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Islamist Extremism’s Rising Challenge to Morocco

6th August 2008


While individual Moroccans have been involved with violent Islamist groups for nearly three decades in places as far afield as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Indonesia, and Iraq, only recently has the jihadist campaign been brought home. In some respects, the militancy is not surprising. As a still-relevant 2005 analysis by Dr. Anouar Boukhars, director of Wilberforce University's Center for Defense and Security Policy, noted, the growth of radical Islam in Morocco is at least partly attributable to the government's encouragement of Wahhabism during the 1980s because of its perceived political quietism and deference to rulers, a move that inadvertently imported what proved to be the ideological and motivational sources for the string of attacks which began with the simultaneous suicide bombings in Casablanca on May 16, 2003. Since that first-ever experience with suicide terrorism – which targeted a hotel, a restaurant, a Jewish community center and cemetery, and a former Spanish cultural center that had been transformed into club for Morocco's Westernized middle class and which left forty-five people dead and more than one hundred wounded – the peace has been shattered by other suicide attacks, including more recently:


  • a March 11, 2007 suicide bombing inside an internet café in Sidi Moumen, one of Casablanca's largest slums, which killed the bomber and injured four others;


  • a multiple-bomb plot that was uncovered by police in Casablanca on April 10, 2007, resulting in three of the would-be bombers blowing themselves up and a fourth being shot and killed by police (one officer was killed by the explosions);


  • coordinated April 14, 2007, attacks on the U.S. consulate and the American cultural center in Casablanca which left both bombers dead and one passerby injured;


  • and a botched August 13, 2007 bombing aimed at a tourist bus 130 kilometers east of Rabat in Meknes, the onetime imperial capital of Alaouite Dynasty co-founder Moulay Ismail, an incident which fortunately only resulted in the would-be "martyr" having his arm blown off.

More worrisome for counterterrorism officials, both in Morocco and elsewhere, is the significant risk that the country's terrorists are linking up with Islamist extremists in other countries as well as the increasing drug trade – primarily locally produced hashish and South American cocaine – which transits to Europe through Morocco and other North African countries. The concern among both counterterrorism and counternarcotics officials is not only that extremists may finance their activities through the drug trade, but that the well-established routes used by the smugglers may also be exploited by terrorist groups to infiltrate personnel to cells hidden among the large Moroccan communities in Europe and, once there, easily extend their reach to the United States and other, more distant countries.

While the shadowy Moroccan Islamic Combat Group (GICM), which was designated a foreign terrorist organization by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in April 2004, has not formally joined al-Qaeda, that passage seems a mere formality given announcement last November by Ayman al-Zawahiri that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group had followed the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in pledging its allegiance to the terrorist organization, becoming "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM; see my May 8 column for the most recent update on this North African "franchise" group). Certainly there has been some overlap between the various groups and individuals and considerable evidence of Moroccans involved in al-Qaeda activities. GICM was also implicated in the Madrid train blasts of March 11, 2004. Furthermore it should also be recalled that yet another Moroccan man, Mounir al-Motassadeq, was convicted by German courts as an accomplice to the 9/11 hijackers and, in January 2007, sentenced to the maximum term of fifteen years in prison.

Just this May, Moroccan and Belgian police foiled a plot by a Brussels-based Belgian citizen of Moroccan origin, Abdellatif Benali, and ten others to bomb the European Parliament, the Sheraton Brussels, and the headquarters of Belgium's federal police, as well as tourist targets in Morocco. The conspirators had originally come under surveillance because of their fundraising for AQIM; Benali was arrested in the Moroccan town of Nador, presumably en route back to Europe from an AQIM training camp in the Sahel.

To their credit, Moroccan authorities have been vigilant in the face of the rising threat. Three months before the break-up of the plot led by Benali, Morocco's domestic intelligence agency broke up a cell that it said was planning attacks on government ministers, military officials, and members of the Morocco's small, but historic, Jewish community, which has traditionally been protected by royal family. Police arrested thirty-five people, including alleged ringleader Abdelkadir Belliraj, another dual national of Belgium and Morocco, and seized a formidable arsenal that included automatic arms and explosives. According to Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa, those arrested had been in contact with AQIM and had previously undergone training in Lebanon by Hizballah. In fact, among those arrested was Abdel Hafiz al-Saryati, a correspondent for Hizballah's Al-Manar satellite television network. Two days after the February 18 arrests, the Moroccan government banned al-Badil al-Hadari ("civilized alternative"), a small Islamist party whose members were said to be linked to the terrorist cell. Interestingly, authorities disclosed that Belliraj and his accomplices raised millions of dollars for their operations through various criminal activities including robbery, fencing, and extortion, funds which they subsequently laundered in tourism, real estate, and commercial projects that not only served as fronts for their operations, but also garnered them local support (see my May 29 report on the nexus between terrorism and organized crime in Africa).

Last month, Moroccan officials dismantled yet a third terrorist group, arresting thirty-five people in a sweep through Tangiers, Larache, Oujda, Tetouan, Rabat, Khouribga, Fes, and other towns. The members of the group were alleged to be part of a network that not only recruited and sent thirty suicide bombers to Iraq as well as three to join AQIM, but organized returning fighters for future attacks against the government and foreign interests in Morocco. According to analysts, the shut-down cells were part of as-Salafiya al-Jihadiya ("Salafist Jihad") movement which, inspired by the ideologies of Sayyid Qutb and "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman, aspires to the overthrow of "jahili" ("unenlightened," viz., pre-Islamic pagan) regimes and the restoration of a caliphate. As-Salafiya al-Jihadiya was founded in the early 1990s by Moroccans returning from Afghanistan. The theoreticians which have emerged in this movement – including Abdelkarim Chadili, Mohammed Fizazi, Omar Haddouchi, Abdelwahhab Rafiqi, and Hassan al-Kattani – have refined a radical ideology that effectively excommunicates the rest of Moroccan society as apostate for obeying a king when God is the only legitimate lawmaker.

Another offshoot of as-Salafiya al-Jihadiya, as-Sira al Mustaqim ("The Right Path"), which was also influenced by Abu Qutada, the militant preacher the British government has been trying unsuccessfully to deport, was behind the May 2003 suicide bombings. Further complicating the taxonomy of Islamist extremism in Morocco is the emergence last year of yet another group, the "Followers of Islam in Muslim Sahara, the Land of the Veiled Men" (Ansar al-Islam fissahra al muslima, bilad al mulathamin), which proclaimed its allegiance to al-Qaeda through the North African franchise, AQIM. A video released by the group pledged to fight "the hireling, subservient governments in the Islamic Maghreb by targeting their armies, their gendarmeries and police," singling out the Moroccan monarchy for special mention.

In addition to measures directly targeting terrorists, the Moroccan government has also undertaken steps to combat extremist tendencies at their roots, recognizing that frustration at socio-economic hardship often prepares the ground for radical to sow their poisonous seeds. Launched in 2004, the Villes sans Bidonvilles ("Cities without slums") program is part of a far-reaching $1.2 billion National Initiative for Human Development (INDH), aimed overall at fighting social marginalization and reducing economic disparity. As part of the program, the government has built subsidized apartment buildings as alternatives to shanties like those in Sidi Moumen, out of which a disproportionate number of Morocco's suicide bombers have hailed. As another component of the INDH, the Ministry of Social Development has inaugurated community centers which, in addition to serving as a point of contact for citizens with the government, organize various social services, including adult literacy classes, microfinance, and occasional cultural programs.

In an effort to prevent the spread of radical ideologies, the Ministry of Habous ("religious endowments") and Islamic Affairs has undertaken to monitor the theological content of instruction given in the country's 30,000 mosques. In order to even attempt to carry out this herculean task, the government strictly regulates the opening and closing times of these institutions. Two years ago, the king, acting in his capacity as Amir al-Mu'minin ("Commander of the Faithful"), a title his family has claimed on the basis of its descent from Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, and the fourth caliph, Ali, established a Council of Religious Scholars to render official religious rulings which presumably compete with radical fatwas. On a more positive note, last year the ministry has created Mohammed VI Holy Quran Radio and the Assadissa satellite television network to propagate moderate Islamic doctrine. And, in a startlingly modernizing twist, last week Habous and Islamic Affairs Minister Ahmed Taoufiq presided over the graduation of a class of some fifty morchidates, or female religious guides. Next month, on the occasion of the holy month of Ramadan, the Moroccan government will be dispatching 167 imams and nine of the new morchidates to diaspora communities in Europe and North America. As one of the preachers told Magharebia, a news website sponsored by the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), their presence "will enable overseas Moroccans to spend Ramadan in a controlled religious atmosphere completely free from misguided or extremist influences."

More controversially, the Moroccan government is also tolerating the presence of an Islamist political group, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), in the country's nascent democratic politics. In the September 2007 parliamentary elections, the PJD won 47 of the 325 seats up for grabs in the Chamber of Representatives, coming in second only to the Istiqal ("Independence") Party, which won 52 seats. While some analysts have noted that the PJD's popularity is due to its charitable activities, others have taken a more sceptical view. Writing last week in The Times of London, Amir Taheri, director of the Middle East: Islamic Law and Peace Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (an organization on whose Board of Advisors I serve), argued that the PJD was but the "political façade" of a more sinister Moroccan Islamism.

While the Moroccan government has done a great deal on its own, the transnational linkages which Islamist terrorists have forged underscore the need for international cooperation with and support for Rabat. As Haim Malka and Jon B. Alterman wrote last year in a Center for Strategic and International Studies report on Arab Reform and Foreign Aid: Lessons from Morocco, the kingdom is "an important test case of Arab efforts to promote nonviolent reform as a barrier to extremism as well as the outside world's attempts to aid Arab efforts and improve their outcomes."

The United States has certainly done its part. Since its inception in 2005, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Program, supported by the Department of Defense's Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans-Sahara, has included Morocco as a full partner in its security capacity-building activities (see my report last year on the program). Unfortunately, Morocco's relations with the African Union's nascent security institutions, including the Algiers-based Africa Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism, is virtual non-existent since the kingdom withdrew from the AU's predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, in 1984 over the support that some members gave to the Polisario Front's self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in Western Sahara.

In 2004, the United States and Morocco signed the a free trade agreement which, since its coming into force at the beginning of 2006, has resulted in an annual trade of about $1.5 billion, including a trade surplus of approximately $350 million in America's favor. In its first year alone, American exports to Morocco were up 65 percent, while Moroccan exports to the United States were up 20 percent. Thus Senator John McCain is right on when, in an essay last for Foreign Affairs subtitled "Securing America's Future," he cited Morocco as an example of his pledge, in addition to defeating terrorists who already threaten the interests of the United States, to resist "the well-financed campaign of extremism that is tearing Muslim societies apart" by nurturing "a culture of hope and economic opportunity by establishing a free-trade area from Morocco to Afghanistan, open to all who do not sponsor terrorism."

Morocco has also been the biggest beneficiary so far of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), which provides assistance to countries on the basis of their commitment to policies that promote political and economic freedom, investments in education and health, control of corruption, and respect for civil liberties and the rule of law by performing well on seventeen different policy indicators (the five-year, $697.5 million grant to Morocco, made in August 2007, will in time be narrowly superseded by $698.1 million compact with Tanzania signed by President Bush during his visit to the East African country earlier this year). The MCA funds are being spent developing the country's agriculture, fisheries, artisanal production, and tourism sectors, as well as promoting small businesses.

For those that have not benefited from the growing economy and who, unfortunately, have run afoul of the law, rather than passively allowing them to be seduced by the likes of AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdal who, in a New York Times interview last month, clearly saw them as a natural pool of recruits, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has worked with Moroccan authorities and nongovernmental organizations in a number of programs aimed at preventing prisons from becoming schools of radicalization.

Of course, more can be done. The budget request for security assistance to Morocco for the 2009 fiscal year is a modest $6 million: $3.665 million for foreign military sales financing (FMF), $1.725 million for international military education and training (IMET), and a mere $625,000 for nonproliferation, antiterrorism, demining, and related programs (NADR). The money for FMF, which would be used for both counterterrorism and counternarcotics, is less than one-third and that NADR is less than half what those line items were just one year ago thanks to the efforts of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), a longtime support of the Sahrawi cause who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. In any event, the State Department-administered funds complement the considerably larger amounts which Rabat is investing in its own defense, including plans for the acquisition of new infrared tracking systems for its aircraft from Northrop Grumman, twenty-four F-16 C/D fighters from Lockheed Martin, and twenty-four Hawker Beecher T-6B trainers – a deal that is estimated to worth more than $2.6 billion. In addition, just last month the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified Congress of the possible sale of an addition $155 million in equipment to support the aircraft, a move which would "contribute to the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by enhancing Morocco's capacity to support U.S. efforts in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), as well as supporting Morocco's legitimate need for its own self-defense." The Pentagon agency, which oversees the transfer of defense matériel, noted that "delivery of this weapon system will greatly enhance Morocco's interoperability with the U.S. and other NATO nations, making it a more valuable partner in an increasingly important area of the world." Since this is certainly the case, it should be expected that as AFRICOM works toward "Unified Command Status" (UCS) by September 30, 2008, the new command will also pay considerable attention to fostering even closer ties with its Moroccan counterparts.

While the Moroccan government and its international partners have responded relatively well overall to the challenge which Islamist extremists have posed, there is no denying that the threat continues mount as North African fighters forced out of Iraq by the success of the surge return home while the al-Qaeda's "franchise operations" in Africa ratchet up the level and scope of their activities. Moreover, the geographical proximity of the Sharifian Kingdom to both Europe, where there are large Maghrebi diaspora communities, and West Africa, where Morocco has not inconsiderable political, economic, and cultural contact, means that the risk cannot be easily contained. In short, Morocco's fight against jihadist ideology and violence will likely be an ongoing struggle in which the strategic stakes will be increasingly global.