A powerful bomb blast in a crowded Moroccan cafe killed at least 14 people, wounded dozens of others, and shattered the relative calm in a corner of the Arab world overwhelmed by uprisings and deadly government crackdowns.
The bombing was timed to maximize fatalities in one of North Africa’s most popular tourist destinations, striking the city of Marrakesh as crowds sat down for lunch. The attack appeared to be the work of a suicide bomber, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility, according to a senior intelligence official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
News agencies reported that at least three Moroccans and 10 foreigners, including several French citizens, were among the dead.
The explosion blew out the front and the roof of the Argana restaurant, in Djemma el Fna square, a public space in the heart of Morocco’s cultural capital that is regularly packed with vendors and tourists. The crowds filling the square Thursday as the tourist season began were knocked back, then frozen in shock from the blast and then the scene as ambulances and the police rushed in.
“There was a huge bang,” one tourist in the square, Andy Birnie of London, told The Associated Press. “There was debris raining down from the sky. Hundreds of people were running in panic, some towards the cafe, some away from the square.”
Images from the square showed the devastation of the attack: the cafe floor splattered with blood, a body beneath a blanket, rubble blown out into the plaza, which was packed with people surveying the destruction.
The bombing was as deadly as it was perplexing. Although it bore the hallmarks of radical Islamists, Marwan Shehadeh, an expert in such movements, said he would not have expected Islamists to attack because the government recently gave in to some of their demands and released some militant leaders. He also said that the attack on civilians was inconsistent with the work of a separatist movement, Polisario, in Western Sahara, which has focused over the years on government targets.
However, Mansouria Mokhefi, who heads the Middle East and Maghreb program at the French Institute for International Relations, said it was possible that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the network’s North African affiliate, might have felt compelled to attack “as a way of reminding people that they still exist” at a time when secular protesters are dominating the world news.
The official Moroccan news agency said King Mohammed VI sent his condolences to the families of the dead and offered to pay for burials. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France issued a statement condemning the bombing, which he called a terrorist attack.
Though Morocco has remained relatively calm, especially when compared with the civil war racking Libya, it, too, has festering domestic conflicts. It has struggled in recent years against the spreading reach of Qaida-aligned terrorists operating in North Africa. In 2003, 33 people were killed in five simultaneous bombings attributed to radical Islamists.
And the separatist movement in Western Sahara to the south, which has been aided by Algeria and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, is decades-old.
Like other North African nations, Morocco has been concerned about the possible spillover from the violence and chaos in Libya, worrying that militants could get hold of weapons more easily. And in recent months, like much of the region, the country has seen increased calls for democratic reform.
The king is relatively popular, having pushed for some political and economic liberalization and increased women’s rights since taking power 11 years ago when his father died. Still, the king continues to wield absolute authority on all political matters.
As the Arab Spring rolled out, he responded to protests in Morocco with promises to meet many of demonstrators’ core demands for change, including allowing for a more representative Parliament and an elected prime minister. But he has yet to deliver.
Now Thursday’s attack threatens to stress the nation’s already troubled economy and its roughly $8 billion tourism industry. More than 9 million people visited the country last year, according to statistics from the state news agency.
Shehadeh, the expert in Islamic extremism, raised the prospect that the government would point to the violence as a reason to delay its promised reforms — a move that officials have not themselves raised.