By JOHN THORNE, Associated Press Writer
Morocco's most internationally famous criminal of late is not a terrorist or serial killer, but a teenager with a knack for computers.
The conviction this week of a Moroccan science student for unleashing the Zotob worm that ravaged U.S. computer networks last year could even be cast as proof that this agriculture-dependent, unemployment-plagued nation is making its mark on the digital world.
In August 2005, Zotob crashed computers across the United States, including those of The Associated Press, The New York Times and other media organizations; companies such as heavy-equipment maker Caterpillar Inc.; and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau.
Farid Essebar, then 18, was arrested soon afterward along with accomplices in Morocco and Turkey in a sweep by U.S., Moroccan and Turkish police. On Tuesday a court in Sale, near the capital, Rabat, sentenced him to two years in prison and gave his friend Achraf Bahloul one year.
While few Moroccans are willing to defend Essebar's flagrantly criminal hacking feat, many see it as evidence that their country is making the leap to computer literacy.
"There's a bit of pride that a local kid was good enough and had the tools" to create Zotob, said Karl Stanzick, managing director of MTDS, a Rabat-based high-speed Internet provider.
Moroccans' Internet use has exploded in the last two years, since national telecommunications company Maroc Telecom went private and opened telephone networks for DSL high-speed Internet. Now there are an estimated 300,000 DSL connections in Morocco, Stanzick said.
Three years ago, a sluggish dial-up connection cost $500 a month, Stanzick said, while today a broadband link roughly 30 times faster costs just $50.
High-speed Internet has yet to reach much of Morocco's countryside, where even telephones are still scarce. Morocco has just 2.35 computers for every 100 inhabitants compared to 76 in the United States, according to the International Telecommunications Union.
But in urban centers like Rabat, the Internet is fast becoming a lifestyle.
Cybercafes dot the city, from stylish air-conditioned joints offering food and drinks to cramped dens tucked into the old medina, where even the poorest can, for a few cents, bathe for hours in the eerie blue glow of the screen. Schools offering courses in programming and computer use have sprouted.
"When I first opened in 1998, 90 percent of my customers were government workers who didn't even have the Internet in their offices," recounted Khalid Limane, the owner of Globalnet, a cybercafe in the upscale neighborhood of Agdal.
Now, his customers are mostly students from nearby schools dropping in to check e-mail or use Globalnet's printer, scanner or fax machine.
"But even most of them have Internet at home, too," he added.
Behind him, teenagers and 20-somethings surfed on computers in handsome wooden booths. A few others sipped cafe au lait and fruit juice at tables in Globalnet's tiled yard.
One of them, 25-year-old telemarketing manager Mohamed Ben Moumen, comes to hang out every day. The cheap, fast Internet connection installed in his nearby office makes his job possible, he said.
"It's a means of keeping in touch with clients in France and with the call centers here," explained Ben Moumen, whose company sells French life insurance to French customers, one of a growing number of Moroccan call centers French companies are turning to for marketing.
But with access to cyberspace comes the inevitable cybercrime, said Ron O'Brien, a security analyst with antivirus manufacturer Sophos who helped combat the Zotob worm.
Since cybercrime can be lucrative, it is especially tempting in poor countries like Morocco, where online thieves targeting rich Westerners are often protected from prosecution by national borders and underdeveloped -- or nonexistent -- cybercrime laws. The international police work that quickly bagged the Zotob hackers was unusual.
Zotob infected computers so they could be accessed remotely by an unauthorized user. Hackers sometimes use such techniques to steal credit card numbers or passwords.
"If you have the will and the means to gain access to a computer," O'Brien said, "you can obtain hacking kits on the Internet that will tell you how to create a virus."
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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