Morocco Connection Is Emerging as Sleeper Threat in Terror War

Posted in Terrorism | 16-May-04 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: The New York Times

RABAT, Morocco — They speak in an ever changing code. The word for prison might be hospital. Passport becomes book, or sometimes djellaba, the simple robe worn by men in North Africa. Explosives is honey or sneakers.

And when someone says "the soccer team is ready," an illegal operation is about to start.

The Moroccan branch of militant Islam is not new. But intelligence officials here and in Europe say that until this past year they failed to penetrate its communications and missed its significance. The French worried about Algerians and Tunisians; the Spanish focused on Basques. Belgium, whose Muslim population is largely Moroccan, had fewer than three dozen counterterror specialists in its police force.

Since suicide bombings in Casablanca in May last year that killed dozens, and the devastating train bombings in Madrid this March, Moroccan groups have been seen as central to the terrorist threat in Europe, forcing intelligence and law-enforcement officials to adjust their strategies.

It has been a tortuous undertaking. Morocco has been among the West's closest Arab allies and has long been instrumental in pursuing Arab-Israeli reconciliation. Although Moroccan and European officials now agree that there is a new Moroccan threat, they disagree over its nature and origin — and how to contain it.

One problem is simply identifying major Moroccan terrorists. Two months after the Madrid train bombings, Spanish investigators believe that its mastermind may still be at large.

The French and Belgian police successfully dismantled Moroccan cells in their countries after the Madrid attacks, but they are convinced that other cells may have burrowed further underground.

Moroccan terrorists, intelligence and police experts say, know how to blend in.

"There are cells in which the Moroccans are well integrated into the population," Pierre de Bousquet, the head of the Directorate for Territorial Surveillance, France's counterintelligence service, said in an interview. "So they do not seem suspicious. They work. They have kids. They have fixed addresses. They pay the rent. The networks are dispersed throughout Europe and are very autonomous."

In addition to uneven cooperation among law enforcement and intelligence agencies within Europe, there is the problem of tensions that have surfaced between European and Moroccan officials.

Although the two sides are working together to investigate the Madrid bombings, the Moroccans have complained that their pleas for help after the Casablanca attacks were largely ignored until terrorists struck the heart of Europe.

They also have expressed frustration that laws in many European countries are not tough enough.

In April a court in Hamburg, Germany, allowed a Moroccan who was the only person convicted in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States to leave prison pending a new trial.

Three weeks later a court in Rome acquitted 12 people, including 9 Moroccans, who were arrested in 2002 and accused of being associated with a terrorist organization.

"The Madrid bombings finally have forced the Europeans to make their investigations more serious and their cooperation quicker and more operational," Gen. Hamidou Laanigri, Morocco's chief of security, said in an interview. "But we are victims of laws and guarantees that protect the rights of individuals at the expense of cracking down against organized crime."

Intelligence and law-enforcement officials in Spain, France and Belgium say that their Moroccan colleagues have refused to face the fact that Moroccans have banded into autonomous terror cells that can carry out attacks without outside organization, logistical support or money.

The day after the Madrid bombings, senior Moroccan officials were shown a video made by the bombers in which a masked man explained in Arabic who was responsible for the attack. The Moroccans insisted that the voice was that of a European, while the Spanish authorities said he was Moroccan, according to Moroccan and Spanish officials.

Ángel Acebes, Spain's interior minister at the time, announced publicly the next evening that the man had a Moroccan accent, and the Moroccans backed down.

Many European officials also have expressed frustration with Morocco's tendency to blame Al Qaeda for ordering and organizing every plot, rather than view it as a more widespread ideological inspiration.

"It's easier for the Moroccans to place responsibility outside Morocco and blame Al Qaeda, because it frees them from responsibility," said one senior Belgian intelligence official. "They refuse to see there's an internal component of the problem, one of poverty and despair."

For their part, Moroccan officials, who have issued 44 international arrest warrants for suspected terrorists, have accused European countries of being slow or unwilling to extradite suspects they have captured.

Britain, for example, has refused to extradite Muhammad al-Gerbouzi, whom Morocco has identified as a battle-hardened veteran of Afghanistan and a planner of the Casablanca attacks as well as a founder of the Moroccan Combatant Islamic Group, identified by the United Nations as a terrorist network connected to Al Qaeda.

An international arrest warrant from Morocco showing a blurry photo of a bearded Mr. Gerbouzi states that he is wanted for "criminal association with relation to a terrorist enterprise, preparation of the commission of terrorist acts, collection of funds to finance terrorist acts, an attack on the internal security of the state and complicity in the falsification and use of passports."

According to General Laanigri, Osama bin Laden authorized Mr. Gerbouzi to open a training camp for Moroccans in Afghanistan in the beginning of 2001. Last December, Mr. Gerbouzi was tried in absentia in Morocco for his involvement in the Casablanca attacks and given a 20-year sentence.

"We know for certain from confessions of those we have arrested that the preparations for the Casablanca attack were made at a meeting in Istanbul in January 2003 that al-Gerbouzi attended," General Laanigri said.

But the British government has no extradition treaty with Morocco and has refused to extradite Mr. Gerbouzi, a 44-year-old father of six who lives in a rundown apartment in north London. British officials say there is not enough evidence to arrest him, General Laanigri said.

In an interview with The Guardian last month, Mr. Gerbouzi dismissed charges that he was linked to radical Islamic groups as "complete nonsense," adding that he had never been to Afghanistan, worshiped at an Islamic center in west London and drove his children to school. "I have nothing to hide," he said.

Some senior intelligence officials in Europe said they suspected that Mr. Gerbouzi was being protected by the British authorities because he was an informer, while others said he was no longer dangerous because he was so carefully watched. Another complicating factor is the fact that Morocco still has the death penalty while European Union countries do not.

British officials declined to comment on the case.

European officials also have complained that their Moroccan counterparts reflexively tend to blame the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group for all terrorist activity, while many Europeans intelligence officials are convinced that the group is more an ideological concept than a structured organization. Almost half of the Moroccans wanted on international terrorist arrest warrants issued by Morocco are listed as having links to the group.

The group is the successor to an earlier guerrilla organization that wanted to overthrow Morocco's monarchy. But faced with the improbability of such an ambitious goal, a number of its followers moved to Europe.

In Europe as well as Morocco, they were recruited by Al Qaeda and sent as volunteers to Afghanistan, where Moroccans had set up their own training camp. By the end of the 1990's Moroccans who trained in Afghanistan were calling themselves the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group.

But European intelligence officials said the group has no hierarchy, membership roster or formal manifesto and has never claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack.

"It is reassuring for the Moroccans to give a name to the radicals," said one French intelligence official. "But it's a virtual movement." Another French official described it as "a plant that doesn't need to root in soil that appears suddenly and grows without an apparent structure."

In 2002 the group, known by its initials in French, G.I.C.M., was put on a United Nations list of terrorist organizations linked to Al Qaeda, and in 2003 was added to the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

Months after the Casablanca attacks, Morocco began to link many of those suspected of involvement with the organization.

"Now we have a situation where Morocco gives you a long list, tells you everyone on the list is a member of G.I.C.M. and asks you to put them all in jail," said one senior Belgian official. "You cannot just issue arrest warrants without proof."

The Moroccans have also altered their claims about evidence. Senior intelligence officials from two European countries said they had been told by their Moroccan counterparts days after the Casablanca attacks that the attacks had been ordered and financed by Al Qaeda, even though the suicide attackers were Moroccans from a slum outside Casablanca.

The proof, the Moroccan officials said at the time, was a bank transfer to the group of between $50,000 and $70,000 from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant. [The C.I.A. has identified Mr. Zarqawi as probably being the hooded terrorist who beheaded Nicholas E. Berg, a young American businessman, in Iraq.]

Moroccan officials now say that there was no bank transfer, only the informal disbursal of several smaller amounts of money as charity payments to the families of Moroccans who had fought in Afghanistan.

Despite the problems, there is a growing realization in Morocco and European countries that they need each other. The Spanish authorities said they were able to identify six of seven bombers who blew themselves up in an apartment after the Madrid bombings thanks to DNA samples of their family members taken by Moroccan authorities.

When Jean-Louis Bruguière, France's most senior antiterrorist investigatory magistrate, visited Morocco in late March he was shown evidence that led directly to arrests outside Paris several days later and the disbanding of a Moroccan cell suspected of involvement in the Casablanca bombings.

"We would have had a hard time finding them," Mr. de Bousquet, the French counterterrorist expert, said. "Morocco helped provide information that led to the arrests."