Morocco fails to find Western Sahara link in al-Qaeda busts

On May 6, Moroccan authorities announced the arrest of three suspects in last week’s bombing of a Marrakesh cafe frequented by tourists. The Interior Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Maghreb Arabe Presse that the group was “the main perpetrator” behind the attack and that at least one member had “swore allegiance to al-Qaeda.” (Bloomberg, May 6)

The government did not attempt to link the new arrests to those of 27 accused of operating an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist cell in occupied Western Sahara in January. Interior Minister Tayeb Cherkaoui said at the time that the group was planning suicide and car bomb attacks against Moroccan and foreign security forces as well as bank robberies in Rabat and Casablanca to finance their activities. Cherkaoui said the group’s leader was a Moroccan member of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He said they hoped to establish a “rear base” for terrorism planning in Western Sahara. The raid, which targeted three sites in the Western Sahara oasis town of Amgala, allegedly uncovered a cache of weapons, including 30 Kalashnikov rifles, two rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. (NYT, Jan. 6)

In response to coverage of the January arrests, Eric Goldstein, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, published the following letter in the New York Times Jan. 11:

Morocco’s announcement of a foiled terrorist cell in Western Sahara should be seen in the light of its prior failure to ensure fair trials for those accused of terrorism.

Morocco’s “dismantling” of another supposed international terrorist network in 2008 led to the imprisonment of all 35 defendants, including six Moroccan political figures whose connection to any such activities was widely doubted. The court based its guilty verdicts on highly suspect confessions, as happens routinely when Morocco arrests suspects under its 2003 antiterrorism law.

These confessions often come from people who are illegally arrested, held in secret detention, mistreated and sometimes tortured, and, without being able to consult a lawyer, pressured to sign confessions they are prevented from reading.

No one should doubt the real threat of terrorism that Morocco faces, but the evidence that the authorities mistreat terror suspects in ways that compromise their right to a fair trial is no less in doubt.

See our last posts on Morocco, Western Sahara and the Maghreb.

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