Involved in: Providing finances, Training grounds, Aid for terrorists;
Profit: Profits for leaders, Regime private benefits, Keep the citizens under fear, Damage on domestic democracy;
Spreading: Government propaganda, Fear;
Providing for Terrorists: Arms, Funds, Ground, Camps;
Hundreds of returned jihadists across the Strait of Gibraltar who intelligence officials fear pose a large, residual threat on Europe’s doorstep. Up to 1,000 jihadists are thought to have been smuggled back to Morocco and Tunisia from the battlefields of Islamic State’s now crumbling caliphate. About 300 are thought to have returned to Morocco, from where six of the 12 terrorists who carried out the attacks in Catalonia are believed to have hailed.
A former leading member of the extremist group’s external operations arm said the exodus of Isis fighters included militants who had fled disenfranchisement and lives of petty crime and felt aggrieved by their status in Europe – particularly France. With the land controlled by Isis shrinking by the week, he believes that some of them will take their grievances back to their countries of birth and use the proximity of Spain to launch attacks, or infiltrate further into the continent. At the height of Isis’s powers, up to 1,600 Moroccans are believed to have travelled to Iraq and Syria, making them, per capita, one of the largest national groups in the fast-shrinking caliphate. Roughly half that number have since been killed. Long feared as a breeding ground for extremists, north Africa is now increasingly being seen as a launchpad for attacks on Europe to avenge Isis’s loss of land and personnel.
The former Isis leader, who abandoned his role in late 2015, said he had mentored six Moroccans who had left disadvantaged backgrounds in France and sought a sense of purpose under Isis rule. He also worked with others who had travelled directly from the north African country, all of whom were radicalised before they arrived.
“The homegrown ones had a severe approach,” he said in an interview. “The ones from France were upset at their lives. One told me he used to sell drugs, another was a thief. “They were looking for something. And they deeply believed that they were not at home in France.”
A sense of class struggle in societies that they perceived as unwelcoming has been a frequent theme among men and boys who travel from north Africa to join Isis. Tunisian fighters are thought to have had the highest per capita representation among the extremist group’s foreign fighter ranks – up to 1,800 men and boys. Large numbers were deployed as suicide bombers in the Kobani offensive of late 2014 and the failed attempt to hold on to Mosul this summer.
The former Isis leader said that the jihadists “complained of discrimination, that they were not being treated fairly and never would be. One of them became a very good friend. When I left, he stayed. He was swept deeper into Isis. As the perceived utopia of the caliphate declared by Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in mid-2014 gave way to the reality of savage, relentless war and loss, Moroccan members of Isis started contacting their families, looking for ways to return.
Several hundred are thought to have made it back across the Turkish border. Although most of them found a route home, up to 30 are understood to have been detained by Turkish authorities. Some of the Moroccans fought in Iraq but the majority were sent to Syrian battlefields in the north, where thousands of men – mostly foreigners – died in a series of futile pushes, mainly against US-backed Kurdish groups.
Officials in Rabat say they have a strong understanding of citizens who left to fight and have since returned. An estimated 90 jihadists are thought to have been imprisoned after arriving from Iraq and Syria. However, several dozen more are believed to have melted back into towns and cities. Within the ranks of those who originally fled were several dozen men who had been convicted of extremism and served jail time. “These guys usually got fake Libyan passports and made it to Turkey,” the former Isis leader said.
Moroccan authorities say they have prevented several large-scale terror attacks in Casablanca and Rabat but have limited means to stop their nationals conducting operations outside the country. Morocco’s proximity to Spain and the large expatriate population there had long been seen as worrying. Terror targets every part of the world with enough population and/or resources. In Morocco we had Casablanca in 2003 and Marrakesh (the tourist hub of the country) a couple years ago, plus some bad guys are still on the move courtesy from Al Qaeda. Even last year, security levels had been raised to high alert in Casablanca as the services suspected an attack was being prepared.
Morocco is taking terrorism and fundamentalism extremely seriously, due in part to its proximity to Europe. Even if the state is Muslim, religious nutcases have a really tough time. Basically, the King is head of state and religion, and as such oversees the Maliki rite. This partly means that if you have some wahhabism in you, the police will start asking your neighbours some questions and you’ll be on their radar. Sermons in mosques are paid close attention too, it sometimes happens that an imam is revoked from his position due to a sermon that was too vehement. As a result, terrorist attacks are just harder to foil when you’re profiled by the police.
Following the attacks in Tunisia, Morocco’s vulnerability to terrorism is gaining renewed attention. In some ways we can look to Tunisia‘s jihadist cell activity as the older brother to the parallel Moroccan problem. Organized jihadist group presence in Tunisia and Morocco shows concerning similarities. The overwhelming majority of North African fighters in Syria and Iraq are mainly from Tunisia and Morocco and these fighters have shown a willingness to be used in front lines, not only as suicide bombers but also taking the lead in local brigades.
Both the governments of Tunisia and Morocco have referred to a concerning number of trained fighters returning to Morocco and both countries have a history of an organised jihadi presence and are dismantling cell structures at an alarming rate. Finally, both countries have urban areas with high unemployment especially among the youth, who are most at risk of radical behaviour, resulting in criticism against the governments and seeking ways of securing income.
All that said, Morocco and Tunisia are not identical twins when it comes to countering jihadist activity. The Moroccan government has taken a much more strict, often uncompromising, counterterrorism strategy, while Tunisia has been accused of a more lenient approach. For example, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) was allowed the freedom to expand after the Arab Spring in that country. The Moroccan monarchy took a proactive approach by moderating the Malikiti ideology by deploying imams to more than 50,000 mosques to counter extremist propaganda.
Even with their proactive approach, Morocco‘s vulnerability to acts of terrorism remains. Not only is Islamic State’s campaign of expanding its presence in North Africa active but al Qaeda aligned groups and organised cells also remain a constant threat. The threat is accentuated by a call from IS (Isis) to sleeper cells to take action in areas of where they are present rather than moving to Syria or Libya (Reported by Akhbar Al Yaoum on 20 March 2015). Other important indicators are foreign fighters returning to Libya, closer and more immediate cooperation between terror networks, and the fact that the main jihadist groups openly call on networks to engage in attacks and IS’s carving out areas of control beyond Syria and Iraq.
Firstly, the presence of Wahhabi ideology that is opposed to a more “moderate” Sufi Islam practised in most North Africa states. A moderating factor is the presence of the monarchy which is central to a predominant moderate Malikite worship tradition. Secondly, socio-economic factors, with most of the Moroccan fighters coming from the northern areas, known for high levels of unemployment. IS offers employment opportunities. Rumours of compensation for Moroccan fighters have been as high as $2,000 (£1,280, €1,840) to $3,000 (£1,919, €2,765) per month, with added monthly premiums, that include $200 when the fighter is married and $50 per child when he is a father.
Thirdly, Morocco’s close proximity to southern Europe eases collaboration between existing networks, including recruitment cells. In 2014, IS launched a campaign on social networks stating its objective to control Al-Andalus (the Arabic name for parts of Spain, Portugal and France that were occupied by Muslim conquerors from 711 to 1492). Due to its geographical proximity, Morocco is the ideal conduit in expanding its presence in these areas. The exploitation of this proximity has been demonstrated in the high level of cell activity. On 14 August 2014, a nine-member cell active in Morocco and not far from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta was dismantled.
According to Moroccan authorities, the members had interaction with similar networks in Ceuta where they received training in weapons handling, use of explosive devices and car theft. These cells are indicative of IS targeting Morocco, with cell networks the preference of choice. Though IS typically thrives in areas where the government is weak, which is not the case in Morocco, the jihadist environment will rely on IS to execute specific attacks. Even if the attacks are largely unsuccessful, the IS will spread a message of a Moroccan government not able to counter its expansion.
Fourthly, recruitment cells are targeting specific individuals for radicalisation and assisting in travelling arrangements. According to the Moroccan government, roughly 124 terror cells have been dismantled since 2002. The dismantling of cells in January 2015 (active in Meknes, El Hajeb and Al Hoceima) and in March 2015 (following counterterrorism operations in Agadir in south-west Morocco, Marrakesh, Boujad, Tangiers, Ain Harrouda and in the Western Sahara) are only two examples that indicate the continued presence of organized structures.
Finally, al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) presence in the region adds to concerns that attacks in Morocco could become an option of choice to prove that the group is undeterred by the counterterrorism operations.