The first-ever suicide – terror attack in Morocco happened in Casablanca on May 16, 2003 in which were targeted a hotel, a restaurant, a Jewish community centre and cemetery, and a former Spanish cultural centre that had been transformed into a nightclub for Morocco’s Westernized middle class. Since this experience, which left forty-five people dead and more than one hundred wounded – the peace has been continuously shattered by other attacks, including the following:
- March 11, 2007 suicide bombing inside an internet café in Sidi Moumen, one of Casablanca’s largest slums, which killed the bomber and injured four others
- Multiple-bomb plot that was uncovered by police in Casablanca on April 10, 2007, resulting in three of the would-be bombers blowing themselves up and a fourth being shot and killed by police (one officer was killed by the explosions)
- April 14, 2007, coordinated attacks on the U.S. consulate and the American cultural centre in Casablanca which left both bombers dead and a person injured
- August 13, 2007 bombing aimed at a tourist bus 130 kilometres east of Rabat in Meknes, the onetime imperial capital of Alaouite Dynasty- The incident only resulted in the would-be “martyr” injured.
A 2005 analysis conducted by Dr. Anouar Boukhars, director of Wilberforce University’s Centre for Defence and Security Policy affirms that “the growth of radical Islam in Morocco is at least partly attributable to the government’s encouragement of Wahhabism during the 1980s because of its perceived political quietism and deference to rulers, a move that inadvertently imported what proved to be the ideological and motivational sources for the string of attacks in 2003”.
In fact, the reason of this statement finds its basis if we analyse the raise of radical Islam in Morocco just after the 60s. Before that, political Islam occupied very little space and although Islam was considered by many as the state religion, the government was imbued with modernising and secularizing ideas. The first appearance of Islamism, encouraged by King Hassan, was essentially caused by the raise of the socialist nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 60s. To fight the imminent challenge from the Left Nasserite, King Hassan saw in radical Islam the only way to face the threat, therefore Morocco turned to Saudi Arabia for help and “in return the Saudis were given free rein to introduce Wahabbism to Morocco through preachers, publications, audiocassettes and generous monetary contributions”. The development of a new religious policy to counteract the Arab nationalist dimension of Nasserism openly encouraged by the palace, resulted in the mid-eighties in a major threat for the political stability of the country and King Hassan started promoting the so-called moderate Islamism. The pressures and the high control on religious structures put in place by the government led to an increase in clandestine Islamist groups though.
Moreover, the post 9/11 rise of Jihadist groups in North Africa demonstrates that Islamic education overseen by governments is actually undergoing a period of crisis and experiences a threatening raise of independent preachers. Dr. Aomar Boum, socio-cultural anthropologist born and raised in the oasis of Mhamid, Foum Zguid (southern Morocco) underlines that after the attacks on 9/11 in Morocco “independent preachers promoting Jihadist views have outmuscled official scholars; they have successfully enlisted the support of a growing number of disenfranchised and unemployed youth, steering them toward AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), ISIS and other extremist groups”.
Despite the ongoing challenges threatening the North African countries Morocco is nowadays considered the safest one and most tolerant towards other religions. Moreover, it boasts the title of Religious Model within the Muslim countries thanks to the mise en place of an Islamic reform by King Mohammed VI in the aftermath of the 2003 Casablanca suicide bombings. This reform sees the establishment an official religious infrastructure that guarantees full control and supervision of the training of moderate scholars and preachers which was also possible thanks to the Moroccan political stability.
In 2015 the Kingdom of Morocco embarked upon an ambitious project designed to curb the rise of extremism and to counteract the savvy independent preachers. Its aim was essentially to teach African and European preachers and Imams at the International Imam Training Centre in Rabat and export Morocco’s self-styled moderate brand of Maliki Islam to sub-Saharan Africa and Europe.
The Maliki school of thought, founded in the 8th century by Imam Malik ibn Anas al-Asbahi is known as one of the most tolerant among the four traditional schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’I, Hanbali). The Maliki rite is largely based on a pragmatic interpretation of the Quran and of the Prophetic tradition making public interest (al-maslaha al-‘ama) a foundation of any religious interpretation.
Many countries have already signed agreement with Morocco’s government to train their Imams (man and women) including France, Belgium, Tunisia, Gabon, Ivory Coast, the Maldives, Libya, Mali, and Guinea.
Despite the developed and tolerant atmosphere along with the political stability enjoyed by the Moroccans, radical Islam seems to be still a consistent threat.
In fact, in the days preceding the parliamentary election in Morocco 10 suspected female Islamic state suicide bombers have been arrested by the Moroccan police. According to Abdelhak Khayyam, head of Morocco’s counter terror unit at least four of them are suspected of marrying ISIL fighters in Syria over the internet. During the raid, bomb making materials were found, which is believed would have been used for an operation on Election Day.
Raffaello Pantucci, a security expert at the Royal Institute Services Institute, said Morocco was becoming increasingly aggressive in its bid to tackle so-called “homegrown” jihadism. He adds that “Morocco has been very effective in preventing attacks and it still feels like a safe country There is little sense that something is bubbling under the surface. That is because they have been very aggressive in pursuing and arresting suspects, and that is no doubt because they are aware of the number of Moroccans who have gone to fight in Syria in Iraq”
Despite the imminent threat of radical Islam embodied by the extremist group ISIS at the moment in the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco can be considered relatively untroubled by jihadists compared to other neighbouring countries.
Mohamed Daadaoui is an associate professor of political science at Oklahoma City University. He is the author of a book on Morocco’s monarchy entitled: Moroccan Monarchy and the Islamist Challenge. Mohamed has also written peer-reviewed articles published in the Journal of North African Studies and Middle East Studies, chapter in the edited volumes Contemporary Morocco: State, Politics and Society under Mohammed VI, edited by Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Daniel Zisenwine, and Limited Elections and Democratization in the Middle East, by Khalid al-Anani and Mahmoud Hamad.
Mohamed has contributed several analytical pieces to some online outlets such as: Foreign Policy, SADA of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jadaliyya, and Muftah Mohamed’s articles have appeared in the Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, the Journal of North African Studies, Hudson Institute, Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, SADA of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Middle East Institute, Jadaliyya, and Muftah. He has also provided commentary to local and international media outlets such as: Oklahoma local PBS affiliate, C-Span, and al-Jazeera English. Daadaoui is also the author of a blog on the Maghreb region called Maghreb Blog. He is currently working on a Historical Dictionary of the Arab Uprisings and a manuscript on Islamism in Morocco and Tunisia.
In your opinion how did the Arab Spring affect Morocco and how does that compare to the neighbouring countries?
The Arab uprisings did affect Morocco in the sense that it demystified the regime. For the first time in modern history of Morocco, people under the February 20 protest movement went to the streets in an attempt to stake their claims to political and economic reforms. However, the makhzen power managed to pacify the protests by offering a semblance of reforms in the form of a new constitution with cosmetic changes to the structure of the political system. The final coup de grace for the protest movement in Morocco came in the form of the legislative elections of November 2011. The elections, which saw the plurality victory of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development, and the first Islamist-led government in Moroccan history, further legitimized regime decorative package of reforms. The government of Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane has had a rocky time implementing any political or economic reforms amidst allegations of royal sabotage from the shadow government of advisers in the palace. Benkirane’s attempt to shore up Morocco’s mounting fiscal and economic crisis was met by large-scale protests against a proposed governmental increase in fuel prices.
Today, the regime in Morocco appears more stable and confident than neighboring countries in its position as supreme uncontested political authority within the state edifice of what is called Makhzen in Morocco. And though the protests have managed to demystify the cultural hegemony of the monarchy, the February 20 movement largely failed in mounting a formidable challenge to the regime of Mohammed VI. Despite the constitutional changes, the monarchy still holds significant clout in the political system with control over the military, economy and vast discretionary powers.
How exposed is Morocco to ISIS and the terrorism threat?
I think every state in the region and beyond is potentially exposed to ISIS threat, especially as the radical terrorist group is facing tremendous losses in Iraq and Syria. As they are exporting violence outside those two states, the whole world is a potential target. But so far, the counter-terrorism strategy of the intelligence apparatus of the state has been vigilant in thwarting ISIS cells and recruitment. The potential long term threat lies with the return of the so many ISIS fighters from Moroccan origins. Let’s not forget ISIS had at one point some 1500 Moroccan fighters.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Salah Abdeslam and Brahim Abdeslam, Mohamed Abrini, who are alleged to have been involved in the planning and execution of the November 2015 Paris attacks and the 2016 Brussels bombing as well as the suicide bombers at the Brussels Airport in the 2016 Najm al-‘Ashrāw and The Brothers Ibrahim & Khālid al-Bakrāwī are Belgian nationals of Moroccan descent. How would you explain this involvement of Moroccan nationals in terror attacks?
I don’t see it as a Moroccan issue. These terrorists are more Belgian or French than Moroccan. Some don’t even speak the Amazigh dialects or associate culturally or cognitively with their land of origin. Their radicalization happened in Europe and their malaise is a European one of integration and assimilation, legitimized by reference to a violent religious eschatology. The problem is located more in European societies where the radicalized Moroccan transplants are liminal individuals with a dangerous sense of identity crisis.
Following Morocco’s Islamic party’s (PJD) victory against Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) at the recent elections would you rate Moroccan population to still believe in modernisation?
In my view, the legislative elections are not a good indicator about societies tendencies in Morocco. The PJD is hardly behaving as an Islamist party. It is much more secular since it has entered into the realm of political contestation.
According to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies based in London, Abdel-Ilah Benkiran is responsible for Moroccan fleeing the Country to join ISIS. This is mainly due to a sentiment of disillusion that affected the population following the false promises of PJD. What are your thoughts about this specific statement?
I don’t share that view at all. There is no data suggesting that, nor is that a plausible argument. Moroccans are aware of the duality of state and regime, whereby the former has nominal control over the affairs of the state, and the latter through the palace shadow government is firmly in control of policy. Any socio-economic failures are attributed the whole structure of the regime, not just the sacrificial lamb of the Benkirane government.
Is there any chance of a critical rise of Islamic extremism?
Morocco has long been successful at countering the rise of extremism through advancing a version of Moroccan royal Islam that has the monarch at the helm of the religious institution in the country. There is also significant co-optation of former extremist preachers as it was the case for salafi preacher al-Fizazi. The state’s continues to “regulate the sacred” as it has always devised different and tailored approaches to obstruct opposition forces, Islamist and non-Islamist.
Soon after the release in 2015 of the Moroccan movie Much Loved directed by Nabil Ayouch, the main actress Loubna Abidar was aggressed and severely beaten by some Moroccan nationals in Casablanca for acting the part of a sex worker. It does not seem a sign of hope for the freedom of speech and thoughts.
Beyond the deplorable reaction to the movie, I think the much more concern is with freedom of the press that has been dwindling in the past few years. The cases of Moroccan journalists Nini and Anouzla, and rapper al-Haqed were alarming. The vagueness of the charges against them thinly masks the true nature of the indictment, which was an attempt to muzzle their critical stances against the government and, at times, vociferous comments about immorality and venality in Moroccan politics. Morocco’s attempt to shed the relics of its past limitations on associational and informational freedom has long been beset by unease toward the press’ increasing criticism of the state.
In your opinion what could Morocco do to reverse the jihadist momentum?
I think the intelligence-driven strategy of the state and its control over the sacred has so far worked to placate that jihadist impulse. There is no clear and effective way to pre-empt the actions of those bent on wreaking havoc in the name of a bastardised interpretation of the religion. But counterterrorism and policing and the co-optation of the religious realm have worked in Morocco.
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