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Bombings in North Africa highlight al-Qaida threat

AIDAN LEWIS

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) – Algeria hunted Islamic militants and gave them amnesty; neighboring Morocco jailed thousands of suspects. But new approaches may be needed in the face of the deadly dangers posed by al-Qaida in North Africa.Back-to-back bombings and suicide attacks in both countries over the past two days show that neither the iron fist nor the outstretched hand has neutralized the threat of Islamic terror in North Africa. Could Europe, just a boat ride across the Mediterranean, be next?The Moroccan and Algerian governments avoided talking about an al-Qaida link or inspiration in the bombings in Casablanca and Algiers on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.It would not be in their interest to do so – Morocco wants foreign tourists and investors to keep bringing in jobs and currency; Algeria does not want it publicly recognized that its homegrown Islamic insurgency is becoming another offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s network.Nor do they want al-Qaida to make an issue of the support both nations provide to the U.S. war on terror.But hallmarks of what has become al-Qaida’s way of spreading terror seemed evident in both attacks, and al-Qaida’s wing in North Africa claimed responsibility in a telephone call to Al-Jazeera television for the Algeria car bombings. The blasts outside the Algerian prime minister’s office and a police station east of the capital killed at least 24 people and wounded 222.Wednesday was April 11th. Was it a mere coincidence that the now infamous number was chosen again as a date for killing and maiming? Likely not. The list since 9/11 changed the world is growing:- April 11, 2002: A suicide bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia kills 21, mostly German tourists. Tunisian investigators link the attack to al-Qaida.- March 11, 2004: Train bombings in Madrid, Spain, kill 191 people and wound more than 1,800. Muslim militants claim responsibility for the attack, saying they acted on al-Qaida’s behalf.- Nov. 9, 2005 _ 9/11 in the day first, month second system widely used in Europe and the Arab world: Hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, kill 60 people. Al-Qaida in Iraq claims responsibility.- March 11, 2007: A Moroccan blows himself up in an Internet cafe in Casablanca, Morocco, after the owner catches him surfing jihadist Web sites.It’s not known what the bomber in that attack, Abdelfattah Raydi, was looking for, or whether he was at the cafe to download instructions from a handler. The blast, however, led police to what they say was a larger plot to attack police stations and the port in Casablanca, the country’s largest city and its commercial capital, as well as tourist sites across Morocco.It is possible the three men who blew themselves up after police cornered them Tuesday in Casablanca _ as well as a fourth man strapped with explosives who police shot and killed _ were planning to execute attacks on Wednesday, as well.Moroccan investigators have not uncovered links between the Casablanca and Algiers bombings, but Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa said “we don’t rule it out.”At a news conference, he said the Moroccans who blew themselves up had relatively small explosive belts, while the Algerian bombs were planted in cars. He said the timing of the bombings could have been coincidental.Algeria and Morocco have chilled relations, mostly because of a dispute over a large swath of desert called the Western Sahara. If that decades-old problem could be resolved, the two countries could potentially work better together to combat terrorism and poverty _ fertile ground for Islamic militant recruiters.As in Europe and elsewhere, young North Africans have been driven to fundamentalist Islam by the war in Iraq and the Israel-Palestinian situation _ issues that extremists use as arguments to legitimize their actions. Just last month, a Moroccan court convicted eight militants with alleged ties to al-Qaida who reportedly had volunteered to fight in Iraq.”Islamists have never stopped gaining ground in the last 5 1/2 years, and those fighting them have lost ground,” said Antoine Basbous, director of the Paris-based Observatory of Arab Countries.”What we’ve seen in the last four months is proof that there is a new force at the gates of Europe.”Algeria’s insurgency broke out in 1992 after the army canceled legislative elections that an Islamic party appeared set to win.Ensuing violence left an estimated 200,000 dead – civilians, soldiers and Islamic fighters – according to the government. Algeria’s military led a crackdown on militants hiding out in the country’s brush and mountains, while the government tried to reconcile the nation with amnesty offers to militants willing to turn in their weapons.Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem, who was not in his office during Wednesday’s attack, expressed bitterness at insurgents who refused the amnesty.”The Algerian people stretched out a hand to them, and they respond with a terrorist act,” he said, adding that legislative elections would proceed as planned on May 17.Fayza Kebdi, a lawyer who works opposite the bombed government building in Algiers, said the explosion shattered her windows and blew her husband across the room.”We thought the years of terrorism were over,” she said. “We thought that everything was back to normal. But now, the fear is coming back.”


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