North Africa has always straddled two worlds. Its populations are overwhelmingly Arab and Muslim, but its proximity to Europe and position as a trading route have always given it a more Western sensibility. Unlike Syria and Egypt, the countries of North Africa were never the front-line states in the Arab-Israeli wars, and other than Yasser Arafat’s brief hiatus in Tunis, were never identified particularly with Palestinian radicalism. The economies of North Africa are far more diversified than those of the Persian Gulf, and the madrassa culture that has taken root in Sunni countries like Pakistan has found much less support in North Africa.
No wonder then that Islamic extremism never took hold.
Morocco, in particular, has an excellent relationship with the United States and has even warmed relations with Israel. And when Libya, a pariah state for so many years under Moammar Gadhafi, finally decided to abandon its nuclear program and cast its lot with the West, the Islamists may well have thought: “There goes the neighborhood.”
But now the Islamists are seeking their revenge. In some ways, this is no surprise. I have been to the region six times – most recently last weekend, where I saw the sites of the suicide bombings in Casablanca – and fear it may well be the next front in the war on terror…