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On May 16, 2003, Morocco was shaken by an unprecedented wave of attacks. With a series of five almost simultaneous attacks in the city of Casablanca, the kingdom was suddenly affected by “international terrorism”. The attacks left at least 40 people dead and 100 injured. Immediately, the national government passed an anti-terrorist legislation that had until then faced a strong opposition, and arrested a large number of political opposition members from Islamic movements. These legitimate and appropriate measures were very effective and Morocco quickly eliminated terrorism and recovered its stability.

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Omar Mounir

Anyway, this is the official Moroccan version of the event that has already disappeared from collective memory. However, Omar Mounir, a former professor of the Law School of Casablanca, has just published a book: “The Attacks on Casablanca and the September 11 Plot” (Les Attentats de Casablanca et le complot du 11 septembre), in which he explains the contradictions of the thesis presented by the country’s authorities. Analyzing this wave of attacks in the general context of the “war on terrorism” and the Iraqi conflict, the author suggests a completely different interpretation of the events.

Contradictory Versions

Since the first hours after the attacks, the versions given by the media were very confusing not only as to the targets but also as to the modus operandi of the terrorists. For the French newspaper Le Monde, «three vehicles loaded with explosives exploded near the Belgian consulate, the Farah-Maghreb (former Safir) hotel and the Center of the Israeli Alliance (Jewish Community Center) while two other bombs exploded in the House of Spain, the Hispanic cultural center that includes a very popular restaurant».

In the summary, the newspaper contradicts itself saying that «most of the attacks were suicidal attacks by kamikazes». In the same article, the journalist affirms that «a bomb was planted in the entrance of the building (the Farah-Maghreb hotel) by a walking kamikaze, according to a witness».

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Mustafa Sahel

The Moroccan Interior Minister, Mustafa Sahel, explained that «the attacks have the mark of international terrorism». According to Sahel, «the terrorists’ objective was to damage the democratic process and the political ‘pluralism’ in Morocco».

Goal achieved: in the following days, the Moroccan police arrested many opposition members from Islamic movements while the president of the Justice and Development Party, the political branch of this movement, described the attacks as “brutal terrorist crimes” [1].

The investigations did not make too much emphasis on the eventual motivations of the terrorists. They contented themselves with an audio tape distributed in February 2003 and attributed to Osama bin Laden in which he affirmed that «the Muslims have to mobilize to get rid of the yoke of those apostate regimes, subjugated by the United States. (...) Among those countries that should be liberated are Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, the country of the two sacred mosques and Yemen». [2]

According to the police, «almost a dozen kamikazes died and three suspects, all Moroccan nationals, were arrested». There was an injured kamikaze among them. In the following days, the police identified eight members of the five commandos and made almost 30 arrests. The investigation focused on an Islamic group, Assirat Al-Mustaquim (The Straight Path), a group of a popular neighborhood that advocated a strict enforcement of the Koranic law.

Following the course of events, the US president, George W. Bush, offered assistance to «arrest and bring justice upon those responsible» for the attacks. This proposal immediately caused a strong popular rejection as Bush himself was described as an “arsonist-fireman”.

Afterwards, after interrogating two other surviving kamikazes, the Moroccan police arrested “the main coordinator” of the attacks, who died of “natural causes” before he was taken to court. However, according to investigators, the people arrested allowed for the identification of eight of the 14 kamikazes and the way the network operated. In the following days, a French suspect was interrogated in Tanger. This man, Robert Richard Antoine Pierre, was living in Morocco for the last six years and suddenly became a suspect of being a key element of the mechanism.

Robert Richard Antoine Pierre (Source: Maroc-Hebdo)

Process Sham

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Robert Richard Antoine Pierre
(Source : Maroc-Hebdo)

The series of trials related to this event were a true parody of justice. By late June, almost 30 Moroccans arrested before the attacks who were suspects of belonging to the clandestine organization “Salafia Jihadia” were judged... for the role they played in the Casablanca attacks! The prosecution asked for the “maximum penalty”, that is, the death penalty for nearly a dozen of them. Nonetheless, they all denied any involvement in the events except for Yussef Fikri, nicknamed as the “emir of blood” by the media. In spite of that, the court continued with their arguments [3].

A few days later, while the Justice Minister Mohammed Bouzoubaa affirmed that 700 people were being judge for their “direct or indirect” involvement in the attacks, the first process directly linked to the “suicidal attacks” began in Casablanca. The 52 suspects (that would soon be 87) were members of Salafia Jihadia, including the three kamikazes that allegedly survived.

They were the only ones judged for their role in the May 16 attacks while the others were accused of encouraging similar actions in Marrakech, Agadir and Essauira. They were judged under the new anti-terrorist law, approved immediately after the attacks, in June 2003, and applied retroactively. « Au Maroc, début du premier procès lié aux attentats-suicides de Casablanca », Le Monde, July 22, 2003]]

The only material evidence presented by the prosecution against them: several tapes that, according to the prosecution, support the jihad in Chechnya, Palestine and Afghanistan, and which the defendants would have watched together before the May 16 events [4]. Finally, four of them were condemned to death and 39 to life terms [5]. A French citizen, Pierric Picard, arrested and judged during the process, was released.

A third process began in late August. The Moroccan justice was interested in the case of Pierre Robert (also known as Richard Robert and Didier Robert), a “French Muslim”, arrested in tanger on June 3rd, 2005, who was accused by the judges I Rabat of being the «head of the terrorist groups created in Tanger, Fez (city in the provinces), Casablanca, and in the North of the country» [6] . The Salafia Jihadia - whose “emir” would be the cited French - was also involved. Pierre Robert, who appeared in court along with 32 Moroccan Salafist Muslims, affirmed on September 9, 2003, that he worked for the French DST (French espionage services) and, following their orders, he infiltrated the Algerian Islamic group.

He allegedly participated in the “dismantling of a network of 16 Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans who jointly operated in five European countries, including Belgium and France, and who threatened to carry out bomb attacks during the 1998 FIFA World Cup and against the cathedral of Strasbourg”. [7]. The Algerian newspaper Quotidien d’Oran also published that «the DST is participating in the investigation of Casablanca as three French citizens were killed in the attacks. Immediately after the events took place, 14 DST agents arrived in Morocco, including specialists on legal identification, explosives and experts of the central laboratory to support their Moroccan counterparts».

Although the French ministry immediately denied this information, the statement by Robert caused a shock. Nevertheless, in spite of the absence of any material evidence, the Moroccan court condemned him - and two other defendants - to a fife term on September 29. The others were condemned to penalties ranging from three months up to 30 years while only two were released acquitted [8].

That was the end of this dark issue. With this last wave of condemnations, the Moroccan authorities closed the case of the bloodiest attacks witnessed in the country only four months after they took place. However, nothing is known about the motivations of the authors, or the ideology of the network to which they allegedly belonged, or their objectives, or their modus operandi. These attacks continue being a mystery, in the political and also in the material field - a mystery that Omar Mounir has decided to clarify.

Choosing the Targets

The first attack took place in the neighborhood of Sahat Al-Arsa, in the old Muslim area of Casablanca. Contrary to what the official version would later be, the attack was not carried out by a commando of three kamikazes but by only one. According to testimonies obtained by the weekly Tel Quel, the other three victims were only passers-by. The media quickly eclipsed this detail and tried to explain the objectives of the terrorists. In their opinion, their real goal was the nearby Jewish cemetery. Nonetheless, as Omar Mounir noted, «the last burial there dates back to 1950» and the explosion took place several blocks away from the cemetery. The author shows surprise: «It is strange that the intention was to blow up a cemetery or whatever it may have been and that they did not even know where it was!»

Meanwhile, the attack against the Center of the Jewish Alliance - also according to testimonies obtained by the Tel Quel weekly - had been perpetrated by two terrorists with bombs. The night before, the terrorists allegedly had caused some problems there on the occasion of a banquet with 150 people. But they chose to carry out the attack when the place was empty, a Friday night of Sabbath. The third target was the restaurant “Le Positano”, located in front of the Belgian Embassy. It is frequented by the Jewish community in Casablanca and it is located in the neighbourhood of the city with the larger number of synagogues. It is also close to the Embassy of the United States. But there are also incoherent details in this case. The terrorists blew up themselves or at least the explosions took place outside the restaurant, not inside. The victims were passers-by, including a French citizen who was getting out of his car. No Jew could have been injured as, again, the attack took place in the night of the Sabbath.

This is about the three “failed” attacks whose victims were, mainly, its authors. Only a few passers-by suffered - in some cases in a fatal way - the consequences of the “clumsiness” of the terrorists. The attack against the Spanish interests in Morocco was much crueler. Around 10:30 p.m., three terrorists entered the House of Spain that includes a restaurant and a Spanish social club subsidized by Madrid. The attack left 22 people dead, including an Italian, two Spaniards and 19 Moroccans.

Finally, the target of the last attack was the Farah hotel and it left three people dead: a kamikaze, a hotel security guard and the janitor.

What is the logic of these attacks? According to the AFP news agency, «the attacks (...) targeted Jewish facilities and places frequented by foreigners». Nevertheless, «most of the victims are Moroccans» [9] . As to the “Jewish targets”, it seems that the purpose of the attacks was not to kill people as there could be no Jews in the chosen places that night. Hence the hypothesis of Omar Mounir: the terrorists «wanted to warn the Jews and not kill them, maybe... Force them to leave Morocco to Israel as Sharon asked them the day after the attacks».

Perhaps, only one target could be easily identified: Spain. As Omar Mounir notes, «the House of Spain was located in the same building as the Spanish Chamber of Commerce, not far from the Spanish Catholic mission of San Francis of Assisi, behind the restaurant. The Spanish State and Church were, thus, represented there». Only a few days from the municipal elections, which were crucial for the government of Aznar, an unconditional ally of Washington, he faced a wave of criticism from José Luis Zapatero who accused him for «having placed Spain in the list of targets of international terrorism» [10] .

Links with Al-Qaida

During their investigation, the Moroccan authorities attributed the responsibility for the organization of the attacks to several Islamic groups: Assirat Al-Mustaquim, later to the Salafia Jihadia - two l organizations little known by world specialists on terrorism. The media mentioned many international links: the newspaper Al-Ittihad Al-Ichtikari affirmed that «at least two kamikazes lived in Egypt and in the Emirates and they allegedly arrived in Morocco by plane from London and Brussels».

On June 5, we learned from the Washington Post that the attacks had been prepared months ago and the order to carry them out had been given by Abu Mussab Zarquaui himself. Two weeks later, Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attacks «through a video tape in which a masked man appeared announcing new suicidal operations».

On the same day, June 23, the newspaper As Sabah published information according to which the attacks would have been financed by «a group of Moroccans living in Great Britain, in Scandinavian countries, Sweden and Denmark». It allowed linking the attacks to international terrorism, particularly with Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida.

The identity of the kamikazes and their social origin, widely spread by the media, completely opposes the theory of a conspiracy. Coming from the poorest neighborhoods of Casablanca, the alleged terrorists were a peddler, a welder, a fish seller and even a parking attendant. Their profile does not fit the thesis of “infiltrated agents” financed from abroad. The lack of experience of the chosen people also excludes the possibility that hey could have carried out the attacks with such a precise coordination as the explosions, like in Madrid, occurred in a 15-minute span of time.

Considering these elements, the author elaborates two hypotheses: for him, the “kamikazes” acted under the influence of psychoactive drugs and their bombs were detonated from a distance. This hypothesis explains why the bombs planted in front of the Farah-Maghreb hotel and the Center of the Israeli Alliance exploded before the terrorists left the building. It would also explain why the information about the explosives and their detonators were contradictory.

In sum, today we still do not know which kind of explosives were used, who assembled the artifacts and how were they programmed to detonate, according to several newspapers, with five-minute intervals. This mechanism would not allow speaking about “kamikazes” and which does not explain why most of the bombs exploded outside the targets they supposedly were meant to destroy.

The interest of the Muslims to carry out these attacks continues to be a mystery. The operation, in fact, took place four months ahead of municipal elections that were equally considered «by observers and political analysts, as an Islamic giant wave». The wave of arrests that followed the attacks of Casablanca mainly affected the most popular and known figures of Moroccan Islamism, specially Abdelbari Zemzmi, Mohamed Fizazik and many leaders of the Justice and Development Party (JDP), the third political group in the Parliament.

Under pressure, the movement only presented candidates in 16% of the electoral districts in the municipal elections. From this point of view, the repression wave that followed the attacks should be compared with the one that followed the victory of the Algerian Muslims in the municipal elections of 1990, only that in Morocco the attacks took place before the vote.

In parallel with this, the invention of the crime “apology of the crime of terrorism”, which enabled the suppression of any speech of political protest whose virulence may recall that of terrorist organizations, allowed the Moroccan authorities to bring before justice several journalists and newspaper directors. In harmony with western “democracies” after September 11, Morocco also approved an anti-terrorist legislation of high security shortly after the attacks.

All these elements do not allow us to know the real motivations of the authors of the attacks. In any case, they deny the official version showing a complete incoherence between the alleged amateur levels of the fanatical “kamikazes” and the methodical preparation that such a wave of simultaneous attacks entails. By reinforcing the comparison between the Islamic movements with the network of international terrorism presented as Washington’s new enemy, the attacks of Casablanca justify the war on terrorism carried out by the United States after September 11, 2001.

Nevertheless, the lack of coherence in choosing the targets may indicate that the real objective of the attacks remains unknown. Like in the attacks in Madrid, that took place nine month later, the attacks in Casablanca should be included in an agenda - or at least in a context - whose logic still needs to be discovered. It is also possible that the issue of the former Spanish Sahara - an old controversial topic between Morocco and Algeria - may have something to do with it.

On May 16, 2003, the day the attacks took place, the Moroccan Foreign Minister, Mohammed Benaissan, met with Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage and with the US Under Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, William Burns. For almost 30 years, Morocco occupies two thirds of the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony. Later, it faced an armed resistance by the Polisario Front that seeks self-determination. However, Rabat seems determined not to abandon that territory, rich in iron and phosphate - and even oil - in spite of many proposals by the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations.

Thus issue has become an important concern for Washington since 2002; the “Initiative Pan Sahel” was approved, launched with Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Mali to «guarantee the protection of the borders, the control of people’s movement, the war on terrorism and regional cooperation». It included a budget of seven million dollars and the possibility of increasing it to 125 millions in the next five years.

With the pretext of Al-Qaida and its alleged ally, the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, the US administration has significantly increased its military power in the region. Would Morocco have been sanctioned for its intransigence in the case that blocks the work of the Union of the Arab Maghreb thus affecting relations between Rabat and Algiers?

In any case, it is undeniable that the attacks on Casablanca took place in the worst moment for the Moroccan government, amid diplomatic negotiations of the new Baker plan about this issue. This plan foresees the organization of a referendum in Western Sahara before 2010 in which all the inhabitants of the region, living there since late 1999, Moroccans or Saharans, will be able to vote.

A proposal that Morocco has opposed while the Polisario Front supported it, along with the UN Security Council, in late July 2003.

[1] « Plusieurs attentats font au moins 24 morts à Casablanca », by Mohammed Chakir and Dominique Pettit, Le Monde, May 18, 2003

[2] « Fragile Maroc », Le Monde, May 28, 2003

[3] « Au Maroc, dix condamnations à mort dans le procès d’intégristes », Le Monde, July 13, 2003

[4] « Les inculpés de Casablanca nient en bloc », by Mounia Daoudi, RFI, July 29, 2003

[5] « Maroc : Le procès des attentats de Casblanca débouche sur 4 condamnations à mort et 39 à perpétuité », Quotidien du Peuple, August 29, 2003

[6] « Le procès de l’islamiste français Pierre Robert reprend au Maroc », Le Monde, August 30, 2003

[7] « Le cerveau des attentats de Casablanca est un agent de la DST », Le Quotidien d’Oran, September 9, 2003

[8] « L’"émir" français Richard Robert échappe à la peine capitale au Maroc », by Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, Le Monde, September 20, 2003

[9] « Attentats au Maroc : le lien possible avec Al-Qaïda prend corps », AFP, May 19, 2003

[10] « L’Espagne, objectif du terrorisme », Le Monde, May 20, 2003