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The Death of Moroccan Exceptionalism: A Brief History of Moroccan Salafi Jihadism and Current Jihadist Trends
By Jeffrey D. Palmer
As the conflicts in Syria and Iraq continue to attract foreign fighters, nations around the globe are formulating policies designed to mitigate the threat of radicalized and battle-hardened returnees from conducting terrorist attacks in their countries of origin. In the case of the Kingdom of Morocco, a real threat has emerged from the unprecedented mobilization of Moroccan jihadists to the region. The basis of this threat is illustrated by a parallel case of the returning Moroccan contingent trained in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule of the late 1990s. Here, hundreds of Moroccans received radical indoctrination and training in heavy weapons and explosives throughout various Salafi jihadi training camps. The knowledge and experience gained in these camps were subsequently employed in Morocco’s first-ever domestic terrorist attacks – a series of suicide bombings in the kingdom’s economic capital of Casablanca. In Syria and Iraq, over one thousand Moroccan nationals and hundreds of Europeans of Moroccan origin have now joined extremist organizations. Many members of these organizations have explicitly stated their intentions to perpetrate violent attacks in Morocco upon their return. Morocco and its monarchy, once the exception to Salafi jihadist domestic terrorism, has now become the direct target of such attacks.
The Vanguard of Moroccan Salafi Jihadism:
The events on May 16, 2003 marked the end of “Moroccan Exceptionalism” – the notion that Morocco’s Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence had made the kingdom impervious to Salafi jihadist terror attacks. On that day, twelve suicide bombers detonated their explosive devices and ripped through the streets of Casablanca, killing themselves and 33 civilians. Under a subsequent anti-terrorism law, some 5,000 individuals would be arrested in a matter of months as the Moroccan government scrambled to bring any person associated with the attacks to justice.1 Operating under a broad definition of terrorism, many of the individuals caught up in the dragnet were swiftly convicted for crimes ostensibly related to the incident. Although the Moroccan authorities may have hoped to retain national prestige by attributing the attacks to foreign actors, the evidence pointed to an organization called the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group as having a key role. The vanguard of Moroccan Salafi jihadism had arrived.
Salafi Jihadist Terrorism in Morocco:
The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (MICG), a Salafi jihadist organization founded in Afghanistan, was implicated as having a key organizational role in the 2003 Casablanca bombings. A year later several leading members of the MICG were convicted for their involvement in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. In light of these incidents, Moroccan security forces, in collaboration with European counterparts, worked to dismantle the MICG and liquidate the organization’s leadership with an aggressive counterterrorism campaign.2 However, in March and April of 2007, another string of attacks involving cells linked to MICG members would occur throughout Casablanca. In contrast to the 2003 bombings, these attacks were remarkably unsuccessful and claimed only one life besides those of the bombers.3 Although the lack of organization provided some insights with regards to the organization’s apparently declining capabilities, the 2007 attacks demonstrated to the Moroccan government that the threat of domestic Salafi jihadism remained a preeminent issue of national security.
Four years later, another incident would materialize in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. On April 28, 2011, an explosive device was remotely detonated in the Argana Café, a restaurant frequented by tourists in Marrakech’s thriving Jemaa al-Fna markets. The blast claimed 17 lives and was attributed to an independent Moroccan jihadist cell.4 As Jack Kalpakian aptly wrote of Moroccan Salafi jihadist intentions, “The aim of these attacks was to wage war against both the Moroccan state and the society it represents because it views both as pagan.”5 In order to better understand how this Salafi jihadist ideology gave rise in Morocco, it is necessary to look back to the 1970s, during the reign of King Hassan II.
From Moroccan Wahhabism to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group:
In the mid-1970s, Morocco’s King Hassan II attempted to gain political leverage over the rising Islamist and leftist parties by establishing bilateral relations with the Saudi Kingdom. In return for financial support to be used for the conflict in the Western Sahara, the Moroccan king allowed the Saudis to import their Wahhabi version of Islam into the country. With virtues of political conservatism and obedience to rulers, the Wahhabist school of thought seemed to align with the greater Moroccan political agenda.6 However, King Hassan II’s strategic alignment with the Saudi kingdom would have grave consequences, as it would greatly contribute to the rise of the Salafi jihadist phenomenon in Morocco.
By 1991, as the United States was staging troops in Saudi Arabia for the conflict in the Gulf War, radicalization among Moroccan Wahhabist leaders began to emerge. During this time, Moroccan clerics were being attracted to the Saudi Islamic tradition in part because of the vast economic resources being provided by the oil-rich Riyadh.7 These conditions gave rise to notable Moroccan Wahhabi clerics such as Mohamed Fizazi, who had by this time declared open support for Osama bin Laden’s vision.8 Fizazi promoted a strict Islamic ideology with an emphasis on jihad. His group would come to be branded by the Moroccan government as “Salafia Jihadia.”
In September 1996, the Taliban had consolidated political power and installed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. As a result, some Moroccan Salafists began to migrate to Afghanistan in order to take part in the manifestation of the Salafist ideology. The small Moroccan foreign fighter contingent in Afghanistan had originally joined the ranks of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). By this time, the Libyans had already established installations designed to facilitate and train incoming foreign fighters from North Africa.
As the Moroccan foreign fighter contingent in Afghanistan grew larger, the MICG would be formed. At a meeting in London in early 2000, al-Qaeda’s Abu Qatada al-Filistini would give his blessings to the leaders of the incipient organization, Mohammed Guerbouzi and Noureddine Nafia, on the formation of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. In this meeting, Abu Qatada emphasized the importance of strong organizational infrastructure and strategic vision. Abu Qatada additionally informed Guerbouzi and Nafia that attacks against the Kingdom of Morocco would be permissible.9 A subsequent mutual agreement between the leadership of both organizations, apparently made in good faith, allowed Moroccans belonging to the LIFG to join the MICG.10
According to testimony provided by Noureddine Nafia, a meeting with Ayman al-Zawahiri in July 2000 would yield even greater collaboration between the MICG and al-Qaeda. After the meeting, and with consent from the Taliban, al-Qaeda trainers assisted the MICG in establishing a reception center in Jalalabad and a training camp called Tarek ben Ziyad.11 At Tarek ben Ziyad, members of the MICG underwent further religious indoctrination; learned how to falsify identification documents; and received training on coordinated and remotely detonated explosive devices. MICG members also continued to receive training in weapons and explosives at al-Qaeda and LIFG training camps.12
In August 2001, leaders of the MICG would meet Osama bin Laden for the first time in Kandahar. Here, bin Laden urged the leaders to establish a jihadist base within Morocco. Shortly after their meeting, Osama bin Laden granted permission for the MICG to access all al-Qaeda affiliated camps in Afghanistan.13 However, upon the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, most MICG members fled the country. As a result, many Salafi jihadists brought their new skills back to their countries of origin.
Saad al-Houssaini, “The Chemist,” was one such member. Having traveled to Afghanistan in early 1997, al-Houssaini had trained in al-Qaeda camps and had made contact with al-Qaeda leadership, including Ayman al-Zawahiri Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Houssaini is one of few figures believed to have helped form the core of the MICG during his four years in Afghanistan. Due to his formal academic background in chemistry, al-Houssaini took on the role as operational commander of the group. Arrested on March 11, 2007, just hours before the first of four suicide bombs in Casablanca, al-Houssaini was believed to have provided operational instructions in the execution of multiple terror plots.14
The Moroccan government cracked down hard on suspected MICG members following the 2003 Casablanca bombings under a new anti-terrorism law enacted just two weeks after the incident. In fact, the Moroccan government portrayed the MICG as the responsible party for the first series bombings that shook the kingdom.15 The government also posited blame on Fizazi’s “Salafia Jihadia” ideology. Two years prior, Fizazi’s spiritual guidance at the al-Quds Mosque in Hamburg, Germany had inspired the jihadists responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. After the 2003 Casablanca attacks, Fizazi would be arrested and sentenced to thirty years in prison for “incitement to commit murder and conspiracy to commit terrorist acts.”16
The rise of radical Wahhabist teachings in Morocco in combination with Moroccan jihadists returning from Afghanistan and elsewhere in the mid-1990s had resulted in an unprecedented international threat. The sophisticated assembly of explosive devices and precise orchestration displayed in the March 2004 Madrid train bombings further demonstrated the extent of the Moroccan jihadist threat. In July 2004, Moroccan authorities confessed that they did not have reliable information concerning the whereabouts of most of the 600 Moroccan jihadists believed to have received training in Afghanistan, Bosnia, or Chechnya.17
As the revolutions that swept across the Middle East and North African region in 2011 continue to evolve, an analogous threat has emerged. As recently reported by Morocco’s Interior Minister, more than one thousand Moroccan citizens have traveled to Syria in order to wage jihad against the Bashar al-Assad regime.18 A new growing trend in Moroccan jihadists traveling to Iraq to join the ever-expanding Islamic State, a Salafi jihadist organization known for their exceptionally brutal tactics, is clearly of great concern to the kingdom. The fear is that returnees from these conflicts will return with new technical skills commonly used in executing terrorist attacks in order to commit jihad against Morocco – something with which the kingdom is all too familiar.
The Moroccan Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria:
Some 12,000 foreigners from at least 81 countries have mobilized to Syria since the civil war began in 2011 – and that number appears to be growing. Foreign fighters in Syria have in three years surpassed the number of jihadists mobilized for the entirety of the Taliban’s 10-year struggle against the Soviets and subsequent rule until 2001.19 While a multitude of factors play into the reasons for such a great degree of foreign fighter mobilization, the vast majority of volunteers consider themselves to be waging jihad in order to protect an oppressed Muslim population. Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite regime rules over a Syrian majority Sunni population and is considered by many Sunni Muslims to be takfiri, or apostate. Additionally, the total absence of Western armies involved in Syria likely adds to the jihadist appeal of entering the conflict.
Moroccans are no exception to the trend. During a July 2014 interview, Morocco’s Interior Minister Mohamed Hassad stated that 1,122 Moroccan nationals are currently affiliated with terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, the minister estimated that up to 2,000 European nationals of Moroccan origin have also traveled to the region.20 In November 2013, one official estimate from Moroccan counterterrorism chiefs of up to 900 Moroccan nationals in Syria and Iraq, which seemed rather high for the time.21 While reliable information is difficult to acquire, foreign fighter mobilization is clearly a great cause of concern. Although some Moroccans are said to be joining the fight with the mainstream Free Syrian Army, many other fighters are joining extremist groups, such as the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the increasingly influential Islamic State.22 Frequent reports on domestic cells being disrupted further indicate that active recruitment in some of Morocco’s most densely populated cities continues to be a serious issue.
Morocco’s contribution to the conflict in Syria compared to other countries in the region shows that the crisis spans across North Africa. Morocco has a population of 32.5 million and reports 1,122 foreign fighters – or 3.5 fighters for every 100,000 Moroccans. Algeria, with a population of nearly 38.5 million, has reported some 800 individuals who have traveled to Iraq and Syria – or 2.7 fighters for every 100,000 Algerians.23 Tunisia, meanwhile, reports an alarming 2,400 in Iraq and Syria of a population of just 10.78 million – or 22 fighters for every 100,000 Tunisians.24 While the Libyan contingent in Syria and Iraq is certainly significant, no reliable data on Libyan jihadists is available at present. The Tunisian contingent is therefore more than double that of Morocco’s and triple that of Algeria’s. In terms relative to their respective populations, the ratio of Tunisians constitutes well over ten times that of Algerians and nearly seven times that of Moroccans.25
Early reports revealed that many Moroccan jihadists in Syria and Iraq had aligned with Harakat Sham al-Islam (HSI). Founded in August 2013 by former Guantanamo Bay prison detainee Brahim Benchekroun, HSI was the first Moroccan jihadist organization known to be operating in Syria. The organization reportedly fought alongside extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and seemed to be aligning with the ideology of al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.26 However, a July 2014 merger between HSI and three other jihadist organizations in Syria may be an indication of two things: 1) that these groups may have consolidated out of necessity in order to compensate for defections to the Islamic State and; 2) that these organizations are strategically distancing themselves from Zawahiri and al-Qaeda and its affiliates in order to maintain operational independence.
The largest group attracting incoming Moroccan jihadists is the Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.27 The two main organizations in the region, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, appear to be in a power struggle for the hearts and minds of jihadists in Iraq and Syria. At this point, the Islamic State continues to attract “far more” foreign fighters from North Africa than any other organization.28 Additionally, Zawahiri’s continued silence since the declaration of the Islamic State “Caliphate” is of increasing concern to al-Qaeda affiliates. In fact, in August 2014, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, a top leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, wrote an open letter in which he fervently criticized Zawahiri for his silence on the issue.29 Ultimately, though, as more Moroccans gain exposure to the conflict and other extremist organizations, there will be an increased tendency for returnees to wage jihad against the kingdom.
The factionalization of Syria’s many opposition forces, spanning from moderate to extremist groups, contributes to escalating violence and precludes the opportunity of working together against Assad’s regime. As a result, 128 Moroccan fighters have reportedly already returned from the conflict in Syria – many disillusioned by the brutal tactics committed upon and by fellow Muslims.30 The Moroccan government arrests most Syria returnees under the strict anti-terrorism law established after the 2003 Casablanca attacks, fearing similar intentions of inciting violence against the kingdom. Indeed, as recent as August 2014, Moroccan anti-terror services in collaboration with Spanish police disrupted a cell linked to the Islamic State that was planning to conduct attacks on Moroccan soil.31
Just as the training camps in Afghanistan gave rise to the jihadists that played a role in the bombings against Morocco in the 2000s, fears that some of Syria’s returnees will follow suit is not without warrant. The report that some twenty Moroccan fighters have conducted suicide attacks within Syria is an indication of increased radicalization.32 Furthermore, testimony provided by a Moroccan jihadist stated that, “the purpose of [HSI]…is to use Syria as a training ground to return to the Maghreb at some point and wage jihad against the Moroccan regime.”33 Naturally, the Moroccan government will do all it can to avert another terrorist attack. Morocco’s domestic counterterrorism strategy has been highly effective and is lauded as an exemplar model for the region, but the large – and growing – Moroccan foreign fighter contingent in Iraq and Syria raises serious questions for the future.
Jeffrey D. Palmer is a master’s student at Georgetown University in International Relations and National Security Studies. Previously, he lived in Morocco as part of Peace Corp and knows Berber and Arabic.
Foreign Service. July 7, 2007. Accessed July 8, 2014. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/07/06/AR2007070602304.html>
Accessed July 2, 2014. <https://www.launedalgerie.com/component/content/article/54-flashinfos/3172-500-algeriens-combattent-en-irak-et-300-en-syrie500-algeriens-combattent-en-irak-et-300-en-syrie>
Accessed June 30, 2014.<https://www.mosaiquefm.net/fr/index/a/ActuDetail/Element/ 38856/ben-jeddou-2400 combattants-tunisiens-en-syrie>