Sidi Moumen--It all happened in one night. Twelve desperate young Moroccans decided on May 16, 2003, to blow themselves up in five sites in Casablanca, killing 45 people. Inhabitants of Douar Sekouila and Thomas shantytown in the district of Sidi Moumen, in Casablanca, home to the May 16 suicide bombers, are still believed to be an easy target for extremists and terrorists.
Morocco Times paid a visit to these slums and met with the families and friends of the kamikazes, who described how they had endured the events. Some totally condemned the attacks; others still could not believe how they could have happened, but the majority said that the kamikazes were incited to commit these acts against innocents.
It was 1.00 pm when we arrived at “Karyan Thomas” in Sidi Moumen to meet the families of the suicide bombers, two years after the deadly attacks that rocked Morocco's business capital.
Sidi Moumen, one of Casablanca's neglected slums had not changed much since our last visit in 2004, except that new apartments are built roundabout, to allow the residents of Sidi Moumen's shantytowns to benefit from decent housing.
These impoverished slums have no electricity. As you go into the slum, you can see women in housework clothes coming from the 'Sakayas' (drinking fountains), carrying water in colourful buckets. Most residents of this 'Karyan' are unemployed, and many of them survive on petty theft or trafficking.
Some inhabitants gathered next to a small shop, smoking hashish; others were sniffing glue. They stared at new comers – easily spotted as strangers.
There were dozens of national and international reporters swarming into the area which had produced human bombs on a black Friday, on May 16, 2003. Rubbish was everywhere and the bad smells made you feel sick.
Children in dirty clothes, aged between 7 and 14 years, were playing around. Many of them stopped playing and went to ask for money from the strangers.
Some of the young people who were standing next to the shop came in to talk to the foreign journalists about their miserable situation. One of them said: “Hey Blondie-hair and green-eyed man, write and tell the world about the dirty place where we live.
Another came to talk to me, saying sarcastically with a strong accent “Wash tahad magalik ghayhawlou had el karyan min hon?” (Did nobody tell you that they would move away this shanty town from here?)
It was difficult to talk to these angry and desperate people. All of them were speaking loudly at the same time, using gestures and saying bad words.
At last, we were able to talk privately with a resident, who directed us to the house of one of the kamikazes. Despite his instructions, we had difficulty in finding the house as most of them looked the same in the narrow and winding alleys.
After a long search, we found the family of the suicide bomber Mohammed Mhani.
Mohammed Mhani's brother: “If my brother was alive, I would have killed him, because what he did was horrible”
We knocked at the door, but nobody answered. The neighbours were discretely looking on us from their windows, thinking we were from the police or the secret service. Nobody dared to talk and their faces were very pale as if they had seen a ghost. We knocked again.
Then, the door was half opened. A woman in her 50s or 60s was wearing an old traditional Moroccan dress. While talking to her, we learned that she was the mother of the suicide bomber Mohammed Mhani. She started crying without uttering a single word and refused to let us in. She looked utterly desperate. All she said was: “I told the police all I know; I have nothing more to say”.
She looked so miserable that we decided to let her alone, as she couldn't stop crying. We went in search for other families. On our way, we came across the same man who had directed us earlier. He asked us if we wanted to talk to Mhani's brother.
Mustapha Mhani, the elder brother of Mohammed told Morocco Times that his brother (the suicide bomber) had become very conservative, especially during the last six months before the attacks. He added that he had seen his brother on several occasions secretly watching tapes on Jihad with his friends, but he never thought that he would one day commit such a terrorist act. He also said that before the attacks, he learnt that his brother and his friends were meeting every evening, talking about something that he had never managed to know.
While asked about his opinion of the terrorist attacks, he said: “If my brother was alive, I would have killed him once again, because what he did was so horrible and unbelievable”.
Brother of the suicide bomber Adil Taich: “My brother has never been a fundamentalist. Go away from here, that's enough”.
We went looking for Adil Taich's family. We met his brother who was selling goods in a store next to his home. When we approached the boy to talk to him, dozens of neighbours surrounded us, asking who we were and what we wanted.
They were staring at us as if they were going to beat us and push us out of the shanty town. The younger brother of Adil Taich looked frightened and refused to talk.
The only thing he said was that he had no prior knowledge of what was going to happen on May 16, and that his brother was a normal guy with no political or religious affiliation.
He pretended to look for something in the store and told us “My brother has never been a fundamentalist. Go away from here, that's enough”.
Zahra Echarif, mother of the suicide bomber Abdelfattah Bouliqdan: “This was a horrific crime, but my son was mislead and tricked.”
Zahra Echarif, mother of the suicide bomber Abdelfattah Bouliqdan, on the other hand, received us and let us in. She looked serious, cold and desperate. Echarif has lost everything in life. Her husband died when her son was a kid. She had also recently lost her parents and then her son who blew himself up in one of the five sites. She has lost even her chance to work after the death of her son.
“We suffer more than the families of the victims, because what our children did was horrific. The shame will follow us wherever we go for all our life.”
Echarif started crying saying: “my son was a nice person. He was religious and polite, but he was tricked. He has never been a delinquent or a violent person.”
Relative of the suicide bomber Khalid Benmoussa: “I'm just a guest; there is nobody at home and I can't say anything”
Khalid Benmoussa's house was next to Adil Taich's. We weren't so lucky talking to these two families, as they were too scared to say anything that would be used against them – or at least that's what they thought. A woman in her 40s opened the door. She pretended to be a guest and that nobody was at home. She refused to talk as dozens of residents stared at her as if they were telling her 'don't say a word.'
What do friends of the kamikazes in Karyan Thomas have to say about them?
Z. Mohammed, 20, pedlar: The kamikazes were nice people, they helped us, even giving us money to buy beers, but what they did was horrible.
A. Hamid, 30, mechanic: They were very weird during the last six months before the attacks. They were also trying to recruit people and influence them with Salafiya Jihadiya ideology.
F. Houriya, 25, housewife: these young people were tricked. What they did was against Islam and humanity.
K. Rabiaa, 21, tailor: what they did was horrible and they assumed their responsibility.
Fatima Ezohra Tarikhi, wife of Mohammed El Omari, the only surviving kamikaze: “My husband was forced to participate in the attacks and it was Abdelfattah Bouliqdan who got him involved in this affair”
After talking to the families and friends of the kamikazes, we went to Douar Sekouila, where the only surviving suicide bomber lived, Mohammed El Omari, a car watch guard.
Omari is facing a death penalty. Fatima Ezohra Tarikhi, Omari's wife received us in her house. She was covered up from head to toe. Tarikhi and Omari have one son, Zoubeir.
Tarikhi said that she and her family denounced the attacks, and that they sympathized with the victims.
“We know that Islam is a religion of peace, which forbids killing innocents. We really want to know where this terrorism comes from, because it is not an intrinsic part of our society,” she said.
Asked about her husband, Tarikhi said that when she visited him in prison, he told her that it was Abdelfattah Bouliqdan who got him involved in this affair.
“One day Bouliqdan came to ask El Omari about a car which was on sale. Since then, Bouliqdan started inviting my husband to 'Karyan' Thomas and filled his head with extremist ideas,” said Tarikhi.
“When planning the attacks, El Omari asked to consult a religious scholar before doing anything. However, Bouliqdan had threatened to harm his family, especially our son Zoubeir, if he refused to take part,” she added.
Tarikhi went on: “They had rented an apartment in the 'Tacharok' neighbourhood in my husband's name. Bouliqdan had brought explosives to the apartment and threatened him if he spoke to anybody about this affair, his home would be blown up.
Mohammed El Omari and two others – Rachid Jalil, and Yassine Lahnech, who had changed their mind during the attacks – claimed, during their trial, that they had been threatened by another bomber.
The three men and a fourth, Hassan Taousi, 26, considered to be a leading member of Salafiya Jihadiya, all received death sentences.
Nearly 300,000 people live in Sidi Moumen shantytowns, most of them illiterate and unemployed. They had become an easy target for recruiters of the Salafiyah Jihadiya and remain so, two years later.
These desperate people, if they didn't go aboard makeshift boats, risking their life on clandestine migration, they would fall into the influence of the Salafiya Jihadiya ideology which will turn them into human bombs.
“The civic neighbourhood”
After the bombings, the government promised to have illiteracy eradication, unemployment and proper housing high on its agenda.
Some new housing is under construction, new roads are being built and electricity expanded. The police constantly maintain a heavy presence.
Around 20 % of residents have moved into new homes, but many of the remaining residents in the shantytowns say they can't afford to pay the new apartments. Residents of the shanty towns have extended families with so many children. Many of them prefer to stay in the slums rather than moving to confined apartments. “Sidi Moumen and Hay el Walae associations, a network of 21 associations, launched a programme called “The civic neighbourhood” for Sidi Moumen residents, whose number reach 289,253 people, including 70,549 children and 57, 275 young men and women.
The project aims at making the residents aware of environmental issues in their area; reinforcing the principles of sustainable development and civic responsibility among the residents; and helping develop the residents' cultural, artistic and sporting talents.
Danger of fundamentalism on Moroccan youth
Some analysts have related the issue of fundamentalism to lack of education and faith, but said that it is mostly due to the economic conditions in which extremists are living. Poverty is one of the main reasons that leads people to embrace the fundamentalist doctrine.
The trial of the Moroccan fundamentalists has shown that most of those arrested in the May 16 attacks grew up in poor areas, such as Sidi Moumen and Thomas slums.
Extremists groups such as Salfiya Jihadiya and others take advantage of this situation to recruit desperate young people and transform them into ready bombs.
Extremist movements use teenagers as weapons to destroy societies thus discredit the image of Islam. They give themselves the right to punish people and tell them what to do and what not to do.
Most of them agreed that people who are likely to be attracted by these movements are the ones who rebel against bad social and economical conditions; those who have a weak educational background; those who lack religious knowledge; and those who have problems in dealing with the outside world.