At the end of July 2006, Moroccan authorities dismantled Ansar al-Mahdi, a previously unknown terrorist group, and made initial arrests of 44 people. The number of arrestees later grew to 56 and spanned multiple cities in northern Morocco. The group itself was unique and included an eclectic mix of drug traffickers, wives of Air Maroc pilots and members of the armed forces reportedly led by Hassan al-Khattab—a known Salafi-Jihadi aspirant who was imprisoned for two years in 2003 following the Casablanca bombings (La Gazette du Maroc, August 21, 2006; L’Expression, August 13, 2006). Unlike previous terror cells, which were predominantly comprised of members from the poor working class, appearances suggest this organization transcended social barriers in its quest to recruit members. Moreover, while Moroccan authorities have disrupted numerous terrorist cells in recent years, the disclosure that members of the Moroccan military had been recruited into a terror cell with the intent of conducting attacks against government and tourist targets in Morocco could signify a new stage in Morocco’s efforts to combat the influence of radical Islamists.
Origins of Moroccan Salafism
Salafi-Jihadism, which was blamed by Moroccan authorities for the Casablanca bombings, is best characterized as an amorphous movement comprised of like-minded individuals who adhere to a radical interpretation of Salafism, which, in their eyes, sanctions violence. While the movement lacks an overarching command structure, the origins of Moroccan Salafism can be traced back to the network of Saudi-trained imams who discarded traditional apolitical Salafi beliefs in exchange for politically charged rhetoric and a willingness to engage in violence. Beginning in the 1960s, the government of King Hassan II began to encourage Islamists, particularly those from Saudi Arabia, as a natural bulwark against the pan-Arab social nationalist policies of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Whatever skepticism Morocco may have had of Salafism, broader strategic considerations at the time—such as the relationship between Morocco and Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis the United States, and Saudi support for Morocco’s conflict with Western Sahara—took precedent . Many of the imams who were originally sanctioned by the Moroccan government set out to establish ad hoc mosques in the slums on the outskirts of Morocco’s cities. It was here that their influence began to take hold among the poor and socially disenfranchised residents of the vast shantytowns known in Morocco as bidonvilles.
Prior Unrest in the Armed Forces
The Moroccan military has not always served as the guardian of the Moroccan crown. During the early 1970s, the military was involved in two failed coup attempts against King Hassan II, the father of Morocco’s current ruler. In contrast to the current environment, these coup attempts were led by military officers and were not Islamist in nature. Moreover, they were directed solely at the regime and not the Moroccan public. The acknowledgement by Moroccan authorities that Ansar al-Mahdi had penetrated the ranks of the armed forces is the first time a threat of this nature has been admitted publicly and may be a sign of its seriousness.
There are conflicting reports surrounding the identities of the military members belonging to Ansar al-Mahdi. Most point toward the involvement of five soldiers deemed to have expertise in explosives (La Gazette du Maroc, August 14, 2006). L’Expression, an Algerian daily, claimed on August 13, 2006 that the soldiers were working at the airbase in Sale. Interestingly, a Western media outlet interviewed the family of Mohamed Khalouki, one of the five soldiers arrested, who claimed Mohamed and his four colleagues were merely members of the military band and had nothing to do with the alleged terror group (ABC News, September 29, 2006). Little more regarding the background of the soldiers has been publicly disclosed, giving scant insight into the depth that Salafi-Jihadi ideology has penetrated the armed forces. Fortunately, available information does not point toward the involvement of military officers in the terror cell, which would be an indicator of wide penetration as the officers are in a position to influence the lower ranks. Nor does information suggest the involvement of elite units, which could make their specialized skills and training available to radical Islamists.
The inclusion of military members in Ansar al-Mahdi is but one of the differences between this round of arrests and previous actions by the security services. While Moroccan authorities have disrupted Salafi-Jihadi cells in the past, the cells have lacked the structure of traditional terrorist organizations. Hassan al-Khattab’s Ansar al-Mahdi, on the other hand, appears to have had a more traditional framework, possibly indicative of an evolution in the shape of Moroccan terror organizations, with the added muscle of military expertise to assist in the training of members. La Gazette du Maroc on August 14, 2006 characterized Ansar al-Mahdi as a military organization with separate members in charge of Islamist indoctrination and operations. Notably, al-Khattab appears to have built a hierarchical organization where members were not only aware of one another, but also worked together in a coordinated effort, which marks a contrast with the past shape of Salafi-Jihadism in Morocco.
Indeed, given Morocco’s social inequalities and the susceptibility of low paid soldiers to corruption and outside influences, on the surface the armed forces give the appearance of an organization vulnerable to the influence of radical Islamists. Made up of three services (Army, Air Force and Navy), the Moroccan armed forces are comprised of roughly 196,000 active personnel, among which there are between 75,000-100,000 conscripts, and a reserve force of 150,000. The seemingly high number of conscripts is somewhat misleading since roughly 353,377 Moroccan men become eligible for the draft each year. Moreover, many voluntarily remain in the military where they have the ability to earn a steady, albeit low, monthly income comparable to Morocco’s minimum monthly wage of $223.30.
Implications for the Future
As of late January 2007, the trials of al-Khattab and Ansar al-Mahdi members have been postponed until appropriate legal representation can be agreed upon for all defendants. While officials have disclosed few details on the extent of the Islamist infiltration, the actions taken by the Moroccan government in the wake of the Ansar al-Mahdi arrests provide observers with the most telling signs as to the seriousness of the Islamist threat vis-à-vis the armed forces. On August 31, 2006, the government ended conscription in the armed forces, a move undoubtedly aimed at mitigating the vulnerability of the lower ranks to the influence of radical Islamists. Young men aged 18 were previously required to enter military service for a compulsory period of 18 months. Most were deployed to serve in Western Sahara—which is territorially administered by Morocco—in what has become an increasingly unpopular policy decision by Rabat and desertions were not uncommon. The end of mandatory service, however, was but one of the wide-sweeping changes felt across the Moroccan security services. Changes also occurred at the top of the ranks with the dismissal of General Hamidou Laanigri, head of the General Office of National Security (Direction Generale de la Surete Nationale, DGSN), and General Mohammed Belbachir, head of the Military Intelligence Service (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, DST) (Le Journal Hebdomadaire, September 23-29, 2006). Furthermore, the palace relieved 12 lower officials, predominantly from regional elements of the various security services, of their duties. Notably, many were replaced by civilians with personal ties to the king (La Gazette du Maroc, September 18, 2006).
This far reaching purge of the security services suggests the degree of Islamist infiltration has perhaps been greater than previously disclosed by the Moroccan government. Nevertheless, it remains unlikely that units of the armed forces have been co-opted to the extent that they have the ability or the popular support to overthrow the Moroccan government and establish an Islamic state as witnessed during the Iranian revolution. The move to an all volunteer force is a positive step and should have the effect of reducing the appeal of radical Islamic ideology in the military by removing the most susceptible layer from the ranks. Ending conscription is unlikely to significantly impact manning levels in the armed forces and will allow the kingdom to focus on developing all-volunteer, professional military services. Morocco’s official unemployment rate is a mere 7.7 percent; however, this calls into question the level of “underemployment” across the kingdom. As a result, the benefit of a steady monthly income offered by the armed forces will likely remain appealing to many young Moroccan men. From a purely security perspective, while Algeria remains a regional rival, Morocco does not face an external military threat to its security that would necessitate the need for mandatory military service. Additionally, a permanent resolution of the dispute over Western Sahara would likely serve to alleviate some of the strain on the armed forces and boost morale.
In many ways, the Casablanca bombings served as a wake up call for the Moroccan government, which has begun to take measures to alleviate the socio-economic pressures affecting the majority of Moroccans. Importantly, the demographic makeup of Ansar al-Mahdi appears to have eroded the often held belief that socio-economic pressures alone are driving Morocco’s internal Islamist movement. Despite the violence of the Casablanca bombings in May 2003, Morocco does not have a history of Islamic terrorism. In contrast to other North African countries, such as Algeria and Egypt, Morocco has remained relatively immune from the plagues of violence. The kingdom’s ability to incorporate democratic reforms and not allow security concerns to drive all facets of government policy will prove to be crucial in combating the future threat of terrorism in Morocco.
Many of the changes related to the recent events are transparent to ordinary Moroccans and have not resulted in an overtly large security presence in popular tourist areas such as the Djemma al-Fna in Marrakesh. Additionally, despite the implication of wives of Air Maroc pilots, airport security is not at a heightened level . The recent reorganization of the security services is an important step toward dismantling the powerful makhzen (governing elite), who have remained influential in guiding Moroccan politics during Mohammed VI’s reign. In addition to these changes, continuing efforts must be made to improve the prospects of those in the lower echelons of the armed forces in order to mitigate the ideological influence of radical Islamists and maintain the honor of an important institution.
1. Howe, Marvine, Morocco: The Islamist Awakening and Other Challenges, Oxford University Press: New York, 2005.
2. Observations by the author from November 2006 travel to Marrakesh, Ouarzazate and Zagora.