When news broke over the weekend of an attempted car bombing in Times Square, fears quickly arose of another al Qaeda-led attack on New York. It's a common, and understandable, dynamic not only in the U.S., but throughout the Western press: When a terrorist attack happens, or is attempted, there's a default assumption that organized, international terrorism is at work: an "al Qaeda bias."
Here in the U.S., that bias can be either confirmed or dissipated relatively easily, as the evidence starts to come in. But in countries where media are significantly restricted, and governments are more invested in how terror attacks are interpreted, an al Qaeda bias can be the stuff of high-stakes political capital.
Reports last week that Moroccan security forces arrested 24 members of an "al Qaeda-linked cell" and were looking for another in France, for example, have raised concerns in Western media of an expanded al Qaeda threat in North Africa. But what do we really know about the case? As with many such regimes, the opaque nature of Morocco's government, especially concerning issues of terrorism, makes independent confirmation of official statements on the incident difficult. At the same time, the international and regional context of the arrests suggest the possibility that - whether or not the charges are true - Morocco's government may be invested in using the threat of terrorism for political and economic gain.
There certainly are real, established terrorist threats to Morocco. Morocco's security services, which have made great strides to improve their counterterrorism capabilities in recent years, have successfully disrupted some major terror groups. Coordinated suicide bombings in 2003 in Casablanca killed 33 people, Moroccan terrorists were involved in the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, and Moroccan extremists in Europe have been implicated in recent plots linked to al Qaeda. In the last few years, terrorism arrests have been on the rise in Morocco, with the government claiming to have broken up over 60 terrorist plots since 2003. These incidents have prompted Morocco's judicial and security services to target extremists more aggressively, while also seeking to alleviate the underlying drivers of radicalization in the country.
But in reporting on this incident, which suggests a worrisome level of involvement between al-Qaeda and local groups, English and French sources have been vague about the alleged plotters' organizational affiliation, carefully describing the network with the phrase "al Qaeda-linked" rather than connecting it to a specific group such as the North Africa-based al Qaeda franchise Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Of course, a non-AQIM terror plot in Morocco is far from impossible given the number of violent jihadist groups operating there, as well as AQIM's historic difficulty in recruiting Moroccans en masse. Whatever the true story may be, the global attention generated by the "al Qaeda" brand allows Morocco's government to benefit from fears of growing terrorist influence in the region.