Morocco’s war on terror and the threat of ISIS

Morocco’s war on terror and the threat of ISIS

With much of the world´s attention focused on Western Europe and the threat of ISIS, North African states such as Morocco are also facing a difficult internal battle against groups who declare their loyalty to the Islamic State.

Over the past three years, authorities in Morocco have been working vigorously to stamp out the internal threat posed by ISIS and its affiliates. The country is no stranger to terror.

In March 2003, dozens of people were killed in a series of bomb attacks in Casablanca and in 2011, fifteen people, including many foreigners, were killed at a popular Marrakesh cafe. Since the Islamic State emerged in Syria and Iraq, Moroccan intelligence services have been monitoring local fighters who have been drawn to the conflict.

At least 220 who have returned have been arrested, while 286 have been killed in the fighting. The fear of what returnees could unleash is now a daily concern for the police and intelligence services. For example, the 2003 attacks in Casablanca were arranged by two individuals who had fought in Afghanistan.

In early March, the country´s Interior Ministry announced that a jihadist cell of ten members, which was dismantled the previous month was planning to carry out a ´biological´ attacks in the Kingdom.

Chillingly, it noted that, “Some of the seized substances (from the suspects) are classified by international organisations which specialize in health issues as falling within the category of biological weapons dangerous for their capacity to paralyze and destroy the nervous system and cause death.”

Closer to home, insecurity in neighbouring Libya has also helped attract dozens of Moroccan jihadists. In 2015, there were estimated to be at least 300 fighting for Islamic State in Libya. On 24 March, Moroccan authorities announced that a group of jihadists linked to Islamic State in Libya had been arrested in three cities. The group was on the verge of launching an attack.

Last year in September, an IS cell was broken up, which was keeping a safe house in the southern city of Essaouira. The group known as the Caliphate Soldiers in Morocco, modelled itself on an existing group in Algeria previously linked to al-Qaeda, but now loyal to Islamic State.

The group was waiting to be trained on the manufacture of explosives. The country´s new judicial body, or Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, which was established as part of amended anti-terror legislation in January 2015, has been instrumental in uncovering jihadist groups. In the first six months of its creation, it had thwarted the activities of at least 15 terror cells.

Internal challenges

Morocco, as with many countries in a region, has an uneven demographic landscape. At least 70% of the population is under the age of 30, coupled with high youth unemployment, which stands at 21.4%.

In other words, there is plenty of fertile ground for terror recruiters to coax disillusioned young men, and women, into pursuing jihadist activities. Writer Jason Burke notes that before the bomb attacks in March 2003, the individuals recruited were all young men, with origins in the Casablanca slum of Sidi Moumin.

Austere schools of Islamic thought such as Salafism have over the years found receptive audiences in Algeria and Morocco. Many young Moroccan radicals were inspired by Sheikh Mohamed Fizazi, who was sentenced for thirty years on charges connecting him to the 2003 terror attack. He was later pardoned by the King in 2011.  

Going forward

It was with the help of Moroccan intelligence that French police were able to track the strategist of the November attacks in Paris, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. His brother Yassine was also detained in October on his possible links to terror.

With such examples of cooperation, Morocco can expect continued support from both Europe and the United States. Governments across the MENA region have never played such a critical role in the battle against Islamic State.

With a population of 33 million, King Mohamed VI, who has been on the throne for 17 years, intends to take all measures to prevent Morocco from turning into jihadist incubator. One recent initiative has been the creation in the capital Rabat of a training centre for imams.

The school hopes to promote a moderate and inclusive interpretation of Islam. While such programmes are welcomed, for the interim period, it will be the use of effective intelligence and security methods that will help reduce the appeal of Morocco as a base for IS operations.

About Author

Emily Boulter

Emily Boulter is a Rotterdam-based writer, who is also the creator of the current affairs blog "From Brussels to Beirut". Previously, she worked as an assistant for the vice-chair of the foreign affairs committee in the European Parliament.