updated 7/11/2008 7:25:43 PM ET 2008-07-11T23:25:43

Moroccan security forces foiled a terrorist plot to attack tourists this summer, in what has become a "near-daily" struggle to root out extremist cells increasingly linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, a top security official said Friday.

Abdelhak Bassou, head of Morocco's Renseignements Generaux domestic intelligence agency, told The Associated Press in a rare interview that four separate terrorist cells have been broken up so far this year.

He said one of those groups, with 11 militants arrested in May, was preparing attacks "planned for this summer" in a plot aimed at tourist hotels in Morocco, which is a largely moderate Muslim kingdom and strong U.S. ally.

The country has seen a rise in radical Islam in recent years, and the government has jailed hundreds of suspected militants since a string of bombings killed 45 people in 2003.

Bassou said authorities had broken up "about 30 cells" over the past five years and predicted they would dismantle "another three or four" radical cells during the rest of this year. "At this point, it's become near-daily work," he said.

Extremist networks
The investigations have revealed extremist networks that extended from Europe to the al-Qaida terror operation in Iraq, he said. Most of the Moroccan cells support al-Qaida in Iraq via militant bases in neighboring Algeria, channeling cash, weapons and combatants, he said.

Three of the four alleged cells currently being prosecuted were focused on supporting insurgents in Iraq and had smuggled "some 30 to 50 (Moroccan) fighters" into that country, Bassou said.

"We have to continue to anticipate," he said, adding that the threat also comes from "loose elements" of one or two individuals who plan small attacks on their own.

Some 1,100 alleged Islamic radicals are now behind bars, either convicted of terrorism charges or awaiting trial.

Bassou said a "huge improvement" in cooperation between Arab and Western intelligence services has helped limit terrorist attacks since the 9/11 assault on the U.S., but he said another factor is that many al-Qaida loyalists are focused on the war in Iraq.

"It doesn't mean they wouldn't blow up a bus of tourists here if they have the opportunity," he said.

Relying on support cells
But the fact that al-Qaida is relying on many support cells in North Africa for fighters, money and guns is a sign that it is losing ground in Iraq, Bassou said.

"If they don't show results, I don't give them five more years of existence," he said, contending that al-Qaida needs victories in Iraq to attract new recruits in the Arab world.

Still, Bassou warned, the focus of Islamic extremists could easily shift closer to home, in Europe and North Africa, if al-Qaida in Iraq collapsed.

"It would become more dangerous, we'd have less visibility," he said.

Bassou estimated 3,000 Moroccans are "imbued with jihadist creeds," with a similar number of sympathizers.

Security crackdown
Many rights activists, Islamist politicians and even some intelligence experts say Morocco's tough security crackdown, though efficient in preventing large attacks, could radicalize some members of Morocco's legal Islamic parties.

Security services tend to repeatedly "link political Islam to violent Islam, but it's not necessarily the case," Alain Chouet, a former intelligence director at France's DGSE spy agency, said in an interview.

Defense lawyers insist that many of the purported terror suspects in Morocco have no proven links to terrorism. The attorneys have long argued that confessions are often coerced by police and that affiliation to political Islam is at times the only grounds on which defendants are arrested.

Bassou said that arrests are made on solid intelligence and that evidence includes money transfers, weapons and violent propaganda on computers or discs, as well as confessions.

"Should we wait for people to execute their attack before we arrest them?" he asked.

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