RABAT, Morocco – The Moroccan blamed by the Baghdad government for a deadly car bomb attack in Iraq was a top recruiter of foreign fighters, sending militants across the border from Syria (search ) and acting as a liaison with European extremists, said a former associate.
Muhsen Khayber (search ), also known as Abdul Rahim, moved to Syria from Morocco after allegedly being involved in coordinated homicide bombings (search) in Casablanca that killed 32 people, an Iraqi government statement said Tuesday, offering an unspecified reward for his arrest.
Khayber first came in contact with Sunni Muslim extremists while working in his brother's dairy shop as a youth, said Abdellah Rami, who went to high school with Kayber and last saw him about six months before the May 16, 2003, bombings in the Moroccan city of Casablanca.
Rami said Khayber has long supported the killing of Shiites, who were targeted in the Sept. 29 attack in Iraq (search ), in which three near-simultaneous car bombs killed at least 60 people and wounded 70 in the mainly Shiite town of Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad.
"Even before the Sept. 11 (2001 attacks on the United States), Muhsen supported the killings of Shiites in Pakistan, or the killing of Christians," Rami told The Associated Press. Khayber "became very animated in the discussions, was very fanatic."
The Iraqi government statement said Khayber moved last year to Syria "where he helped organize terrorist cells" of foreign fighters who were sent to Iraq. Arab media said Khayber was arrested in Syria in May 2004 and handed over to the Moroccans.
However, Rami said he doubted Khayber was in custody because he still sends money to his two wives in the Moroccan city of Larache, where he was born in 1970.
Moroccan government spokesman Nabil Benabdallah said he had not heard of Khayber.
Syria has denied any support for Iraqi insurgents and insists that it is trying to control the porous border.
Rami said Khayber became attracted to the strict Islamic Salafiyah Jihadiya thinking during the 1991 Gulf War following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
"He was a normal person before he became involved in the salafiyah things," said Rami, a researcher of militant Islamic movements in Morocco.
After Khayber graduated from high school in the northern coastal city of Larache, he worked in his brother's dairy shop where he met men espousing extremist ideas, said Rami.
Soon afterward, Khayber, a thin man of medium height, began growing his beard and wearing clothes of Afghan men, said Rami. He took two wives and had a son.
He also came into contact with Mohammed El Fazazi, a Moroccan cleric whose sermons called for holy war against the West. El Fazazi, accused by authorities of inspiring the homicide bombers that carried out the Casablanca blasts, is serving a 30-year sentence in Morocco.
Rami said Khayber traveled to Tangier frequently to meet with El Fazazi and to listen to his mosque speeches. Apparently under El Fazazi's influence, Khayber organized the Larache branch of the cleric's group that follows an extremist Islamic doctrine.
Other Al Qaeda and Islamic extremists were attracted to El Fazazi's preachings, including Mohamed Atta, leader of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Jamal Zougam, the prime suspect in the 2004 train attacks that killed 191 people in Madrid.
Khayber was also influenced by the taped speeches of Abu Qatada, a Jordanian-Palestinian cleric once described by a Spanish judge as Usama bin Laden's "spiritual ambassador in Europe."
Following the 2001 attacks on the United States, Khayber established contacts with militant Moroccan immigrants in Spain. There's no evidence he had any part in the Madrid bombings.
In Syria, Khayber allegedly played a significant role in the Islamic extremist network, acting as a master recruiter and liaison with European militants, said Rami.
Rami said Salafiyah Jihadiyah gained force in Morocco — and elsewhere — during or shortly after the Gulf War. "Before that, El Fazazi was an ordinary Salafi guy, like everyone else in Morocco. But the Gulf War and the Algerian crisis — which happened at the same time — changed all that."