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The Islamist Movement in Morocco

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 10
May 23, 2005 11:06 AM Age: 9 yrs
Category: Terrorism Monitor, Africa

Prior to the Casablanca attacks of May 2003, Morocco appeared to be relatively immune to the type of home grown Islamic militancy experienced by other North African countries. The Moroccan monarchy, which claims direct descent from the prophet, appeared to have successfully contained its political Islamists, either by co-opting them into the system or by limiting their space for manoeuvre. Traditionally Moroccans had prided themselves on being part of the moderate Maliki school of Islam embodied in the figure of the King as "Commander of the Faithful". However, the Casablanca attacks, as well as those in Madrid in March 2004, were to shatter this image and to uncover a complex and diverse array of militant Islamist groups and ideologies that had been operating in the Kingdom for at least the past two decades.

 

Roots of Radicalism

 

The first organised political Islamist movement in Morocco was the Shabiba al-Islamiya (Islamic Youth) that was set up in 1972 by former nationalist, Abdelkarim Moutia. The Shabiba was a Sunni fundamentalist movement and its ranks were filled by teachers and students whom Moutia set about giving an "Islamic" education. The Shabiba also set up a military wing under the direction of Abdelaziz Nouamani. Whilst the group's members were opposed to the regime, they directed most of their wrath towards the left wing nationalist parties, and on the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP) which was dismissed as "a party of heathens that secretes atheism." [1] In 1975 the party was accused of assassinating one of USFP's leaders, Omar Benjelloun. Although one of his killers, Mustafa Hazzar, recently denied that the Shabiba was responsible [2], the Moroccan authorities used the assassination as an excuse to clamp down on the organisation. In response Moutia fled to Saudi Arabia leaving the group in disarray.

 

Despite the regime's attempts to quash it, by the start of the 1980s political Islam had begun to gather real momentum in the kingdom. The remnants of the Shabiba had splintered into a series of smaller organisations. These ranged from the more moderate Ahl Jama'a al-Islamiya led by Abdelilah Benkirane that has undergone various reincarnations and that currently goes under the name Hizb al-Ahdala wa Tanmia (Justice and Development Party) and has a number of seats in government, to more radical groups, such as Abdelaziz Noumani's Harakat al-Mujahedeen al-Maghrabia (Moroccan Mujahideen Movement). These militant groups were involved in a series of protests in the early 1980s, as well as in explosives and ammunitions smuggling. Around this time, other remnants of the Shabiba left the country and according to Moutia either went to Iran after having been inspired by the Islamic revolution or went to fight in Afghanistan. [3]

 

The early 1980s was a very important period, not least because the successes of the Islamic revolution in Iran had inspired many North Africans to believe that an Islamist alternative was possible. In addition the controversial Moroccan Sufi Sheikh Yassine was growing in popularity. Yassine had been imprisoned in 1974 after he wrote an open letter to the King challenging his title as Commander of the Faithful. However, during his time in prison Yassine had attracted much underground support and following his release in 1979 he was able to attract a group of followers that later metamorphosed into al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Welfare) and that continues to have a strong following inside the country today.

 

Looking to Wahhabism

 

In an effort to counter balance the growing power of the Islamists the late King Hassan II opened the door to Saudi Arabia that was keen to promote Wahhabism inside Morocco. The Saudis began to channel significant funds into Morocco and developed institutions to spread their own propaganda, including setting up Qu'ranic schools and charitable organisations. [4] They also brought Moroccans to train in Saudi Arabia, thus creating a new generation of radical preachers who had been schooled in a rigid interpretation of Islam. These included Omar al-Haddouci, Hassan Kettani, Ahmed al-Raffiki, Abdelkarim Chadli and Mohamed Fizazi who were officially sanctioned as imams in Morocco and were subsequently sent to Europe and Asia by the monarchy to spread Islam. [5]

 

However, the monarchy's promotion of this strict ideology was to come back to haunt it as after the Persian Gulf war of 1991 a number of these preachers began to develop increasingly radical agendas more akin to the vision of Bin Ladin and Ayman Zawahiri. Like their Saudi counterparts, they refused to accept the US presence in Saudi Arabia and came to reject the Saudi regime as well as their own in Morocco. These preachers began openly criticising the monarchy and as result were prohibited from preaching in official mosques. Hassan Kettani for example was banned after he issued a fatwa condemning any alliance with the US. [6] Many of them were also arrested on numerous occasions.

 

Undeterred, these Sheikhs took to setting up their own makeshift mosques in the shantytowns around Morocco's cities where their influence grew steadily among the poor and disenfranchised inhabitants. In keeping with the salafist tradition, they drew their own group of followers who were attracted to their particular hard line teachings and ideology. The highly influential Mohamed Fizazi who was based in Tangiers for example is reported to have referred to Bin Ladin as one of this century's companions of the prophet. They viewed themselves as scholars rather than activists but still advocated jihad.

 

The Afghan Veterans

 

Some of these preachers had spent time in Afghanistan and encouraged others to join the jihad there, thereby giving the Moroccan jihadist movement a new boost. In the early years of the war against the Soviets, the number of Moroccans who went to fight in Afghanistan remained limited compared to other Arab nationalities. As a result, those volunteers joined the Libyan camp that was run by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. However, by the mid 1990s, inspired by the radical preachers and the growing jihadist trend inside Morocco, a greater number of Moroccans began flowing into Afghanistan. Tensions soon began to develop between the Libyans and the Moroccans and the latter decided to move away and set up their own camp. It was in this camp that the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group was believed to have been established.

 

Despite all the media attention that the group has received in light of the Casablanca and Madrid attacks, very little is known about this shadowy organization. It is thought to have been led among others by Abdelkarim Mejatti who was recently killed in Saudi Arabia. However, the Moroccan Islamist Combatant Group does not appear to have been strong enough to have developed any structural or organizational base similar to that of its Libyan counterpart. Instead it appears to have been made up primarily of small cells of individuals who had settled in Europe.

 

Delinquent Islamists?

 

More recently the jihadist ideology has drawn particular support from among ill-educated impoverished youths living the shantytowns of Casablanca, Fes and other cities. Some of these followers, such as Zakaria Miloudi and Youssef Fikri reportedly set up their own groups that appeared to operate more like delinquent gangs than Islamist organisations. They took it upon themselves to impose their particular interpretation of Shari'ah law upon their own communities.

 

Miloudi is thought to have headed a group called Assirat al-Moustakim (Straight Path) that operated like a cult with its members segregating themselves from the rest of the community of the Sidi Moumen neighbourhood in which it operated. Miloudi took control over every aspect of his group's lives, even providing them with food stalls from which they could earn a living. They imposed their rigid interpretation of Islam on the local population, meting out punishments on those who refused to comply and in some cases executing those they considered depraved. Likewise Fikri and his followers terrorised the local neighbourhoods in which they were residing. Fikri himself was involved in a number of "Islamic" executions, including of his own uncle. Both Fikri and Miloudi are currently in prison and accused of being involved in the Casablanca attacks.

 

Labelling

 

The immediate response of the Moroccan authorities to the Casablanca bombings was to try to blame international terrorists in general and al-Qaeda in particular for the atrocities. The regime was anxious to dispel any suggestion that jihadist terrorism could have developed inside the country. However as the investigations developed it soon became clear that the majority of those involved were Moroccans, mainly from the Sidi Moumen slums. Following the attacks, the Moroccan regime rounded up at least 2,000 suspects and held a series of trials. Those accused of involvement in the attacks included radical preachers like Fizazi and Haddouci, as well as characters such as Miloudi and Fikri (who was imprisoned before the bombings). The Moroccan authorities labeled the majority of those involved as members of Salafia Jihadia – a new term that became common currency after the attacks. Indeed, the Moroccan Justice Ministry recently declared that Salafia Jihadia had 699 activists. [7]

 

However, rather than being an organization, Salafia Jihadia appears more to be a convenient label used by the Moroccan regime to lump together various jihadist strands. As one Moroccan analyst has noted, "All these labels and numbers are far removed from reality and the security services wanted to put all the Islamic currents onto one shelf and label them as Salafi Jihadis for ease so they could wrap the file up quickly." [8] Salafia Jihadia is more akin to a current of thought that these individuals may well subscribe to, but it should not be confused with a specific group as such.

 

Indeed, the radicals who were accused of membership of Salafiya Jihadia themselves reject this label. Shiekh Haddouci for example reportedly called the group, "the daughter of fornication." [9] Furthermore, some of the suicide bombers who changed their minds at the last moment and did not go ahead with the attacks have denied any knowledge of the group and instead told their interrogators that they were part of Ahl Sunna wal Jama'a (The People of the Sunna and the Group (i.e. followers of the Prophet). [10] Indeed, most radicals prefer to identify themselves as part of Ahl Sunna wal Jama'a; in other words as Salafist-oriented Sunni Muslims.

 

The Moroccan regime has also accused a number of radicals, including Youssef Fikri of being part of Takfir wal Hijra. However, it seems that this also may have been a way of giving greater dimensions to what was essentially a local phenomenon. Whilst Fikri and his associates may have displayed a degree of Takfiri type behavior, such as declaring others as kufar (heathen), there is no solid evidence that any such group formally exists in Morocco. Indeed, it has been suggested that there is only one true Takfiri in the country, Sheikh Bin Daoud al-Khameli, a former Marxist, who took his family to live on the top of a mountain because he dismissed all of Moroccan society as heathen. [11]

 

Conclusion

 

It seems that all of these groups have no overarching formal structure as such. Instead these militant cells are made up from small numbers of individuals who have grouped around the teachings of a particular Sheikh and who may or may not have links and contacts with those in other cells both inside the country and abroad. Whether the Moroccan regime has succeeded in its recent campaign to eliminate these radical Islamist trends has yet to be seen. However, the underlying problems that gave rise to militancy in the first place continue to fester. This is something that the Moroccan authorities will not be able to blame on outside forces.

 

Alison Pargeter is a Research Fellow at the International Policy Institue, Kings College London.

 

Notes:

1. L'Islamism Marocain: Entre Révolution et Intégration. Abdessamad Dialmy. EHESS, Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, 110. April-June 2000.

2. Interview with Abdelkarim Mouti by Camal Tawile. Al Hayat, 20 July 2000.

3. El Sharq el Awsat., 11 March 2005.

4. One of the people who benefited the most was Mohamed El-Maghraoui in Marrakech who directed an association called Al-Dawa ila Qu'ran wa Sunna which received substantial funding from Saudi Arabia.

5. Abdelsalam Razzak. Min el-Salafia el Watania ila Salfia Jihadia. [From nationalist salafism to Jihadist Salafism]. Al-Jazeera.net 3 October 2004.

6. Mukahamat il irhab bil Maghreb al halaka thalith [Terrorism on trial in Morocco. Article three]. Idris Wilt al-Kabila 19 April 2004. Magazine of Palestinian Writers. www.falasteen.com.

7. Abdelsalam Razzak. Mukahamat al-Salafia al-jihadia fi al-Maghreb. [Trials of the Salafist Jihadists in Morocco]. Al-Jazeera.net 3 October 2004.

8. Ibid.

9. Mukahamat il irhab bil Maghreb al halaka thalith [Terrorism on trial in Morocco. Article three]. Idris Wilt al-Kabila 19 April 2004. Magazine of Palestinian Writers. www.falasteen.com.

10. Abdelsalam Razzak. Min el-Salafia el Watania ila Salfia Jihadia. [From nationalist salafism to Jihadist Salafism]. Al-Jazeera.net 3 October 2004.

11. Al Hayat, 15 May 2004.