AQIM’s Threat to Morocco’s Tourism Sector

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 11

As with most North African countries, Morocco’s tourism sector is vulnerable to fluctuations as a result of terrorism and political developments. Recent incidents such as the panicked detonation of a suicide bomber’s vest in an internet cafe in April and the subsequent, albeit possibly unrelated, occurrences involving individuals with suicide belts, including the detonations near the U.S. Consulate and cultural center in Casablanca, reinforce the unfortunate reality that, despite modest economic progress, the underlying root causes for terrorism in Morocco persist (MAP, April 12; MAP, April 14). The number of foreign tourists visiting the kingdom dipped after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and remained relatively stagnant through 2003. These numbers have been bolstered as of late, however, due to an increase in the number of Moroccans living abroad who regularly return home. In 2005, tourism comprised roughly 10% of the country’s GDP, with commerce and import duties, a related sector, making up the largest figure at 22.1% (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2005). Additionally, 2005 saw the implementation of the “Open Skies” agreement between Morocco and the European Union, which opened Morocco’s airline industry to competition from low-cost European carriers. The proliferation of Europe-based discount airlines such as Ryan Air and Easy Jet has made travel to Morocco increasingly cost effective for European holiday travelers. Furthermore, the search for new markets has pushed developing countries such as Morocco to the forefront of Western tourism markets and made them fashionable travel destinations.

The Effect on Tourism

Morocco’s close geographic proximity to Europe, abundance of sunshine and rich cultural heritage has made the kingdom an increasingly popular holiday destination for European travelers. This is particularly true among French citizens who share a common language and maintain historic ties to the Maghreb. In marked contrast to neighboring Algeria, Morocco’s tourism industry is thriving and is regularly cited as one of the hallmarks of the kingdom’s openness. In January 2001, King Mohammad VI of Morocco embarked on “Vision 2010,” a national plan to increase Morocco’s infrastructure to accommodate 10 million tourists by the end of the decade. As an indication of its commitment to this endeavor, the government recently allocated more than $2.2 billion toward the development of seaside resorts (MAP, May 11). The underlying goal of these development initiatives is to increase the percentage of the tourism sector’s contribution to the national GDP to 20% by 2010 (MAP, May 11). Understandably, terrorism ranks at the top of political risks to Morocco’s desire to attract foreign investment in order to fuel the country’s economic development. Even in the absence of attacks, the mere perception of the threat of terrorism can be enough to deter travelers, thus starving local merchants of income and, as a result, challenging the resilience of related sectors such as transportation and commerce.

While Western venues have been targeted in the past, attacks have not struck major hubs for the Moroccan tourism industry such as the seaside resort of Agadir or the cultural centers of Fez and Marrakech. In fact, Morocco’s tourism industry actually grew by 17% in 2003—the year of the Casablanca bombings [1]. Nor does travel to Morocco appear to be affected by the tenacity of the political violence in neighboring Algeria, as the sector has enjoyed sustainable growth during the first decade of the 21st century. Indeed, according to figures provided by the Moroccan Ministry of Tourism, the tourism sector continues to experience growth, posting a 16% increase in the number of visitors to the country in the first trimester of 2007 during the same period in 2006 (Moroccan Ministry of Tourism, 2007). Therefore, absent a sustained terror campaign or a catastrophe along the lines of the 1997 massacre of German tourists outside of Luxor by Gammat al-Islamiyya, the number of tourists visiting the kingdom will likely increase in the near future.

Mitigating the Threat

Physical security is the most effective deterrent employed to directly mitigate the risk of terrorism to both hard and soft targets, including venues frequented by tourists. Throughout popular tourist locations in Morocco, the security presence is visible but not overbearing. In order to reduce the threat of car bombings, most resort hotel complexes primarily catering to European visitors have constructed natural barriers such as large steps leading up to the hotel lobby or palm groves throughout the complex. Most are also encompassed by high walls and gate guards to provide an added level of comfort and security [2]. Moreover, in an effort to manage tourist concerns about the risks of using local transportation (i.e. kidnapping, overcharging and general vagaries of the local system), many hotels and riad (traditional Moroccan Bed and Breakfast) operators arrange taxis both to and from popular tourist sites, as well as direct couriers to the local airport. Importantly, terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists alike have not benefited from a level of grassroots support among the Moroccan populous [3].

While clamping down on Islamists, particularly those deemed to share affiliation with the Salafi-Jihad, Moroccan authorities are striving to strike a balance between the legitimate need for security and the more oppressive policies of the past. In this regard, it is essential for the Moroccan government to avoid coming across as too heavy-handed as it cracks down on domestic Islamist militants. Overly intensive efforts to eradicate the roots of Salafi-Jihadi ideology, if left unchecked, could lead to a return to the previous era of political persecution and human rights abuses in Morocco. A successful domestic security policy will recognize the nuances within Islamic thought and not apply a blanket approach to dealing with the kingdom’s opponents. Social inequalities, such as the income gap, are exceedingly stark in Morocco and are considered a symbol of the government’s neglect of its people. This was undoubtedly one of the motivating factors for the individuals who conducted the Casablanca bombings, and it is cited by at least one government opposition group as a factor in the incidents this spring (El-Khabar, April 11). Fatallah Arslane, a spokesperson for al-Adl wal-Ihsane (Justice and Charity)—a political party banned from participating in elections—cited the Moroccan government’s failure to adequately address the needs of its people as a contributor to the recent spate of suicide bombings in Casablanca (El-Khabar, April 11). Arslane stated that, “Overcoming the phenomenon of violence requires a comprehensive remedy which is not restricted to security measures. This remedy has to go beyond security measures to include lifting injustice and improving people’s economic, political and social conditions” (El-Khabar, April 11).

As a result of these inequalities, the need to address social issues like unemployment and the income gap is seen as a critical front in Morocco’s war on terrorism. Embarking on this path, Morocco has set out to mitigate the economic and social factors contributing to terrorism by undertaking a series of social welfare programs. For example, in October 2003, the government initiated an education campaign aimed at tackling the high illiteracy rate in the country. Conscious of the growing disparity between the rich and poor, the government recognizes that with increased education its citizens will become more able to gain employment and move out of the slums and their cycle of poverty.

Acting on the assumption that domestic issues contribute to acts of terrorism, Morocco submitted a proposal for a $150 million housing sector development loan to the World Bank in June 2005. Morocco hopes that a judicious implementation of the World Bank’s loan will contribute toward eradicating the bidonvilles successfully, viewed increasingly as simmering pots of Salafi-Jihadi ideology, and improve the overall living conditions for the poor by increasing the availability of low-cost urban housing. The loan, approved on June 31, 2005, will also result in an increase in construction and development, thus creating some forms of temporary employment.


The makeover of the tourism industry is but one part in the process of broader democratic and economic reform being undertaken by the kingdom in which the Moroccan government must tread carefully given the present atmosphere of increased popular resentment with the West and prescient concerns surrounding the intentions of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to export terror beyond Algeria. Success will largely hinge on how the government proceeds on the path of democratic reform. To date, the incidents in Casablanca, Morocco’s economic center, have not altered the flow of tourists to the country, and no cancellations of foreign tourist or business delegations have been noted (al-Hayat, April 27). Violent Salafism, nevertheless, remains a key ideological underpinning where al-Qaeda and related movements continue to draw additional followers by mobilizing Moroccan residents through a process in which local grievances are increasingly viewed through the prism of the Global Salafi-Jihad. The government’s continued success in disrupting terror plots, as well as the vigilance and bravery exhibited by ordinary Moroccans in the face of terrorism, i.e. the actions of the Casablanca internet cafe owner, indicates that the risk environment, for now, remains secure.


1. Dermot Davitt, “The War on Tourism,” Travel Retailer International, Dec 2004/Jan 2005, p. 8-9.

2. Observations by the author from November 2006 travel to Marrakesh, Ouarzazate and Zagora.

3. Ibid.