The Origins of Militancy and Salafism in Morocco

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 12

Moroccan militants have carried out a number of daring and devastating attacks in the last 24 months: from the train bombings in Madrid, to the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the executions of more than 166 Moroccan civilians regarded as “bad Muslims”. [1] The involvement of Moroccans in these terrorist attacks has shattered the kingdom’s image of moderation and tolerance. How this has happened is a question that was asked in shock and horror as Moroccans and non-Moroccans alike struggled to comprehend the circumstances and trends that have led to a shocking upsurge in Moroccan jihadism.

The kingdom’s domestic troubles are largely of its own making. It was the state’s inadvertent support for the ideological and motivational sources of Islamic radicalism that laid the groundwork for the surge of modern Moroccan terrorism. During the 1980s, the state encouraged the importation of Wahhabism, a retrograde but status quo prone ideology, to counter the growing menace of political Islam. [2] To preserve its enormous privileges and perpetuate its hold on power, the monarchy had every reason to look favorably on this Salafi current, which albeit being puritanical, contemptuous of modernity, and scornful of Moroccan forms of Islam, was distinguished by its political quietism and deference to Muslim rulers.

This form of Salafism is known as Salafiyya ‘ilmiyya (scholarly or scientific Salafism). It conceptualizes orthodoxy as a static set of beliefs and shariah as fixed divine construct. It condemns political Islam as a perversion of religion and authorizes the use of violence against individuals engaged in immoral conducts. The most prominent figure of this Salafi trend was the late Fqih Zamzami (d. 1989) of Tangiers, a great orator, whose diatribes against immorality, injustice and corruption in the 1970s and 1980s had a huge impact and gained him a considerable following among the discontented. Although widely hailed as a fearless critic of decadence, Zamzami was careful not to stray too far from the limits of freedom of speech set by the monarchy or to challenge the existing order. But this does not mean that Zamzami’s edicts and pronouncements had no political objectives. [3] It is clear that his sermons were issued in pursuit of cultivating a social ethos of “moral” leadership capable of influencing the power-holders to temper their authoritarian, corrupt and immoral proclivities.

This new form of imported Salafiyya differed significantly from that of the 1925-1954 where Moroccan Salafi activism, personified by Allal al-Fassi, the religio-nationalist leader of the Istiqlal party, sought to defend Morocco’s Arab-Islamic identity against the onslaught of European colonialism and the “heresy” of Sufism and maraboutism, by promoting scriptural orthodoxy. This mainly revolved around the famous Islamic injunction of (‘amr bi ‘l-ma’ruf wa nahi ani ‘l-munkar) “commanding what is proper and forbidding what is reprehensible”. This obsession with the good conduct of individuals resonated well with broad sectors of the population who lived in crowded and poor neighborhoods and shantytowns. The latter are largely unrecognized by the state and receive little or no basic public services such as electricity, water, telephone lines, educational or health facilities.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, this apolitical, puritanical, and backward-looking wave of new fundamentalism benefited greatly from globalization and the widespread alienation generated by the painful IMF/World Bank policies of economic and financial structural adjustment programs. [4] The Wahhabi salafists proved adept at manipulating slogans, generating themes and appropriating them for their own purposes. Through networks of storefront or makeshift mosques, they consolidated their ability to disseminate their ideas and operate in the shantytowns of the major cities in the kingdom. [5]

But contrary to popular images, the ideological underpinnings of modern Moroccan jihadism derive from a much more complicated set of intellectual, political and ideological trends than what is referred to as the fatalistic Wahhabi Salafism. The phenomenon of al-Salafiyya al-jihadiyya can be traced back to a deadly mixture of the Saudi tradition of aggressive Wahhabi militancy and the revolutionary political trend of Egyptian scholar, Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966). The fusion of Wahhabism and Qutb-style jihadism started with the war against the Soviets and created a “mentality of jihad” that had a profound impact on the small contingent of Moroccan mujahideen in Afghanistan. Unlike their Egyptian and Syrian counterparts who had their religious or political awakening grafted from inside their countries and way before they landed in Afghanistan, most Moroccan veterans had their formative years in Afghanistan where their political, social and religious views were molded. These acquired views stood in sharp contrast to the ones promoted by the retrograde but non-political Wahhabi religious school.

This marriage between Qutbist ideology and Wahhabi doctrine, better known as Salafist, entered a new stage with the 1990-1991 Gulf war, which brought American troops to stand guard over Islam’s holiest sites. [6] This development was, indeed, a catalyst for radical Islamic anger and politicization. It also ensured new Moroccan recruits to the jihadi trend. The new converts to the jihadists’ ideology openly embraced Osama Bin Laden. Some went to Afghanistan, the Balkans, Central Asia and Chechnya to join a jihadi contingent recruited by al-Qaeda-aligned operatives in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and other countries in the Middle East and beyond. In these theatres of conflict, Moroccan veterans of the Afghan war perfected the skills they had developed at the expense of the Soviets, while new recruits underwent training courses in jihad and were indoctrinated for martyrdom. The March 2004 terrorist attacks in Spain were a demonstration of the dedication, efficiency, power and prowess of Moroccan international jihadists.

Other Moroccan jihadists sympathetic to al-Qaeda remained at home, devising their own set of goals that linked with the supreme military and political goal of the wider multinational network of jihadists. This group is primarily motivated by local issues and certainly more cautious in its choice of tactics and targets, including the wisdom of broadening the war against the “crusaders” to Morocco. This skepticism arose from the fear that turning the kingdom into a battlefield risked alienating the very people that sustain autonomous jihadist cells and would, moreover, provoke a dangerous and unnecessary confrontation with Moroccan security forces.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 marked a turning point for the local Salafi-jihadist movements, which saw in the attacks and their aftermath a response to the perceived injustices and aggression of the West and an unprecedented demonstration of the international jihadists’ power. The detection and subsequent disruption of a suspected al-Qaeda cell in Morocco, which planed to attack U.S. and British naval ships in the Straits of Gibraltar, pointed to a new strategy of the jihadist groups in the kingdom. [7] In its effort to confront the rising extremist threat, the Moroccan secret services and police have been carrying out raids against suspected Islamic extremist groups like those of Zakaria El Miloudi, Abou Hafs and Youssef Fikri. In retaliation against the kingdom’s aggressive antiterrorism operations and its staunch support of the U.S in its war against the jihadists, some of the militants decided to broaden the war against the “crusaders” to include the Moroccan regime and its collaborators.

This domestic based terror network is less cohesive in membership, consisting of cells, and operating with subtle, decentralized links to groups that provide funding, publicity, shelter and recruitment facilities. Unlike the Algerian Takfirist groups, GIA (armed Islamist group) and GSPC (Salafist preaching and combat group), during the civil war of the 1990s the movements’ loose structure means that it does not have a central command authority, let alone a coherent and consistent methodology. Bin Laden is perceived as a symbol of defiance, ideological inspiration and policy guidance, inspiring attacks rather than plotting them. His self-proclaimed emirs in Morocco are believed to be the actors who outline objectives and major strategy issues.

At present, the Salafist jihadist groups in Morocco lack the popularity and organizational cohesion to destabilize the country. The Moroccan authorities seem to be aware at last of the dangers of identifying apolitical forms of zealous religiosity with radical political activism. This is important because the conceptualization of Moroccan political Islamists as a monolithic group of zealous ideologues fails to recognize the variability and non-violent essence of their doctrinal outlook. The major source of the terrorism problem in the kingdom stems from tendencies that disregard the concept of the nation-state and dismiss politics as a perversion of religion. Intransigence, militancy and violence are deeply rooted in the outlook of this brand of supranational Salafi activism.


1. See Selma Belaala, Misère et djihad au Maroc. [Misery and Jihad in Morocco]. Le Monde Diplomatique, Novembre 2004.

2. Abdeslam Maghraoui, Tras La Conexión Terrorista Marroquí: Políticas Estatales Y Wahabismo Saudí. [Behind the Moroccan Terrorist Connection: State Policies and Saudi Wahhabism]. Real Instituto Elcano, 7 April 2004.

3. Islamisme en Afrique du Nord (I): Les legs de l’histoire. [Islamism in North Africa I: The Legacies of History]. Briefing Moyen-Orient/Afrique du Nord N°12 20 avril 2004

4. Ibid.

5. See L’influence du wahhabisme saoudien au Maroc. [The Influence of Saudi Wahhabism in Morocco]. Le Journal, 9 Avril 2004; Antoine Basbous: “la menace du wahhabisme au Maroc n’est plus un tabou”. [The Threat of Wahhabism is no longer a Taboo in Morocco]. El Watan – Algérie, 29 et 30 septembre 2002

6. See Dominique Lagarde, Au nom d’Allah. [In the Name of Allah]. L’Express, 26 Septembre 2002.

7. Youssef Chmirou, Comment la DST a déjoué les attentats terroristes au Maroc. [How DST thwarted Terrorist Attacks in Morocco] La Gazette Du Maroc, 16 Mai 2005.