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The Spectre of Jihad

by John Thorne

THEY shot Mohamed Mantala before dawn, in the street, as he fumbled for the detonator concealed beneath his clothing. The police had waited all night, some in the alley, some perched atop the mosque beside the building where Mantala lived with two accomplices. The structure was like any other in the Casablanca neighbourhood of Hay al-Farah: four storeys stuccoed the colour of crème anglaise, with a stairway leading up to the flats and a spray of purple bougainvillea in the ground floor window. None of the neighbours suspected it housed members of a terrorist cell.

Bombings do not occur often in Morocco. A spate of attacks in the spring was the first such violence the country had seen in four years. But a wave of Islamic extremism washing over North Africa suggests more violence is coming.

On that morning in April, Mantala and his flatmate Mohamed Rachidi emerged from the building on their way to mosque for the day’s first prayer. Dozens of police were waiting for them. The men froze before Mantala reached into his clothing. Instantly, three bullets struck him in the chest, and he slumped dying to the pavement. Rachidi darted inside and appeared a moment later on the building’s roof terrace. The police ordered him to surrender, but he refused. Then, he exploded.

When I heard about Mantala and Rachidi, I caught a train down the coast to Casablanca from the capital Rabat, and reached Hay al-Farah around noon. The police had evacuated the buildings around the mosque and blockaded the street. A forensics team, looking like misplaced astronauts in their white overalls, were scavenging for DNA. Out on the avenue Chouaib Doukkali, the curious had gathered on the café terraces anxiously sipping tea. The cigarette-sellers were doing a brisk business.

I approached a bleary-eyed policeman leaning against a barricade.

“I’m tired”, he said. “We all are. We’ve been chasing these guys for five days”.

Mantala, Rachidi and their comrade Ayoub Raydi had arrived in the sprawling working-class district a month earlier. They rented a flat and melted into the throngs of street vendors and unemployed. They came from Douar Skouila, a shanty town several miles away, where goats clamber over reeking piles of trash and lives stagnat behind cinder-block walls. Mantala played football, Rachidi may have murdered a policeman, and Raydi – the youngest at 22 – had not done much of anything. Extremist Islam beckoned, and by early 2007 the three were wearing explosive belts. Now Mantala and Rachidi were dead.

“Any idea where the third guy is?”, I asked the policman.

“No”, he replied wearily. “Far from here, I hope”.

I wandered over to the mosque. Its whitewashed walls, aquamarine trim and square-angled minaret were typical of the Moroccan style, and beside the front steps, a crowd of neighbours had gathered in shock.

“This isn’t Islam”, a teenage boy insisted. “This is not our religion, this is not Morocco”.

Moroccans often say their country, on the cusp of the Arab world, is different. They argue that Islamic extremism is an alien Middle Eastern disease. They are wrong. On 16 May 2003, a date that rings in Morocco as September 11th does in the West, fourteen young Casablancans proved them so.

It was a Friday night. The fourteen boys left their homes in a poor suburb and headed downtown, where they quickly dispersed. Some proceeded to fine restaurants, some to a fancy hotel, some to a Jewish community centre, one to the Belgian consulate and one to a Jewish cemetery. There they blew themselves up. The twelve dead bombers – two were arrested in the nick of time – murdered 33 civilians and injured over a hundred.

Religious intolerance is relatively rare in today’s Morocco, but draws on a long tradition. For centuries, Muslim pirates operated out of ports to Libya, claiming divine right to attack Western ships and enslave the crews. Their grip on the high seas was broken only by American military campaigns in the early 19th-century, and as late as 1883, the French explorer Charles de Foucauld was obliged to visit Morocco disguised as a Russian Jew, accompanied by an aging Algerian rabbi seeking the philosopher’s stone. Morocco remained off-limits to Christians until the French took it over in 1911. Jews were marginally tolerated, but often forced to live in closed ghettos and pay special tribute in accordance with Islamic law; most later emigrated to Israel.

After the 2003 bombings, the police swiftly arrested several thousand people, many from the poor city suburbs, including those of Casablanca. Among them was Ayoub Raydi’s brother Abdelfettah, then 19, a tall youth with drooping eyes and a warm smile.

“Abdelfettah was like any other guy”, said a neighbour I spoke with. “He shaved, drank alcohol, chased girls. Then they threw him in prison. I don’t know what happened to him there – maybe he met someone – but when he came out he was different”.

Now sporting the curling beard and white robe of a devout Muslim, Radyi moved in extremist circles. Late one evening last March, Raydi and his friend Yousef Khouidri walked into a cybercafé near Douar Skouila. The owner immediately suspected their bulky coats on such a warm night. Raydi took a computer, and opened MSN Messenger and a webpage showing scenes of carnage in Iraq.

“The police had come round two weeks earlier and warned me to call them if I saw people visiting sites like that”, the owner recounted when I talked with him afterwards.

He closed the offending site remotely several times, before Raydi flew into a rage, yelling and bashing his keyboard against the table. The owner locked a steel shutter over the entrance and said he was calling the police. Raydi begged frantically to be allowed to leave, but the owner started dialling.

Then Raydi fixed the owner with his gaze and threatened him: “Put down that phone, or you will see something you’ve never seen before in your life”.

The police had just answered when Raydi hurled himself at the owner. A deafening blast and wave of fire filled the café. Raydi was blown into five pieces, and the owner and two other customers suffered burns. Khouidri dropped an explosive belt he had been wearing and disappeared into the night through the blown-out shutter, clutching at his wounded throat. Police arrested him an hour later.

The ensuing investigation uncovered dozens more suspects, several bomb caches, and an alleged plot to attack local police stations and tourist sites around the country. The group wore explosive belts wherever they went, designed to prevent capture while simultaneously killing pursuers. Their precise motives remain unclear, but one thing is certain: but for Yousef Khouidri’s failure to kill himself, his companions might have escaped detection long enough to blow up far more than a single cybercafé.

The government branded the group takfiriin, meaning those who denounce others as kufar – unbelievers to be killed. The kufar in question were supporters of the regime of King Mohamed VI, which has courted Western governments and tourists while neglecting the poor and trampling political dissent. To Islamists, this is worse than unjust – it is un-Islamic.

The investigation launched finally led to Hay al-Farah. The noon sun was glaring down on the mosque, which shone a brilliant white, and onlookers milled about the avenue, retreating to the shade of cafés and shop doorways as the air thickened with afternoon heat. Suddenly a huge metallic crash, like someone banging a pair of giant dustbin lids together, resonated from the direction of the mosque. The third suspect, Abdelfettah Raydi’s brother Ayoub, had revealed himself.

Screams of panic and excitement leapt from the crowd as it flooded down the avenue towards the explosion. I pushed my way to the front, where police were struggling to erect metal barriers. A few meters away, in the middle of the street, a pair of legs shorn off at the knee lay amid a mess of broken glass, scorched pavement and bits of charred flesh. Ayoub Raydi had charged from a doorway toward a knot of policemen, killing one and wounding over a dozen bystanders.

Suicide bombing is a modern tactic with ancient origins. The forerunners of today’s bombers were the medieval Shi’ite sect known to history as the Assassins. From their castles in the mountains of Persia and Syria, Assassin killers infiltrated the households of their enemies, striking them down with golden daggers in the expectation of being caught and executed. No matter, paradise awaited.

With the advent of explosives, modern jihadists found they could kill many people at once while ensuring martyrdom for the bomber. The Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah adopted suicide bombing in the 1980s, driving French and American troops from Beirut, and Palestinians have used it against Israel since the 1990s. On 11th September 2001, al-Qaeda brought it into the Sunni mainstream.

Al-Qaeda’s tactics and ideology are gaining currency across North Africa as the group’s leaders attempt to rally Islamists under a common banner and recruit fighters for operations in Iraq. In January, Algeria’s Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat, which has waged an Islamist insurgency against government forces since 1998, changed its named to ‘al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’. The group had already experimented with this form of jihad: last December it hurled bombs at buses carrying foreign oil workers, and in April ran suicide car bombers into an Algiers police station and the prime minister’s palace.

Moroccan bombers lack expertise, but not passion. The police and courts have been hard at work rounding up and prosecuting suspected terrorists. The cult of violent jihad offers many volunteers the exhilaration of taking part in a global struggle, and Islamists’ emphasis on justice and morality strikes a chord with people trodden down by regimes as corrupt and venal as Morocco’s. Young Moroccans plug into the internet and discover how easy it is to make a bomb from drain cleaner, bleach and acetone. They may stumble at first, but they learn from their mistakes and try again. People willing to die for their cause do not give up easily, as I witnessed in Hay al-Farah.

The police cordoned off what remained of Ayoub Raydi and drove onlookers out onto the avenue. Pick-ups raced in to provide extra barriers, which the police rammed against the crowd, lashing out viciously with their batons at the old and slow-moving. I hesitated to leave, and explained that I was covering the story.

“Never mind, just get back”, barked a burly cop. “There’s still one more”.


“There’s a fourth one. We didn’t know before. We think he’s somewhere on the roof and could throw something”.

I retreated a few yards and looked up at the buildings opposite. Somewhere inside, a young man with explosives strapped around his midriff sat listening. He could hear the wails of sirens, the jeers of the crowd, the thudding of a police battering ram on the door below. He had heard the gunfire that morning, and the two claps of thunder when his friends left him. Now he had a choice to make.

An army helicopter swooped low over us, tossing aside the women’s headscarves and whipping up lines of washing. Six policemen darted into the corner building and worked their way up through the flats. They emerged on the roof and advanced along it, guns drawn, receding down the block until they looked like ants on a tabletop.

The explosion came not from the roof, but the avenue, a few yards from the chief of police and fifty feet from me. There was the same metallic bang, a blue flash, a billow of smoke and screams. The crowd surged outward and then back, like the surf. A body lay broken on the pavement, the limbs and head flung away and the guts spilled out. The spray of blood covered a nearby police car.

Suddenly, everyone felt an urgent need to talk.

“It’s crazy”, I said to the man next to me, a white-haired shopkeeper. “He could have got away”.

“I know”, the shopkeeper replied. “He could have got away. But he didn’t. He came back”.

John Thorne is a Contributing Editor of The Liberal

and former North Africa Reporter for The Associated Press.

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