RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco said it had arrested a cell of militants, including a member of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who were planning to launch attacks on security services and stage bank robberies with a large cache of weapons.
Quoting an interior ministry statement, official media reported on Wednesday that Moroccan security forces had broken up a 27-member cell and seized arms that were discovered in Amghala, an oasis in the disputed Western Sahara.
“Moroccan security services have succeeded in dismantling a terrorist cell of 27 members, among whom is a member of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb who was tasked by this organisation to set up a rear base in Morocco where it would plan terrorist acts,” the statement said.
“Members of the cell, supervised by a Moroccan citizen who is in the Al Qaeda camps in northern Mali, have been planning terrorist acts using explosive belts and car bombs that mainly target security services and to rob banks to fund their terrorist projects,” it added.
It did not say when or where the arrests occured.
The statement said the cell members also planned to send recruits to AQIM camps in Algeria and Mali to undergo paramilitary training before returning to Morocco to execute their “destructive plans”.
Moroccan Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui in remarks carried by the official MAP news agency said members of the cell had also targeted foreign interests and had links with “extremist elements” based in Europe.
The seized weapons included 30 Kalashnikov assault rifles, two rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) and ammunition, he said.
Violence linked to militancy is rare in Morocco, a staunch Western ally with a reputation for stability that has helped to entice millions of tourists to the country.
The last big attack was a series of suicide bombings in the economic capital, Casablanca, in 2003 that killed 45 people. Since then security services say they have rounded up more than 60 radical cells.
Mohamed Darif, an expert on Islamic militancy in Morocco, said the latest arrest was the first to suggest the existence of links between AQIM and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front which seeks independence in the Western Sahara.
“It is only a matter of time before Moroccan authorities officially announce the existence of links between this cell and the Polisario Front. This would give credence to the Moroccan thesis on the existence of links between AQIM and the Polisario,” Darif said.
Minister delegate of Polisario’s self-styled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic Mohamed Beisset distanced his group from the arrests. “Polisario has always condemned terrorism,” he said.
“(Polisario) is a partner of Algeria and Mauritania in fighting terrorism in the region. We have offered to do the same with Morocco but they said no,” he told Reuters.
The Polisario has been battling for independence for the Western Sahara for 35 years. Algiers could not immediately be reached for a comment.
Since the rise of AQIM over the last few years, the Moroccan government has said that giving territory to the Polisario in the Western Sahara could make it a haven for Islamist militancy.
Algeria, Polisario’s main supporter, is itself battling AQIM militants, some of whom are the inheritors of a movement which led to a bloody civil war from 1991 to 2002.
The Moroccan announcement follows a hearing on Monday by an investigating judge in the territory’s main city of Laayoune for eight people accused of involvement in violent clashes with security forces that have led to the death of 10 members of the Moroccan forces and two civilians, according to Rabat.
Polisario says the death toll among civilians was higher.
Editing by Noah Barkin