N. African Anti-Terror Efforts Too Harsh, Critics Say Fears that a North African wing of al-Qaida was emerging in the wake of 2003 attacks in Casablanca have largely failed to materialize, and countries such as Morocco have contained or subdued their Islamist threats. But some say the fight on terror has eroded civil rights and set back democracy efforts.
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N. African Anti-Terror Efforts Too Harsh, Critics Say

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N. African Anti-Terror Efforts Too Harsh, Critics Say

N. African Anti-Terror Efforts Too Harsh, Critics Say

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An attack on another part of the world has turned out to be less severe than was feared. Five years ago in 2003, al-Qaida announced it was taking its global jihad to North Africa. That same year, bombs killed dozens of people in Casablanca. Since then, despite some other attacks, the feared North Africa wing of al-Qaida has largely failed to materialize.

What has changed is the response of North African governments. The fight against terror eroded civil rights and set back efforts for democracy. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Morocco.

(Soundbite of music)

PETER KENYON: It's a busy morning at this Casablanca public market. Musicians and sidewalk vendors squeeze between the market stalls as local shoppers and tourists stream by. Five years after a string of suicide bombers brought al-Qaida-style bloodshed to this city, life has regained its normal rhythms.

Once labeled Europe's biggest source of terrorism by a Spanish judge, Morocco has arrested hundreds of suspects and prevented radical Islamist groups from mounting anything approaching a sustained terror campaign. The only fatalities in four suicide explosions last year were the bombers and one policeman.

Analyst Mohammed Ben Hamou, head of the Moroccan Center for Strategic Studies, says better intelligence and a large allocation of resources have helped the security services keep the violence down to a manageable level.

Mr. MOHAMMED BEN HAMOU (Head, Moroccan Center for Strategic Studies): I think that until now, they have success. From time to time, the security service find a small group here, and small group here. Let's say that's something we will live with for years. We will not stop today.

KENYON: From Casablanca to Tripoli, Islamist groups have embraced the ideology and tactics of al-Qaida with only limited success.

The most active group is the Algerian al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Experts note that the Algerian Islamists have more than a decade of experience trying to topple their government, and they've been able to absorb new recruits from around the region.

But one reason those recruits are available is because other would-be al-Qaida branches in North Africa have been largely stifled. In Tunisia, where President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali just announced he will run for a fifth term, authorities have moved to crush all Islamic movements, both moderate and radical.

When two Austrian tourists were kidnapped in Tunisia earlier this year, it turned out that Algerian gunmen were responsible. In Libya last fall, the Islamic Fighting Group announced that it, too, was aligning with al-Qaida. But the authoritarian regime of Moammar Gadhafi has ruthlessly throttled Islamist militants there.

Dia Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on Islamist movements, says a recent report that Libyan militants may renounce violence begs the question: What violence is there to renounce?

Mr. DIA RASHWAN (Expert on Islamist Movements): No. There is no violence in Libya itself, you know. The majority of Libyans are already outside, joining al-Qaida itself, the headquarters, or some of them already arrested or killed in Iraq as volunteers. Libya itself doesn't suffer from, you know, the fighting Islamic group.

KENYON: Despite their successes, North African governments show no sign of letting up. Morocco's ambassador to the U.S. Aziz Mekouar told a Washington audience in June that the kingdom worries that the Islamist cells are sending recruits to fight elsewhere and getting involved in a range of criminal activity.

Ambassador AZIZ MEKOUAR (Moroccan Ambassador to the U.S.): We think that this mix of terrorism, illegal migration, trafficking in persons, trafficking in drugs, it's becoming real dangerous. And the big danger is that the money, drug and human trafficking will be poured into the terrorist movements.

KENYON: But a number of analysts and officials argue that there is another challenge facing Morocco, one that is not getting much attention at this point.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: While terrorist attacks are well down in both number and severity, public protests over soaring prices and miserable living standards are on the rise. Demonstrators range from these college graduates demanding jobs in the capital Rabat, to poor Moroccans rioting in towns from Sidi Ifni in the south, north to Sefrou. The protests involve a variety of complaints, but many stem from the fact that the terrorist threat in 2003 prompted the authorities to affectively halt King Mohammed VI's program of political reform. As a Western diplomatic source in Rabat put it, the much wanted process of Moroccan reform has taken a step back.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

KENYON: In a busy Casablanca cafe, Professor Mohammed Dariff of King Hassan II University in Mohammedia says in the shock of the 2003 bombings, Moroccans stayed quiet as the authorities cracked down on virtually all forms of dissent. But five years later, confidence in the government is falling, and the most recent riots in Sidi Ifni could spread.

Professor MOHAMMED DARIFF (King Hassan II University): (Through translator) Morocco has a long history of violence. We could mention the Casablanca riots of 1965 or in 1981, or the events in Fes in 1990. In our collective consciousness, there are many bad memories of demonstrations and general strikes.

KENYON: Even with its reform program stalled in recent years, Morocco remains light-years ahead of Algeria, Tunisia or Libya on that front. Western and regional analysts say in general, these governments have been right to make security a priority in the face of al-Qaida threat, but they wonder if the repression that has resulted is sowing the seeds of future unrest that could prove every bit as destabilizing as a terror campaign.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Casablanca.

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