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Source: ABC News International http://abcnews.go.com/
By JOHN THORNE
RABAT, Morocco Sep 1, 2006 (AP)— Security agents broke up a group planning terrorist attacks on tourist sites and government facilities, arresting 56 people who included soldiers and the wives of two pilots at the state airline, the Interior Ministry said Friday.
But while the government trumpeted the roundup, analysts said the involvement of security forces and the pilots' wives in the alleged plot was a troublesome development that showed Islamic extremism is moving out of the North African kingdom's slums and into the middle class.
The sweep was the latest by Morocco's government in an anti-terror campaign that began after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. and intensified following 2003 suicide bombings that killed 45 people in Casablanca and stunned this predominantly moderate Muslim nation.
Human rights activists have accused authorities of detaining innocent people and using torture in the campaign, but Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa was quoted by the official MAP news agency as saying the latest arrests showed the need for strong anti-terrorism operations.
"The members of this group were planning terrorist attacks targeting tourist sites, strategic government facilities and foreign holdings, and assassinations of prominent figures for political or moral reasons," Benmoussa said in a statement.
The latest crackdown was first reported Aug. 7, when police said 44 people had been arrested, including five former soldiers with explosives expertise.
On Friday, the Interior Ministry said 56 people had been detained in six cities and police seized explosives, laboratory materials and propaganda leaflets. It said the detainees belonged to Jammaat Ansar El Mehdi, or the Mehdi Support Group.
The group's leader was a former convict who recruited Islamic radicals to train them in explosives use and planned to wage holy war, the ministry said. The group allegedly sought to finance its activities through robberies of financial institutions and bank trucks.
Four of the suspects were women, including the wives of two pilots for Royal Air Maroc, Benmoussa was quoted as saying by MAP. Government officials would not comment further on the women, and the airline could not be reached for comment.
Mohammed Darif, a University of Mohammeia professor who studies Islamic terrorism, said the women's role was likely financing the alleged terror cell. He said it was unclear how or whether the group might have made use of their connection to the airline.
But Darif said the women's alleged involvement was a significant development, a sign that the appeal of Islamic extremism is broadening in Morocco.
Islamic extremists here are often labeled poor illiterates, he said, adding that Sidi Moumen the Casablanca slum where many of the 2003 bombers grew up "has become the symbol of terrorism."
"But we're only talking about those who carry out attacks. We're forgetting the other elements of terrorism above all the level of planning," Darif said.
Morocco's communication minister, Nabil Benabdallah, told The Associated Press the new arrests "are proof of the effectiveness" of the security services.
But Darif stressed that religious extremists remain at large.
"Since 2002, the authorities have regularly dismantled cells, and that's not accelerating," he said. "These are cells that regenerate."
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