in Afghanistan, and have gone to ground? Simple maths suggests that 17,000 may be at large, either active or as possible sleeper agents. Some clearly will have opted for a quieter life, but just as many may have taken up arms in their stead. Even more worrying, according to Western intelligence, is that new and nimbler command structures are emerging, taking advantage of information and encryption technology, to operate largely in cyberspace.
Other than workshops and caches to assemble bombs and store weapons, fixed bases are hardly necessary. Even before 11 September, al-Qa'ida was loosely structured, extending considerable autonomy to cells in the field. That operational independence is probably even greater today. The links between the group's parts may be less organisational than ideological.
But two distinct trends are evident. US and British intelligence specialists believe a younger generation of leaders is coming through – people like Saif al-Adel, a Saudi who came to al-Qa'ida in the early 1990s from the Islamic Jihad movement in Egypt, and is still at large today. Al-Adel, it is said, learnt his trade with the tribal militias that harried the US peacekeepers in Somalia.
This leads to the second point. Islamic terrorism's centre of gravity may be shifting away from Afghanistan and Pakistan, back to the even more lawless lands of east Africa, where it flourished in the 1990s. Al-Qa'ida is believed to have set up at least one training camp in Sudan, and to have an important presence in Somalia. Then there is Kenya, where terrorists fired missiles at an Israeli jet over Mombasa in November and fears of imminent attacks led Britain to take the drastic step of suspending commercial flights last week.
Small wonder that the world is again on edge. Rohan Gunaratna, the author of Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, compares the organisation not to a kaleidoscope, but to a beehive that has been kicked over. "The bees are dispersing and are finding new queens." And as Riyadh and Casablanca show, they are starting to sting.
Liberal Islam at the crossroads
Even during the most tense and dangerous days of recent times, Marrakesh, the tourist capital of Morocco, remained a remarkably relaxed place. Visitors come to stay in luxury hotels and indulge in Western pleasures against the background of an exotic and deeply alien setting.
This much fits perfectly with the image as the liberal and unthreatening face of Islam that Morocco likes to present to the outside world. And on the surface, there is not much to contradict this view. You don't have to be in Morocco long, however, to sense that all is not quite right. In the past few weeks, the tension on the streets of Tangier, Casablanca and Rabat, the gritty and industrial cities, has been palpable. This is partly because of the war with Iraq, and because Osama bin Laden has recently targeted the country as "ready for liberation".
There are also long-simmering local hatreds that seem about to boil over. Morocco's hard-won stability is being threatened by a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, led by disparate but organised groups of intégristes. The biggest of these is the Party for Justice and Development which, with 42 seats, commands third place in the Moroccan parliament.
Far more important is the group al-'Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Spirituality, or Justice and Charity), estimated to have more than 30,000 members, which is led by Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, a former mystic and charismatic preacher who is often claimed as the "Khomeini of Morocco".
Yassine is based in Sale, a poor town just across the river from Rabat. Here, while refraining from advocating violence, he preaches that the government will fall when the Islamists reach a critical mass of four million. To travel across the grubby estuary that separates Rabat from Sale is like crossing an invisible internal border. It is not just Sale's grime that is striking compared to Rabat but also the wariness of its inhabitants. Yet this is hardly surprising as Sale is also home to Salafi Jihadi (Salafist Combat), whose leader, the dashing and ruthless Hassan Ben Ali Kettani, has been called the Moroccan Bin Laden by the press.
Salafi Jihadi was founded in the early 1990s by 40 veterans of the Afghan wars; by 2002, it had 400 known members and was alleged to be providing logistical support to the al-Qa'ida cell plotting attacks on the Straits of Gibraltar from Casablanca. In Nador, Rabat, Casablanca, Mohammedia and Sale, drug- dealers, drinkers, prostitutes, policemen and others suspected of non-Islamic behaviour have been thrown into wells, stoned to death, or had their throats cut. The rise of fundamentalism has been a phenomenon driven by poor or working-class women who find in the mosque the social support – literacy classes, financial aid – that the government cannot, or will not, give them.
Middle-class Moroccans argue that their culture is rich, diverse and old enough to withstand the invasion of what they see as an alien culture exported from Saudi Arabia. They observe that their young king, Mohammed VI, as a direct descendant of the prophet, has not only a political but a spiritual legitimacy that nullifies much of the manoeuvring from the Islamists. But this is still a divided country. Shortly after the last elections in September the king threw a party in honour of his friend the US rapper P Diddy. The guests included Naomi Campbell, Elton John and other luminaries unknown to the average Moroccan. This simple image explains, if it does not justify, why political Islam, which refuses to see the world on anything but its own terms, has taken such a firm grip here. What no one can guess today in Morocco is how long those two worlds will continue to co-exist.
Andrew Hussey is the author of 'The Game of War: the Life and Death of Guy Debord'. This is an edited version of an article which appeared in the 'New Statesman'Reuse content