On August 7, Moroccan police dismantled a robust network of Islamist militants seeking to perpetrate a number of attacks across northern Africa; the specific targeted locales remain unknown. The composition of the group’s operatives and the level of the cell’s sophistication?as reported by local Moroccan media–has caused considerable consternation among the Moroccan populace and security forces that remain shaken from the 2003 Casablanca attacks and the ties to the 2004 Madrid attacks .
Cell Composition, Sophistication, and al-Qaeda Linkage
Moroccan authorities reported that 44 individuals are in custody. The group includes five members of the Moroccan armed forces who are trained to handle explosives. The involvement of Moroccan military personnel resonates uncomfortably in a country where military personnel twice attempted to assassinate King Hassan II.
Hassan El Khattab, the purported leader of Jamaat Ansar El Mehdi , aimed at jihad by robbing financial institutions and bank trucks. Moroccan police seized a large cache of explosives, propaganda material, and laboratory equipment from the suspects’ residences.
Moroccan security forces and government personnel were abnormally quick to draw linkages to al-Qaeda, likely because an al-Qaeda-linked group, the Salifiya Jihadiya , was responsible for the 2003 attack in Casablanca. Further, since 2003, Moroccan authorities have broken up more than 50 terrorist cells operating in the country, detaining more than 2,000 men.
Poverty and Radicalization
Government officials believe that a strong correlation exists between poverty and Islamic extremism, and, although this theory was largely disproved in the wake of 9/11 , given that the attackers were affluent and well-educated, Moroccan Islamists largely focus recruiting efforts on impoverish youth from the slums of Casablanca.
Hassan El Khattab told authorities that he planned to base his religious movement in Nador and Ouezzane. Both towns are located in Morocco’s northeast and are an important base for Morocco’s main Islamist opposition, Al Adl Wa Al Ihsane (Justice and Charity). Additionally, Nador and Ouezzane are poor cities and, consequently, rife for Islamist recruiting.
While the discovery and thwarting of the plot by El Khattab is a clear success for the Moroccan state, the fact that his ilk operate with notional support is worrisome. The Moroccan government has proven itself fairly successful in preventing attacks; however, their attention need also be focused on the plight of the citizenry, who languish in poverty and are, consequently, susceptible to radicalization. Targeting the motivations of terrorism and the perceptions of inequality or injustice will go a long way in combating this threat. It would seem counterintuitive for a group to target its own country, which has been a safe haven for the group, but precedence can be culled from Turkey (Terrorist Incident, Terrorist Incident), the UK , Indonesia and many others. Therefore, the Moroccan government cannot discount any cell’s ambitions to overthrow the government and/or to wreak havoc in its cities.