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Is There a Real Islamist Threat in Morocco?

During July and August 2006 the Moroccan security forces arrested more than 50 men and women and accused them of membership of a dangerous Islamist terrorist movement aspiring to overthrow the regime.
The dismantled group underscored the fact that Morocco was facing an extremist threat, which aimed at undermining the country’s democratic system, Interior Minister Shakib Bin Moussa told reporters soon after the arrests.
But was that really the case? Is there a real Islamic threat to the Moroccan kingdom?
The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States were followed by a series of attacks in Arab countries, whose regimes did not observe Islamic shari’a law to the letter. Among these countries were Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco.
A devastating series of attacks shook Morocco’s commercial capital Casablanca on May 16, 2003. The attacks, carried out by the Fighting Moroccan Islamic Group (FMIG), claimed the lives of 45 people (including 12 suicide bombers) and left more than 100 people wounded. The Moroccan security forces responded with a wave of arrests, interrogating over 5,000 terror suspects. The kingdom has not suffered any terror attacks since.
A New Kid on the Block
Since 2003, the danger posed by the FMIG to the kingdom has relatively decreased due to reasons that will be discussed later. In 2005, the security forces claim, a new terror organization was established in Morocco, bearing the name An’sar Al-Mahdi (Followers of the Mahdi). This organization, they assured the public, aimed to overthrow the ruling regime and turn the country into an Islamic law-abiding caliphate headed by the Mahdi – the messiah of Muslim tradition.
While the notion of a Mahdi-led caliphate does exist in Morocco, experts differ as to the level of its followers’ commitment to actually establish it by means of violence. The Moroccan security forces maintain An’sar Al-Mahdi is precisely such a movement, but not all agree with this claim.
In fact, the mere existence of an organization by that name is questionable, says Prof. Muhammad Darif, an expert on political Islam from Al-Hasan II University in Mahmoudiyya, Morocco.
"All the information about what is referred to as the An’sar Al-Mahdi organization was revealed by the Moroccan security forces, so one has to deal cautiously with this information," says Darif.
Remarkably, those accused of membership in An’sar Al-Mahdi not only refuse to accept the accusation, they also claim such an organization does not exist. The person who is believed to be the organization’s leader, Sheikh Hasan Al-Khattab, claims that the name – An’sar Al-Mahdi – was invented by the police itself, which found at his home a book on the "Anticipated Mahdi."
According to the official story, Darif says, Al-Khattab was released from jail in July 2005 after two years of incarceration. Immediately afterwards the sheikh began establishing the organization, by creating a partnership between cells in six cities. Darif believes these cells did exist, but not under the An’sar Al-Mahdi name.
Furthermore, Darif is not convinced as to their official definition as terrorist cells.
"They do believe in Jihad and in change achieved by means of violence. The question remains, however, were these mere ideas and self-convictions, or are we talking about moving on to the stage of execution?"
Darif adds that, in his view, Al-Khattab was not able to proceed with such plans, as he was under daily surveillance since his release last year.
A Mere Nuisance – But a Turning Point Nonetheless
Dr. Jack Kalpakian, a terror expert from Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, has a different view. The An’sar Al-Mahdi organization does exist, although its influence is small, he believes. Thinkers in the radical Islamic movement have had violence and radical change on their minds for quite some time, he says.
"It was inevitable that they would turn to the military to try to subvert it, penetrate it, and use it."
The movement, Kalpakian believes, is very small. "It is no more than a nuisance," he says.
However, it represents a very important turning point.
"Up until now, people attempting to change things by force here have tried to do it from outside the ruling institutions. You recruit desperate young men and tell them there is heaven waiting somewhere, and you get them to do something."
An’sar Al-Mahdi, however, targeted the military for recruitment, Kalpakian explains.
‘Abd Al-Hamid Al-Jamahiri, a journalist with the Moroccan daily Al-Ittihad Al-Ishtiraki, confirms this: "The security forces revealed that of those arrested, at least five were soldiers, one was an ex-member of the Royal Guard, one was serving in an intelligence agency, one was working in the National Space Observatory and four were wives of pilots serving in the national airline."
"Any soldier would tell you that the military is a faithful replica of the society it defends," says Kalpakian. "If you have 5-6 percent of people like these outside, you probably have a similar percentage inside [the army]."
So while Al-Khattab’s supporters did not exceed a few hundred people, the fact that the movement attempted to infiltrate branches of the ruling institution was troubling, according to Kalpakian.
Al-Jamahiri, a veteran journalist reporting on Islamic terror groups in Morocco, believes An’sar Al-Mahdi is more than a nuisance. He believes its resources and logistics are well developed, and that it has close ties with Al-Qa’ida. While Al-Jamahiri considers An’sar Al-Mahdi a relatively new group, he sees it as an offshoot of the FMIG.
"As is often the case with radical Jihadist movements, there have been fragmentations and conflicting loyalties."
An’sar Al-Mahdi – Descendants of the Salafi-Jihadist Movement in Morocco
The Salafi-Jihadists across the Muslim world aspire to reestablish the empire of the forefathers (Salaf) of Islam by means of holy war (Jihad). In Morocco three generations of movements existed, which followed the Salafi-Jihadist ideology.
At first there were the Moroccan Afghans. This group was small in number and like many around the Muslim world it volunteered to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. According to Prof. Muhammad Darif, the group did not exceed a few dozen people and most of them were not fighters, but rather provided social services to the local population. The group was actually encouraged by the Moroccan regime to head to Afghanistan, and when it returned, it did not pose much of a problem to the authorities.
In 1998, a second Salafi-Jihadist organization, much more dangerous, was established in Peshawar, Pakistan. This was the FMIG. At first, however, its aim was not to perpetrate terrorist attacks, but rather to provide logistical support to members of Al-Qa’ida. The FMIG facilitated the transfer of some Al-Qa’ida fighters into Morocco and forged passports to enable them to infiltrate Europe.
"Parts of the planning for the 9/11 attacks took place in Madrid. A few members of Muhammad Atta’s Hamburg Cell arrived there through Morocco," says Darif.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Moroccan authorities began cooperating with the U.S. in its war on terror. Some of the prisoners in Guantanamo were even transferred to Morocco to be interrogated. This, according to Darif, drove Al-Qa’ida to change its use of the FMIG. From that period onward, the group was ordered to commit terror attacks inside Morocco. The May 16,2003 attacks in Casablanca, and the FMIG involvement in the March 2004 bombings in Madrid, were the culmination of that phase.
A combination of a few elements has then reshuffled the cards again. The Moroccan security forces, in cooperation with European intelligence agencies, began a massive crackdown on the group. Thousands were arrested and interrogated, of whom 1,400 were brought to trial. This made it almost impossible for the FMIG to operate.
And than another element came into the picture – the war in Iraq.
"When the war began, Al-Qa’ida decided on a new strategy," says Darif.
It wanted to drive the U.S. out of Iraq by all means. Therefore, it started recruiting fighters from around the Muslim world, including Morocco, and sent them to Iraq.
"That meant that executing terror attacks in Arab countries was no longer a top priority," explains Darif.
The third generation of Salafi-Jihadist movements came with the establishment of the alleged terror group, An’sar Al-Mahdi.
While it is not clear whether or not the group actually intended to execute its plans, or if those arrested were actually part of an organization by that name, the experts The Media Line interviewed agreed on one essential thing: The ideology they endorse is more locally oriented. Hasan Al-Khattab, they say, is a self-proclaimed caliph (leader by the grace of God), who wanted to rule Morocco, not the world.