N. Africa grows as terrorism focus

WASHINGTON – Bombings in Algeria and Morocco, and other militant activity across North Africa have put U.S. and European authorities on alert that their interests in the region may be targeted for attack, officials say.

On Saturday, two brothers with explosives-laden belts blew themselves up in Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca, injuring one woman. Moroccan authorities later arrested at least one man suspected of being linked to the bombings, according to the official MAP news agency.

The State Department said one bombing occurred near the U.S. Consulate and the second near an American language center. Both facilities are located along a main boulevard in Casablanca.

The bombings Saturday followed a series of attacks in the region this week, including a strike Wednesday on the prime minister’s office in Algiers that killed 33 people. The new violence underscored concerns about escalating extremist activity in North Africa.

A day before the Algiers attack, Moroccan police confronted a group of suspected terrorists in Casablanca. Three of them detonated suicide vests and a fourth was killed by police gunfire. U.S. officials said the men were part of a group plotting attacks against tourist targets and Western interests.

In Tunisia, police recently engaged in a deadly shootout with gunmen linked to al-Qaida’s new regional affiliate, al-Qaida in the Maghreb, a term referring to the North African nations west of Egypt. The gunmen allegedly planned to attack foreign embassies.

“The cancer is spreading, and it is very troubling,” one senior U.S. counterterrorism official said Saturday. “These groups are expanding beyond what their initial local targets were, and striking at the U.S.”

The Iraq war has helped the North Africans connect activities in North Africa, Europe and Iraq, according to a top French intelligence official. Algeria’s Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by the French initials GSPC, led recruiting in North Africa and Europe for the Iraq conflict. It was aided by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Iraq-based al-Qaida leader, until he was killed by U.S. forces last year. The network, which later renamed itself al-Qaida in the Maghreb, has groomed fighters at small, mobile training facilities in the deserts of southern Algeria, Mali and other Sahel countries.

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