Morocco Cracks Down on Islamist Opposition Group JSA

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 22

In a major operation in late May, Moroccan security forces arrested over 300 members of al-Adl wa al-Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality Association—JSA), including ranking leaders, over vague allegations that the group was plotting a violent overthrow of the monarchy (http://www.aljamaa.com). The arrests were made in a number of major cities and towns over a few days, including the capital, Rabat. Security forces also sealed a number of the JSA’s offices. These reports are significant because the JSA, a Sufi group, does not have a history of violence but instead advocates a moderate political and social reform program. A sudden turn toward violence and terrorism would mark a dramatic shift in the group’s strategy. The JSA is one of the staunchest critics of the monarchy and is counted as the country’s largest opposition group. It is also officially banned as a political movement, although it is tolerated in other aspects largely due to its grassroots popularity. Curiously, all of the detainees were eventually released from detention after only a couple of days (al-Jazeera, May 26).

According to Fathallah Arslane, a spokesman for the JSA, allegations that the group was preparing to seize power through an armed uprising and replace the monarchy with a radical Islamic fundamentalist government stem from fabricated reports in the local pro-state media. In response to increasing pressure by the authorities and press reports linking the group to radicalism, the JSA organized what they describe as an extensive “Open Doors” campaign in an effort to reach out to Moroccans in order to refute allegations by the group’s critics linking them to radicalism and terrorism. Arslane believes that the popularity of the “Open Doors” program worried the authorities, especially ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections, prompting them to clamp down (al-Jazeera, May 26).

Despite an ongoing political reform process and a steady expansion of public participation and civil society in political life, opposition groups in Morocco continue to face serious obstacles, especially when they directly criticize the institution of the monarchy or other government policies (Morocco Times, May 25). This holds especially true for Islamist movements, including parties such as Hizb al-Adla wa al-Tanmia (Justice and Development Party—PJD) that are represented in parliament and boast a sizeable following among Moroccans (http://www.pjd.ma).

Morocco is no stranger to terrorism. Morocco was struck by a series of deadly suicide bombings in Casablanca in May 2003, allegedly the work of homegrown militants inspired by al-Qaeda. A number of ranking al-Qaeda operatives are also of Moroccan origin. Moroccan militants have been implicated in attacks across the globe. Working in conjunction with its European allies, Moroccan authorities also claim to have uncovered a number of radical terrorist cells operating in Europe and elsewhere comprised of Moroccans.

Radical Islamists consider the Moroccan government as a heretical and apostate regime on par with other states in the Arab and Muslim world that are viewed as illegitimate, repressive and corrupt U.S. clients, namely Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, among others. As Amir al-Muminin (Commander of the Faithful), Morocco’s King Mohammed VI represents both the head of state and the country’s highest religious authority. Morocco’s 350 year-old dynasty claims to have directly descended from the Prophet Muhammed. In an effort to bolster his legitimacy, the king relies on state-appointed Ulama Councils to counter Islamist opposition views and radical militancy and extremism in Morocco’s mosques and centers of religious learning. Nevertheless, Rabat’s staunch pro-U.S. stance and heavy-handed approach in dealing with local opposition to its rule, especially Islamists of all stripes following the September 11 attacks and the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca, has made it a prime target of local militants and al-Qaeda.

Despite the immediate threat facing Rabat by homegrown extremists and al-Qaeda, it is highly unlikely that the JSA plotted to overthrow the monarchy, let alone planned to resort to violence in doing so. Rabat’s decision to release all of the detainees so soon after their initial arrest is another sign that the regime likely used vague and unsubstantiated threats of violence and terrorism to root out opposition elements that pose a challenge to its rule. By all accounts, Rabat continues to see the JSA as a serious threat and is moving to undermine its authority and influence through intimidation.

Given the JSA’s history and expanding reach in Moroccan society, however, Rabat’s resort to mass arrests and targeted intimidation is likely to backfire. Sheikh Abdessalem Yassine, the JSA’s ideological leader, spent over a decade in prison and under house arrest for questioning the religious legitimacy of the monarchy and its authority, and labeling the regime as corrupt and immoral. Although he is not regarded as a modernizer or a democratic reformer, he continues to be revered by Moroccans opposed to the king for standing up to the monarchy and speaking on their behalf on vital social and economic issues (http://www.yassine.net). His daughter Nadia Yassine is also an outspoken member of the JSA and a leading democracy and human rights activist, representing the younger generation within the group’s ranks. She recently completed a speaking tour across a number of leading U.S. universities. Like her father, Nadia Yassine and her husband Abdullah Chibani have also spent time in prison for peaceful dissident activities. She currently faces prosecution in Morocco over remarks she made in 2005 when she stated that a democratic republic has more in common with Islamic theories of political power and government than do monarchies (http://nadiayassine.net).

The wisdom behind Rabat’s tactics in dealing with opposition elements is similar to what occurs elsewhere in the region. For example, Egypt’s crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood is frequently portrayed in the context of national security, despite the group’s moderate political and social reform program (http://www.ikhwanweb.com). Cairo’s actions often result in bloody crackdowns and mass arrests. Rabat’s recent actions against the JSA should also be seen in this context.