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Extremist Islam may be Rising in Morocco

Since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and suicide bombings two years later that killed 33 people in Casablanca, this country's economic capital, Moroccans have grown accustomed to police cr
( [email protected] ) Sep 29, 2006 02:29 PM EDT

RABAT, Morocco - Little would seem to connect a soldier, a shopkeeper, airline pilots' wives and a woman known for helping people in need. But all have been named as suspects in a purported Islamic terrorist plot, suggesting extremism may be leaping Morocco's class divides.

In all, Moroccan authorities arrested 56 people last month for allegedly being part of a network that was planning attacks on military and tourist sites in hopes of bringing down the government of this North African monarchy.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and suicide bombings two years later that killed 33 people in Casablanca, this country's economic capital, Moroccans have grown accustomed to police crackdowns on Islamic militants.

Thousands have been detained, drawing frequent accusations of abuse and forced confessions at the hands of police.

What's new in the latest case is the wide range of people accused. Middle-class women and security force members allegedly formed the core of a group that authorities say called itself Ansar al-Mehdi, or Supporters of the Mehdi — a divine figure in Islamic tradition who will establish justice on Earth before Judgment Day.

Previously, Islamic extremism was most evident in Morocco's urban slums like Sidi Moumen, the cinderblock jungle in Casablanca where many of the 2003 suicide bombers lived. If the charges are true, the new case would suggest Muslim militancy is spreading into the middle class.

Penetration of the army would be a particular blow because the Western-equipped force has traditionally stood as a pillar of state power. After the sweep, King Mohammed VI fired the head of military intelligence and the head of Morocco's general security forces.

Morocco ended compulsory military service this month, but officials said it had nothing to do with the Ansar al-Mehdi revelations.

Officials have released little information about the Mehdi suspects and their alleged targets, divulging just a few names. The Justice Ministry says judges are preparing for public hearings originally planned for mid-September but now delayed until late October.

Two of the four female suspects are wives of Royal Air Maroc pilots, and Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa alleged they were recruited by alleged Ansar al-Mehdi chief Hassan Khattab to carry out suicide attacks in Morocco.

Khattab spent two years in jail for involvement in the May 2003 suicide bombings.

Another woman in custody, Fatima Zahra Rehioui, 51, is described by authorities as a central figure in the alleged plot. In a rare news conference in August, Benmoussa said Rehioui was a confidant of Khattab and knowingly gave him $17,280 for terrorist activities.

Rehioui's lawyer tells a different story, describing her as someone who helps people. Attorney Khalid Idrissi said Khattab asked Rehioui for the money so he could see a doctor about a heart condition and she gave the money freely, with no questions asked.

"She's known as a very charitable woman who helps poor families in her area, especially during Ramadan and at other religious festivals," Idrissi said.

Moroccan authorities say that Badr Bouziki, a 27-year-old shopkeeper, also was deeply involved with Ansar al-Mehdi and that he helped test explosives in forests near Sale, just outside the Moroccan capital, Rabat.

"I know that he's not guilty," said one of Bouziki's relatives. He asked not to be further identified, saying he feared possible government reprisal.

The relative said that Bouziki is not particularly religious and that his arrest at a bus station while visiting relatives in north-central Morocco came as "a complete surprise."

When he visited Bouziki in jail, the relative said, the suspect complained of torture and showed signs of beatings.

Mohamed Khalouki, 27, whose family lives in an outlying village of Sale, is one of five soldiers arrested in the terror sweep.

"We know the truth: He has nothing to do with Ansar al-Mehdi," said Khalouki's sister, who also said she feared being quoted by name.

Growing up amid dusty fields, stands of pine trees and patches of rubbish, Khalouki sought purpose in military service, choosing to enroll at a military school at age 12, his family said.

Drawn early to music, he became a drummer in the army band, traveling to Europe for concerts and shifting his ambitions to a musical career. Denied permission to quit the army, he deserted in 2005 and was captured this year, serving three months in jail, the family said.

"On the day he was supposed to get out, I went to pick him up, but he wasn't there," a brother said. Khalouki had been transferred into police custody for alleged involvement with four fellow band members in Ansar al-Mehdi.