As 2007 draws to a close, the one year anniversary nears of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat’s (GSPC) official rebranding of itself as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) following its merger with Osama bin Laden’s group. With the change in name came the stated desire to move the group beyond its nationalistic goal of initiating regime change within Algeria to a broader regional movement which ostensibly covers, as the new name implies, the entire Maghreb region—Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania. The merger with al-Qaeda has likely been a contributing factor in the evolution of AQIM’s tactics over the past year, the most notable example being the dual suicide bombings in Algiers on April 11 (see Terrorism Monitor, October 25). Though there has been a clear change in tactics and a departure from the GSPC’s strategy of limiting civilian casualties, AQIM has yet to convincingly demonstrate the capability to project itself as a true threat to the stability of the region. This is perhaps most evident in Algeria’s neighbor Morocco, a country by no means immune to acts of Salafi-Jihadi-inspired terrorism, but whose population has thus far largely rejected the notion of lending widespread domestic support to AQIM’s desire for regional jihad.
AQIM’s first year coincided with a handful of disrupted and clumsy attempts to conduct terror attacks in Morocco. While far from insignificant, the attacks and disrupted plots pale in comparison to the sophisticated and highly lethal operations perpetrated by AQIM in Algeria (Maghreb Arabe Presse, August 23). The disparity in the technological prowess of the Moroccan attackers compared to the events in Algeria suggests any ties to AQIM were likely inspirational at best. While regional media outlets have cited anecdotal cases of Moroccans suspected of attempting to enter Algeria to undergo training at AQIM camps, these reports are difficult to fully assess without first hand insight into the true intentions of those in custody (La Tribune, August 4). Contrary to the view espoused at times by the current U.S. administration, the absence of an attack, in this case in Morocco, is by no means an accurate measure of an organization’s effectiveness as most successful mass casualty attacks take months—if not years—of planning. Nonetheless, despite Algeria and Morocco’s common language, culture and (to a lesser degree) experiences under colonialism, the factors motivating AQIM in Algeria are not automatically transferable to Morocco.
Youth Culture in Morocco
Human factors analysis is an often overlooked strategy in examining the critical question of what motivates individuals to turn to terrorism. Techniques of this type have recently received greater attention as a result of the counter-insurgency initiatives championed by U.S. General David Petraeus in Iraq. Considering this approach, one factor which may play a role in mitigating the development of a level of grassroots support for AQIM in Morocco is the burgeoning youth culture there. This is perhaps best symbolized by King Mohammed VI himself who, in a departure from tradition, married a middle class woman and has been photographed in a leather jacket and sunglasses. The king has distinguished himself from autocratic dictatorships in Tunisia and Libya by acknowledging the abuses of power which took place during his father’s reign, thereby endearing himself to the people. In a valuable study on the youth culture in Morocco, polling data solicited by German political scientist Sonja Hegasy suggest Moroccan youth are active participants in the process of globalization . Far from advocating the rigid principles of sharia or a rejection of Western cultural influences, the majority of respondents cited both the positive as well as the negative aspects of increased globalization in Morocco. Even more telling was the answer to a question as to the main basis of the king’s authority, where the response “his youthful spirit” polled the highest out of ten possible choices.
Corroborating the insight into the Moroccan psyche highlighted above is data collected by World Public Opinion.org in March 2007 indicating 76 percent of Moroccans felt attacks on civilians in pursuit of political goals are either “weakly justified” or “not justified at all,” while 8 percent responded such attacks were either “justified” or “strongly justified”. Only 9 percent of Moroccans indicated they support al-Qaeda’s attacks on Americans and share its attitudes towards the United States, and 62 percent hold a positive view of globalization (World Public Opinion.org, April 24). Voter turnout in Morocco’s recent parliamentary elections was low, a clear indication of voter discontent, but recent protests against the rising cost of living and government policies were conducted peacefully and lacked any signs of a turn toward radical religious fervor (Al-Ahdath al-Maghribiya, September 27). Those who have engaged in terrorism are looked down upon and are viewed as criminals on the fringes of society.
Security Cooperation in the Maghreb
Human factors are by no means the only deterrent to the expansion of AQIM’s Algeria-centric jihad into Morocco. Moroccan security services are capable, a fact demonstrated by the past disruption of terror plots. Multilateral cooperation across the Maghreb also facilitates the rapid exchange of threat information and enhances the collective security environment. In late April, five Maghreb countries (Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) concluded a round of talks in Tripoli and agreed to implement a new multilateral mechanism to share intelligence on what they view to be a common terrorist threat to the region (al-Hayat, April 30). The meeting of the Arab Maghreb Union came on the heels of the devastating suicide car bombings in Algeria by AQIM and the multiple incidents in Casablanca involving the use of suicide belts by locals. Although the occurrences of suicide terrorism in the two countries lack direct operational ties with one another, the comparatively loose collective of Salafi-Jihadists in Morocco are undoubtedly inspired by their ideological “big brother” next door in Algeria. More importantly, taking a cue from international observers of the terrorist threat, governments in the Maghreb appear to have recognized that the threat posed by Islamic-inspired insurgencies is indeed “part of a much bigger picture” (see Terrorism Focus, April 3).
Until now, trans-Maghreb collaboration has been difficult to achieve and Tripoli has historically played a divisive rather than binding role in enhancing regional cooperation. Other salient security concerns, such as Algerian support to Polisario’s bid for independence for Western Sahara, have created long-lasting fissures between potential partners (Maghreb Arabe Presse, May 12). The potential for individuals to transit the region and participate in mobile training camps run by AQIM presents a credible threat to the security of the region. Therefore, the renewed desire to work together is timely and is the right choice for governments across the region to make in light of the nature of the current threat.
A successful security strategy should recognize not only the commonalities of the region’s languages, culture and geopolitical interests, but also be aware of the differences which exist between the countries of the Maghreb. To date, Morocco has been largely successful in resisting the broad call of the global Salafi jihad, inasmuch as AQIM has not been able to establish a foothold in the country, nor has a “domestic” group been able to construct a viable strategy to bind together the disparate cells of Moroccan Salafi-Jihadi aspirants. This is not to suggest that individual cells, regardless of size and composition, do not pose a threat; but rather to highlight the distinct nature of the threat from Salafi-Jihadi-inspired terror in Morocco. Abbas el-Fassi, Morocco’s newly appointed prime minister, acknowledged in a recent interview that while incidents have occurred, no country has been safe from terror. He expanded by championing his country’s stability and continued growth of foreign investment, highlighting the fact Morocco has received seven million tourists this year compared to only two million in 2002 (Al-Arabiya, November 9). Morocco has at times been depicted as being rife with terrorists, an image fostered not only by incidents in Morocco, but also by attacks and disrupted plots in Europe. Assessing risk on the number of incidents or the body count alone is not an accurate measure—if this method were to be used it would place countries such as Spain and the United Kingdom far ahead of Morocco in terms of risk from attack. Terrorism remains a form of political violence with ideological root causes. Prime Minister el Fassi concluded his remarks by stating his country’s priority is on enhancing employment, housing and education to discourage terrorism (Al-Arabiya, November 9). To that list should be added reformation of the political party structure in order to encourage increased participation in future elections, thus giving Moroccans the confidence in their government they deserve.
1. For a more in-depth study of Moroccan youth attitudes, see Sonja Hegasy, “Young Authority: Quantitative and Qualitative Insights into Youth, Youth Culture, and State Power in Contemporary Morocco,” Journal of North African Studies 12(1), March 2007, pp.19-36.