Casablanca, Morocco — With a greeting that was as telling as it was macabre, Imane Laghriss dropped her satchel on the table of a trendy coffee shop here recently.
“It’s stuffed with explosives, watch out!” snapped the young woman, echoing the grim humor commonly heard among Moroccan teenagers. But Ms. Laghriss’s remark carried with it a degree of stark reality.
Four years ago, she and her twin sister, Sanae, were arrested for planning to blow themselves up inside Morocco’s parliament. They were 14 at the time. The two were sentenced to five years in jail in 2003. After serving 18 months and nearly two years in a juvenile center, they are now free.
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But while Imane claims to have forgone violence, she still holds the same radical ideology that inspired the unrealized plan. She surfs radical websites and says she wants to go to Iraq to fight US troops — “but not civilians.”
The two women represent the leading edge of what security analysts and terrorism experts say is an emerging threat facing both Western and Arab countries: younger jihadis who have been recruited over the Internet or inspired to act through militant Islamist literature or videos. What’s more, analysts say, these young radicals often don’t belong to a centralized group and may even act on their own.
“As I speak, terrorists are methodically and intentionally targeting young people and children in this country. They are radicalizing, indoctrinating, and grooming young, vulnerable people to carry out acts of terrorism,” said Jonathan Evans, the director general of the British MI5, the security service, in November.
He warned that teenagers as young as 15 and 16 have been implicated in “terrorist-related” activities as a result of a deliberate strategy pursued by radical Islamist groups.
On Wednesday, Pakistani police arrested a 15-year-old boy for allegedly trying to blow himself up at a rally for opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who was killed Thursday as she left an election rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. In September, a 15-year-old killed 30 people when he drove a truck full of explosives into an Algerian naval barracks.
And, in mid-November, the US declared that Omar Khadr, a Canadian national detained in Guanta’namo Bay, was eligible for trial by a military commission, making him potentially the first minor to be tried for war crimes. He was arrested in Afghanistan when he was 15 and accused of killing a US soldier and conspiring with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.
Analysts say this younger, more diverse, disparate, and more unpredictable crop of operatives is a prime recruiting pool for Al Qaeda’s off-shoots as the terror network becomes increasingly decentralized.
“We now face organized groups as well as individuals with no clear links to terrorist groups, some of them quite young,” said Khalid Zerouali, who heads Morocco’s effort to combat transnational crime at the Interior Ministry. “It makes it that much harder for us to identify them.”
According to Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communications at the University of Haifa in Israel and the author of “Terror on the Internet,” there are more than 5,000 websites “serving the global jihad,” many of which are forums and chat rooms.
Ned Moran, the deputy director of Total Intelligence Solutions, a security consulting firm in Virginia, says he believes the actual number of “real, serious” Al Qaeda-inspired sites numbers in the hundreds. By “serious,” he means those including four elements: propaganda, ideological debates, strategic discussions, and tactical advice.
“Bin Laden doesn’t need to send recruiters to North Africa, they just come to him virtually,” says Abdallah Rami, who is finishing a dissertation at Hassan II University in Casablanca on the role of the Internet in the “salafist” movement, as the radical brand of Islamist militancy is known.
For Imane Laghriss, the connection to the salafist movement was virtual at first, through her heroes discovered on television such as Mr. bin Laden after 9/11 and Mohammed el-Dura, a Palestinian boy killed in front of TV cameras during a skirmish between Israelis and Palestinians in 2000. Images of his death sparked controversy as they became linked to the Palestinian cause.
In many respects, she is a normal young woman who speaks about building a family and giggles at the mention of a potential husband.
After their birth to a prostitute mother and an unknown father in 1989, Imane and Sanae were handed to their grandparents, with whom they lived until age 5. They were then separated and lived with a variety of family members. They eventually found a second family in the salafist movement.
When they reunited with their mother in Rabat, the two began hanging out with local Islamists. Imane began wearing the veil and they eventually found a spiritual guide in a militant named Abdelkader Labsir. He encouraged them to follow the example of “martyrs” who have killed themselves in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
After a dozen young men detonated themselves in Casablanca in May 2003, killing 45 people, the twins concocted a plan to bomb a liquor store, which they abandoned in favor of the plot to blow themselves up inside the parliament. But after Imane wrote to a local imam informing him about their plans, he immediately alerted the police, who arrested them in August 2003.
They were indicted of terrorist conspiracy and of plotting against the royal family. At their trial, they proudly proclaimed their intentions. They went on to write a pamphlet against the king, for which they received an additional 2-1/2-year prison term that was reduced to one year in appeal.
They eventually pledged to forgo violence and asked for a pardon, which King Mohammed VI granted in April 2005. When they were release from jail, Assia el Ouadie, a veteran human rights activist, placed them in a juvenile center in the suburbs of Casablanca “because [she] feared they could again become the prey of radical circles,” she explained.
Last year, an association helping imprisoned youth found work for them at a bus factory. All went well for two months until Sanae fled the center for three weeks. They lost their jobs, but Imane eventually convinced her boss to take her back.
A couple of social workers are trying, largely on their own, to steer the twins toward a more peaceful existence. One of them, Chazira Amor, explained that the sisters had received no psychological support because Morocco has no system in place to assist young drifters and prevent them from falling prey to radical networks.
Mr. Zerouali, the interior minister senior official, stressed that the government is building some 200,000 housing units a year to eliminate the slums from which most young jihadis hail.