The view from the rooftop terrace of the Saint François parish house in downtown Casablanca was a nightmare in freeze-frame. On the patio below, scores of wooden chairs and tables lay strewn in charred disarray after a pleasant evening of paella and bingo turned into chaos and death. The Casa de Espana social club shuddered under a wave of shock and awe Friday night, when suicide bombers stormed the building, blowing themselves and innocent diners to bits in what turned out to be the most deadly of five kamikaze attacks in the Moroccan city.
The well-planned, tightly synchronized attacks unfolded over a period of roughly 20 minutes, and were confined to a relatively small area of central Casablanca. At the Casa de Espana, a pair of attackers overpowered and slit the throat of the doorman to gain access to the social club and detonate their charges among the diner-packed patio. "It was as though they just dropped from a window or something at one moment, they weren't there, and the next, they were the center of all this fire and blood," whispered Casa de Espana social club president Rafael Bermúdez outside the building less than 24 hours after the attacks.
By Saturday night the city's death toll was put at 41 but expected to rise. According to a Moroccan government source, the majority of the dead were Moroccan citizens an urgent reminder that Islamic terrorism does not spare practicing Muslims from its deadly venom. Officials say all five strikes were carried out by a total of 10 kamikaze bombers who sought to exploit overlapping national, religious and school holidays luring festive Casablancans out into the night to maximize carnage. Less than a five-minute walk away from the Casa de Espana, a trio of attackers tried to push their way into the lobby of the five-star Hotel Farah on the Avenue de l'Armeé Royale. According to staff members recounting events as hunks of ceiling plaster still dropped around them, a couple of 20ish youths got in a dispute with doormen. When one doorman tried to prevent the youths from entering, he was stabbed by an attacker, who then detonated his bomb on the now-pulverized granite steps killing another doorman who had tackled the intruder. A bellboy perished a bit further into the entryway when he grabbed a second terrorist, who then set off his charge. A third attacker tried to run deep within the hotel's rooms, but was foiled when other staff members grabbed him and stripped off the backpack that held his explosives. "My colleagues who died as well as those who risked their lives to save others, showed what real Moroccans and real Muslims are," said one hotel security guard.
Alas, all 10 of the dead terrorists were Moroccans, too as was the failed bomber captured at the Farah Hotel. Police swiftly arrested another three Moroccan youths, and one official acknowledged that "we must face the facts that these murderers came from our midst." Asked if they could be tied to al-Qaeda, this official said, "Legally, you'd need proof linking these attacks directly back to known leaders but yes, we're talking about al-Qaeda here."
The Casablanca plot certainly bears the signs of al-Qaeda: unforeseeable, well prepared and with its own mad logic. Neither the Casa de Espana nor Farah Hotel is a terribly compelling symbol. The other targets a Jewish cemetery, a Jewish community center and a restaurant next to the Belgian consulate had a grim terrorist logic. But it's just as possible that targets were chosen for their proximity. "It's frustrating to see how incoherent the selection of targets was, but incoherence seems to be a constant factor it's partly what makes them so hard to figure out," notes Adil Douiri, Morocco's Minister of Tourism.
The answer may be that Morocco itself is the target. By Arab standards it is a Westernized, secular and reasonably tolerant state, and thus a threat to the extremist point of view. "This kind of thinking and violence goes against everything Moroccans see as their upbringing, manners and culture," says Douiri. "Ask anyone about these attacks and they respond, 'But where do such people come from? They just don't exist in Morocco.' Now that we know they do, count on Moroccans to help flesh them out."
Though that may sound like denial, it's true this week's strike is the first carried out in Morocco by Moroccans. It may not be the last; French antiterror officials say the biggest threat in Morocco will arise from its efforts to become more democratic and pluralistic. "Arab countries where authoritarian or even quasidictatorial regimes are well in place tend to generate the largest numbers of the most radicalized Islamists indeed because they view jihad as the only manner left to them to strike out for justice," the official says. "The countries we risk seeing new movements arise in are the ones trying to become more open and democratic. You'll always have a minority of people who feel victimized or mistreated, and a minority of that minority will turn to Islamist extremism. But because their societies are freer, it takes smaller numbers and less rabid Islamists for them to exploit the wider margin of maneuver." For societies like Morocco, they find themselves bombed if they open up to Western-style democracy and bombed if they don't.