The three teenage girls sniffing glue in the back of the bus must have thought the fumes had melted their brains. Here they were in the North African kingdom of Morocco, riding into a slum in the town of Salé. Yet as they peered through the window of the bus, they could see a giant poster on the side of a house, featuring a leering Saddam Hussein holding a rifle. Stranger sights lay ahead: as the bus rounded a corner, the street was full of Iraqis and American soldiers in Humvees.
"They're filming a movie. We're supposed to be Baghdad," one passenger explained, and the girls returned to their glue. Sure enough, director Ridley Scott was shooting a political thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, and Morocco — with its deserts, craggy peaks and labyrinthine bazaars — was his tame cinematic stand-in for Iraq.
Hollywood isn't alone in wanting to turn Morocco into Iraq. Al-Qaeda, and a small but virulent band of loosely associated jihadis, would also love to make their mark in this nation of 34 million. They see corruption, spreading slums and 15% unemployment as fertile ground to sow their extremism. Similar conditions in neighboring Algeria gave rise to an ongoing civil war between security forces and armed Islamists that has left 150,000 dead. Morocco is next in the jihadis' crosshairs.