By Fiona Govan
Their destination may be almost 3,000 miles away, but the draw of martyrdom in Iraq is proving irresistable for the young men of Tetouan.
American intelligence officials believe that the Moroccan town, less than 30 miles from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, has become one of the world’s most fertile recruiting ground for jihadists.
In the last eight months a group of young men, all worshippers at the same mosque, have left their homes to become suicide bombers in Iraq.
After DNA tests on their bodies, and Moroccan authorities asking families to provide samples, US intelligence traced at least nine of those responsible for recent suicide missions in and around Baghdad to Tetouan and its surrounding area in the foothills of the Rif Mountains.
Local reports suggest that another 21 individuals have left the area to seek martyrdom, following in the footsteps of five other Tetouanis who blew themselves up in a Madrid suburb when cornered by police, who believed they played a part in the train bombings in the Spanish capital in March 2004.
The families of the young men, all in their twenties, tell the same stories â€“ of sons, brothers, husbands who became disillusioned with the daily struggle to earn.
Early each morning Abdelmonem Amakchar El Amrani, 21, would leave the home that he shared with his wife and infant daughter to travel 30 miles to work as a porter hauling merchandise across the border between Morocco and Ceuta. On a good day he could make four or five trips, earning around Â£3 a time.
When he arrived home exhausted each evening he would talk of his dream of making the short journey across the Mediterranean to Spain, where he would build a life for himself before sending for his family.
Earlier this year he began spending more time at the mosque, grew a beard and one day disappeared.
The first the family learnt of his fate was when police informed them that on March 6 he had driven a car bomb into a funeral procession, killing six and wounding 27 in the Iraqi city of Bakuba, 35 miles northwest of Baghdad.
Like many of the other men, he lived in Jamaa Mezuak, one of the poorest districts of Tetouan, where unemployment and illiteracy are high, and many houses in the labyrinthine streets have no running water. Young men loiter on street corners in groups of four and five, selling contraband cigarettes and hashish from the nearby mountains.
“This part of Morocco is a place of misery, of poverty, unemployment and a place devoid of hope,” said Aissa Acharki, a prominent member of Justice and Spirituality, a controversial Islamic political party which promotes non-violence and understanding between different religions.
“That so many of these men are choosing to become martyrs in Iraq is shocking but we should not be surprised that they are making this choice.”
He believed that the region’s proximity to Europe creates a state of mental torture in the young. “They watch western television, they follow the Spanish football league, they look at the style of life that people have over there and they become frustrated.
“The idea of reaching paradise through martyrdom is becoming increasingly attractive. This is promoted by imams in some of the mosques and prepares them for the call to jihad.”
Acharki, like others in the town, believed that the men were persuaded to join the insurgents through extremist literature on the internet and DVDs distributed secretly across town by agents of extremist groups in Algeria.
The fact that all nine suspected of being suicide bombers worshipped in the Daawawa Tabligh mosque has caused the imam to become very protective of his activities and aggressive to those asking questions.
When approached by a local reporter on behalf of The Daily Telegraph, Imam Abdel Ihah, who is in his mid-twenties, said: “I know who you are and where you live. Be careful about asking questions about these boys. They are Muslims and are free to follow their chosen path.”
A local worshipper said that before they left for Iraq the bombers would meet in groups, often with the imam present, to discuss Islamic teachings.
“Sometimes strangers from Arab countries would visit and join them. They would sit on the terrace of the mosque and talk. This still happens,” he whispered nervously. “But it is other young men now.”