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Friday, August 25, 2006
Concern over infiltration of police and army
Analysts in Morocco say that there is growing concern over the possible infiltration of the army and police force by Islamic radicals. It is feared that those involved may be planning large-scale terrorist attacks.
While there is still no official confirmation of the reports, it is understood by the View from Fez that a number of paramilitary police officers and a member of the judicial police have been detained. If true it is a worrying sign as it follows the recent arrest in late July of five military officers. This is the first time the armed forces have been implicated in an Islamist plot.
The five military officers were arrested with about 40 other suspected members of the El-Mehdi Support Group, an Islamist cell reportedly preparing an even bigger attack than the Casablanca suicide bombings that claimed 45 lives in May 2003.
Local reports said explosives and laboratory materials were confiscated from the group which was counting on the explosives expertise of the detained military officers in planning attacks against tourist installations, other sensitive sites and people representing the state. Following the arrests, army security chief Mohammed Belbachir was sacked.
The detained officers, who were based in Sale near Rabat, were low-ranking or had retired. Their arrests nevertheless created concern throughout Morocco. In the past the country acted quickly in the wake of the Casablanca attacks and arrested almost 2000 Islamist extremists. Nearly half of them have been sentenced on charges ranging from terrorism to incitation to hatred.
Non-violent Islamism is also on the rise in Morocco, where urban slums, rural poverty and a huge gap between the rich and the poor offer a fertile ground for movements such as the semi-legal Al Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality), which has been described as the country's biggest de-facto political party.
The arrests of the army officers also reminded Moroccans of several unsuccessful military coup attempts against Hassan II, the late father of King Mohammed VI, who came to the throne in 1999.
The Casablanca attacks were followed by several purges within the army, but observers said they may have been personal settlements of accounts rather than reactions to a fear of Islamism.
'General Belbachir may also have been removed for personal reasons,' said one analyst, who requested anonymity, who does not believe that Islamists have significant support within the army.
Human rights activists are more concerned about the treatment of the suspects, whose lawyers claim they have been tortured and held for longer than the legal 11-day period before being handed over to the judiciary.
Another militant Islamist cell broken up by Moroccan security forces was equipped to carry out a far bigger attack than the bombings in Casablanca according to the country's interior minister.
The government said in early Augustthat it had broken up a "terrorist network" that was planning to declare a holy war in the northeast of the country and had recruited five members of the armed forces able to handle explosives.
The authorities arrested over 40 members of the previously unknown Jammaat Ansar El Mehdi (El Mehdi Support Group) and seized explosives, propaganda material and laboratory equipment.
Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa said the group had created a paramilitary branch which chose mountainous areas in northern Morocco to train its followers for a holy war and obtain arms with the help of local drug barons.
Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa
"The group aimed to attack tourist installations, sensitive sites and foreign services ... and planned to assassinate people symbolising the state or for moral reasons," Benmoussa told members of parliament on Thursday.
He said the group had managed to get hold of large amounts of materials for making explosives, far more than the quantity used in the Casablanca bombings.
The fact the the latest cell to be broken up contained military personnel set alarm bells ringing in the kingdom, whose late king twice came close to assassination in the 1970s in attempted coups by military officers.
Benmoussa played down the idea that Islamist extremists had infiltrated the military, saying the members of the armed forces involved with Jemmaa Ansar El Mehdi were marginal individuals -- soldiers belonging to military bands and sports centres or vehicle maintenance personnel.
Earlier this year, the government said it had broken up more than 50 terrorist cells since the Casablanca attacks. Benmoussa said one of those groups, discovered in November last year, had links with al Qaeda and wanted to set up a terrorist network across the Maghreb.
Members of another group broken up at the start of 2006 had trained in camps in Mali and were linked to the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), he said.
The Moroccan Minister of the Interior has also made it clear that all measures taken by the government to fight terrorism are "conform to the juridical rules" and stressed that "all individuals, groups, institutions and organizations" should abide by these laws.
On Thursday Chakib Benmoussa was briefing members of the House of Representatives' Commission of the Interior, Decentralization and Infrastructures, and was referring to the recent dismantle of an alleged terrorist group, called "Jamaat Ansar el Mehdi" whose members are in custody.