International Papers

Osama Strikes Back?

On Monday morning, newspapers in the Arab world had suicide bombings front and center, though between the blasts in Saudi Arabia last week, the explosions in Casablanca Friday night, and the bombings in Israel Sunday, they were beginning to lose track.

Sunday’s bombing of a Jerusalem bus killed seven people and prompted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to postpone a visit to Washington. The bombing was one of several weekend attacks claimed by the militant Hamas movement. (Monday saw two more suicide attacks: one in Gaza by a Palestinian riding a bicycle and one in a mall in Afula.) Newspapers were quick to point out that one intended target was the effectiveness of the new government of Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, who resumed negotiations with Sharon Saturday. The London-based Al-Hayat led with the headline, “The Suicide Operations Encircle Abu Mazen’s Government.” Israeli daily Ha’aretz agreed that Hamas sought to undermine progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: “The defense establishment said that three of the attacks since Saturday night … were part of a Hamas campaign aimed at disrupting efforts to launch the road map.”

The attacks again raised questions as to whether Israel’s government would expel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom it accuses of surreptitiously encouraging suicide bombers. According to the Jerusalem Post, however, Sharon nixed calls for expulsion, since “from his point of view removing Arafat from the Mukata [Arafat’s headquarters] where he is would create a ‘less comfortable’ situation for Israel than if he continues to be holed up in his compound.” For Amos Harel, writing in Ha’aretz, the real story was that the suicide bombers all belonged to the same Hamas cell yet were unknown to the Israelis: “In other words, a lethal cell, which managed to initiate the most deadly wave of terror in recent months, sprouted under the nose of the Shin Bet [Israel’s domestic intelligence service].” Indeed, one of the bombers was recruited while in Israeli detention.

Two days after the Casablanca bombings, there was still some doubt as to whether the attacks were linked to al-Qaida. London’s Sunday Times claimed that Osama Bin Laden had promised attacks in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Pakistan in a tape released three months ago. However, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that the suicide bombers came from the fundamentalist Moroccan Al-Siraat al-Mustaqim (the Righteous Path) group and that authorities had arrested seven suspects. The International Herald Tribune added, “The group is believed to be linked to the Salafist Jihad group; one of its spiritual leaders, Ould Mohammed Abdelwahab Raqiqi, was jailed this year for inciting violence against Westerners.” Both Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq al-Awsat suggested that another Salafist group, Al-Takfir wal-Hijra, might have been involved as well. In their sweep of Islamists, the Moroccan security services also arrested men who had fought in Afghanistan and who might constitute sleeper cells for al-Qaida.

There was widespread condemnation of the attacks in the Moroccan press. The bi-weekly Al-Tajdid, published by an Islamist party, the Unity and Reform Movement, declared, “The Islamic movements in Morocco are united in their condemnation of the latest bombings in Casablanca.” The French-language L’Opinion, published by the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, said the attacks were “fratricidal crimes” carried out by “poor wretches from miserable neighborhoods … who were caught in an international web without any real knowledge of the reality on the ground [and] who attacked the poorest and least well protected of Moroccans.” The French-language Le Matin argued that democracy means “not conceding anything to the dictatorship of the minority, not accepting imported models that are completely different from our values anchored in an Islam of peace, well-understood modernity, and universal democracy. Extremism is not and will never be a destiny for the Arab-Muslim world.”

In an effort to find meaning in the various attacks, Beirut’s pro-Syrian Al-Sharq took the familiar route of victimization in a front-page editorial. Though the paper recognized the differences between the bombings in Riyadh, Casablanca, and Jerusalem, it also saw a similarity in that “they were all results, not causes.” Such attacks were to be expected, and “the Americans bear a great deal of the responsibility in light of what they did, and what they are expected to do, in their ferocious assaults against Arab and Muslim rights.”