Morocco Continues to Face Terror Threat Despite Success of BCIJ
Brian M. Perkins
It has been more than six months since a group of Moroccans inspired by Islamic State (IS) brutally slayed two Scandinavian hikers in the Atlas mountains between Imlil and Mount Toubkal. Moroccan authorities were quickly able to identify and capture the individuals directly responsible as well as others suspected of involvement. 24 individuals were charged with various terrorism-related crimes and have or are still facing trial in a criminal court in Sale, just outside Rabat. Court documents surrounding the investigation have shed significant light on the individual’s backgrounds and activities prior to the attack that demonstrate a common and persistent theme among radicalized individuals in Morocco. Additionally, their cases highlighted the fallibility of Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ), considered among the top counterterrorism forces. Meanwhile, reports of similarly sized terrorist cells being identified across the country continue at an alarming pace, despite a recent Moroccan Public Prosecutor’s Office report indicating a declining terror threat (Morocco World News, July 1).
Homegrown radicalization and recidivism of prisoners charged with terrorism are a persistent struggle in Morocco, and the Imlil terror case is evidence of that threat. Early reports regarding Abdessamad Ejjoud, the ringleader of the attack, noted that he was previously imprisoned. However, this information only came out during further investigations and during the trial it was confirmed that he was, in fact, imprisoned for attempting to travel to join IS before being released early and joining up with other prison mates. It was also revealed that the group had plotted several other attacks using different methods, including storming hotels, detonated improvised explosive devices, and ramming pedestrians in rented vehicles.
Since the Imlil attack, the BCIJ has dismantled dozens of small, 3-10 person cells across the country. Most of these cells were inspired by IS and were caught for amateurish tactics (Morocco World News, June 25). The BCIJ’s success in dismantling these groups is partly due to its strong surveillance and intelligence tactics, but also owes to the fact that many of the cells have so far exposed themselves by engaging in inflammatory rhetoric online, attempting overly sophisticated plots involving explosives, or using unsecure communication systems.
While the BCIJ’s failure to track Ejjoud’s activities following his release is undoubtedly a failure, his use of the Telegram messaging app and unsophisticated tactics are additional reasons for the attack’s success. With the high level of radicalization currently occurring in Morocco, the return of IS fighters, and outreach by IS central to facilitate attacks ranging in sophistication from the Sri Lanka bombings to more rudimentary attacks, it is likely a matter of time before there is another successful attack in the country. British intelligence services named Morocco among a “hit list” of targets IS is seeking to attack and noted hotels and tourist locations among the top targets (The Sun, June 2). With no solid plans to reduce radicalization, the BCIJ will continue to face an uphill battle against terrorist cells that will learn from the failures of those arrested and become increasingly savvy to avoid detection.
Islamic State Branches Renew Pledges to al-Baghdadi
Brian M. Perkins
Over the past several weeks, Islamic State (IS) has revived its coordinated media campaign dubbed “And the Best Outcome is for the Righteous” to demonstrate the interconnection between its central shura (council) and branches across the globe (Jihadology, June 15). IS offshoots in Africa, the Caucasus, the Pacific, and elsewhere have begun publicly renewing their pledges of allegiances to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The renewal of this campaign, which was first run in 2016, comes amid the group’s reorganization and the rebranding of its global branches, and could ultimately shed light on IS central’s relationship with its more nascent groups, notably its branches in Central Africa, Pakistan, and India.
The first to renew its pledge in the series was Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in a video released on June 15, featuring fighters located in what was identified as Burkina Faso and Mali renewing their pledge and touting operational victories (Jihadology, June 15). ISWAP’s video was followed by similar videos released by Wilayat Sinai, Wilayat Southeast Asia, Wilayat Caucasus, and Wilayat Khorasan. Each of the videos depicted its fighters and included renewed pledges.
The videos are evidence of IS central’s communication and coordination with these branches, but one notable factor to consider is that these branches have been longstanding supporters with unquestioned ties and communication back to the core IS cadre. The groups that have noticeably been absent from the media campaign thus far are, Wilayat Pakistan, Wilayat India, and Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—the latter two of which being the newest among the group’s branches and holding less demonstrable evidence of strong connections with IS central.
IS began claiming attacks under the banner of ISCAP on April 18. However, factions of the ADF with previously reported links to IS are in fact the likely culprits (Twitter.com/SimNasr, April 18). There has, however, not been a public pledge to Baghdadi from ISCAP and very little evidence of close communication between the two. There have also not been any verifiable photos of IS fighters in the DRC, though photos have allegedly shown weapons the group has seized from security forces. Similarly, Wilayat India is also a nascent group with little evidence of strong ties back to IS central. Wilayat India, a.k.a. Wilayat-e-Hind, is a spin-off of the previous Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir branch, comprised of a pro-IS group of militants fighting against the Indian government. There have been several militants belonging to ISJK that have publicly pledged allegiance to Baghdadi (The Hindu, September 16, 2018). The rebranding to Wilayat India, however, suggests an expansion into India proper, though there is no evidence of an organized group outside of Jammu and Kashmir. There is a clear history of IS operations in Pakistan under Wilayat Khorasan, which previously comprised Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it is unclear how the Pakistan branch will fare in terms of leadership and capabilities following the split from its Afghan counterparts and reports of infighting.
With the bulk of IS provinces lining up to renew pledges and demonstrate their coordination, continued silence by these groups could help shed some light on the nature of their relationship and ability to coordinate with IS central. Conversely, if these branches do release videos depicting their leaders and fighters, it could provide essential hints as to the size and composition of these branches as well as potential clues indicating where they are operating.