Moroccan authorities announced Wednesday that they have arrested 27 members of a terror cell headed by a member of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terror group's North African affiliate.
Security forces captured rocket-propelled grenade launchers, handguns and Kalashnikovs at three sites in the Western Sahara – a territory on the Atlantic Coast, Moroccan Interior Minister Tayeb Cherkaoui said. The group may have been plotting bombing attacks against state and foreign security forces. Authorities are concerned that AQIM will try to exploit long-simmering ethnic and political disputes to get a foothold in the territory.
From 1975 to 1991, the Moroccan government fought a war with the Polisario Front, a separatist group based in neighboring Algeria. For close to two decades, the two sides have been deadlocked over who should be allowed to participate in a referendum to decide whether the Western Sahara should receive independence. Since then, violence has erupted occasionally in the area, most recently in November, when knife-wielding gangs killed 11 unarmed Moroccan security officers.
Analysts say AQIM has become increasingly bold in the region since September, when it kidnapped seven foreign contractors (five of them French citizens) in Niger.
The largest recent terror attack in Morocco took place in 2003, when 45 people were killed in a series of suicide bombings in Casablanca. Since then, Moroccan authorities say they have rounded up more than 60 radical cells. Mohamed Darif, who monitors Islamist radicalism in Morocco, told Reuters that the most recent arrest is the first to suggest there are links between the Polisario and AQIM. Polisario officials deny any involvement with al-Qaida and say they have been working to combat terror in the region.