By Gerry Hadden
The death toll from the bombing of a popular tourist café in Marrakesh, Morocco Thursday has risen to 16. 11 of the victims were foreigners, mostly French. It's the first major terrorist attack in the Islamic kingdom since 2003, when suicide bombers killed 45 people in Casablanca. In recent years Morocco has been considered a bulwark against al Qaeda, as that organization makes inroads into the Magreb.
Thursday's blast destroyed the Argana Café, a magnet for foreign vacationers just off the main Djemma el Fna square in the heart of Marrakesh. Hugo-Shoreham Jones owns a nearby hotel. He says he got to the scene minutes after hearing a huge explosion.
"The whole first floor of this very popular tourist café was sort of totally flattened," he told the BBC by telephone. "We saw limp and lifeless bodies being picked by brave waiters and members of the public as well."
Terrorists behind the explosion
As authorities scrambled to save the wounded, Moroccans were hoping it was an accident – perhaps a gas explosion. But Morocco's Communications Minister, Khalid Naciri now said Friday that the government believed terrorists were behind the explosion.
"We did at one stage think this was an accident," he said, "but after a few hours we realised we were dealing with a criminal act. And given that this criminal act targeted civilians and innocent people in a public place, we understood it was a terrorist act."
So far no group has claimed responsibility. But Nabila Ramdani, a specialist in the Middle East and North Africa, says she, like the government, suspects Al Qaeda. If that's the case, she says it's a blow to the West as well as to Morroco.
"What is for sure is that Morocco has worked extremely hard over the years since Sept. 11," Ramdani said. "It has worked extremely hard in partnership with Americans in the so-called war on terror. And because Morocco is one of few countries that has contributed fully to it al Qaeda has had a vendetta."
In the last decade Morocco has broken up some 70 alleged terrorist cells. And it has put thousands of suspects in jail. But Ramdani says the threat will likely continue, until Morocco can offer a future for its poor young citizens.
"I think one has to bear in mind that behind the tourist myth of palm trees and camels and lovely medinas, there's also huge poverty in morocco and an awful lot of human rights abuses," Ramdani. "And young people are suffering from this."
Thursday's attack could be a setback in more than just the war on terror. The country's tentative moves toward greater democracy could be threatened too, say activists who've been marching en masse in recent weeks. Moroccan journalist Ali Al-Merabet told Spanish radio that he feared the bombing will give Moroccan King Mohammed VI a pretext to halt democratic reforms in the name of security.
"The regime is going to buy time now," Merabet said by phone. "If they haven't started already, state security forces are going to launch a wave of new arrests. Morocco is a police state … there will thousands. And when the arrest you, it's done illegally and you're taken to prisons and tortured."
But today Morocco's Communications Minister sought to assure Moroccans that the reforms the King has announced will move forward. One of those reforms has been to release more than a hundred political prisoners. If the king has those same suspects swept up again, the earlier gesture will be lost.