RABAT, April 28 (Reuters) - A bomb attack on a busy tourist cafe in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh on Thursday killed 15 people, most of them foreigners, and struck right at the heart of the North African country's economy.
The bombing bore the hallmarks of Islamist militants who have been trying unsuccessfully to stage a big attack in Morocco since 2003, when they killed more than 45 people in simultaneous suicide attacks in the commercial capital, Casablanca.
Bombing a cafe in Marrakesh is easier than going after much better-protected government or police targets. Yet it will have a massive economic impact: the Jamaa el-Fnaa square where the blast happened is perhaps the best-known tourist spot in Morocco.
"The bombing was intended to cause maximum casualties and was explicitly an attack on tourism," said Henry Wilkinson, senior analyst at Janusian security consultancy.
Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk Consulting said the likely downturn in tourist numbers as a result of the attack would have dire consequences for the Moroccan economy. Tourism is Morocco's second biggest employer after agriculture.
"Tourism ... is fickle and tourists flee at the slightest possibility of violence," he said. "The loss of tourist revenue will spell economic trouble for the monarchy, which is already experiencing widening budget deficits because of high oil and food prices."
Up to now, Morocco's violent Islamist militants have been locally-based, with only very tenuous links to international militant networks. Any sign of al Qaeda involvement in Thursday's blast would therefore be a concern for Moroccan security services, and their Western allies.
Their fear is that Al Qaeda's north African wing, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has been able to reach out beyond its strongholds in neighbouring Algeria and in the Sahara desert, and gain a foothold in Morocco -- something it has been trying, and failing, to do for years.
The Casablanca attack eight years ago was the work of a local group called the Moroccan Islamic Combatants Group, with no evidence of al Qaeda ties.
"Would-be attackers in Morocco are usually youths from deprived urban areas who have low terrorist capabilities and no connections with established groups," said Anna Murison of Exclusive Analysis.
But several analysts said they suspected AQIM involvement in the latest bombing. U.S.-based corporate intelligence firm Stratfor said an attack on a soft target popular with tourists, as in the Marrakesh blast, "fits AQIM's target set."
The attack happened at a time when Morocco's authorities are struggling to prevent the wave of uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world from reaching its towns and cities.
There have been nationwide protests -- some of which turned violent -- and more big demonstrations are planned for Sunday. Morocco's ruler, King Mohammed, has promised constitutional reform but some Moroccans say that is not enough.
Islamist militants have seen their message of global jihad eclipsed by the overwhelmingly secular Arab uprisings, and it is unlikely the Marrakesh attack has any ideological connection to the protest movements. It is however, possible that the Moroccan government's preoccupation with the protests created an opportunity for the extremists.
"AQIM -- or a new or related group ... -- might find operating easier now that the government is distracted with protests about greater unrest," said Stratfor.
There is a potential side-effect for the protest organisers. There were already signs on Thursday they feared their movement could be caught up in a security crackdown in the wake of the attack.
A group of about 250 jobless graduates marched through the centre of the capital Rabat, soon after the blast was reported, chanting: "We will not be intimidated by terrorism!" and "We will not be intimidated by a police state!"
Past experience suggests the Moroccan authorities will mount an intensive security crackdown which will disrupt attempts to carry out more bombings -- at least for a while.
After the Casablanca attacks, hundreds of suspected Islamists were arrested, prompting allegations from some rights groups that the arrests were indiscriminate.
"The Moroccan police are ubiquitous and their public profile will be more conspicuous. The police also operate without many of the constraints that structure counter-terrorism investigations in Europe and the US," said Porter.
"Consequently, it is expected that the government will claim to have identified and captured individuals associated with the cell in the coming weeks if not days. In the long term, Morocco is not likely to become a hotbed of terrorist activity." (Additional reporting by William Maclean in Bradford, Britain; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)