The Moroccan challenge to ISIS

Friday 17/04/2015
Moroccan King Mohammed VI (C) at a recent inauguration ceremony of the International Imam Training Centre in Rabat

The entire Maghreb, from Libya to Morocco, is being targeted by the Islamic State (ISIS). The terror group’s recent assumption of responsibility for the Bardo Museum attack in Tunis comes in the context of a wider campaign to influence democracy in Tunisia and open a new front in the heart of the Maghreb. Morocco, however, represents a unique challenge to this threat.

The importance of Morocco to ISIS is not new but rather finds its origins in the group’s conception of an Islamic caliphate. Even before ISIS announced its “caliphate” in June 2014, one of its leading theologians wrote a book laying out the objectives for the group’s expansion. Entitled “The Mono­theists’ Treasure for Clarifying the Path to Empowerment”, the tract labels Morocco as one of the main obstacles to be destroyed in order for ISIS to expand across the entire Arab world.

ISIS is targeting Morocco for a number of reasons, chief among them the strength and nature of its historically rooted political system. The Moroccan monarchy is not simply a civil authority, it is also a religious institution whose legiti­macy is drawn from its historical role in leading an emirate of Mus­lim believers.

The dual civil and religious nature of Morocco’s system of government has deeply influenced the Islamic political currents in the country. As religious and political questions within the political sys­tem are intricately linked, Islamist groups have taken on the character of those wishing to reform the system rather than overthrow it. The peculiar nature of Morocco’s political system has helped its king avoid the chaos of the “Arab spring” and play an active role in political reforms while burnishing his religious credentials as “leader of the believers”.

The nature of the Moroccan political system has also helped it develop a unique religious model. In response to a series of bombings in Casablanca in 2003, the coun­try embarked upon far-reaching reform of its religious institutions. Now, Morocco is starting to export this model. Last year, Morocco helped Mali by offering training for its imams and religious leaders as part of a wider agreement signed after Moroccan King Mohammed VI visited the country.

The aim of this religious instruc­tion was to rationalise the religious space in Mali and protect religion from the deviation of extremism. Other African countries, such as Tunisia, Libya and Ghana, have also sought to follow Mali’s example by learning from the Moroccan model. Extremist groups view Morocco as a threat, a country pursuing a re­gional policy to combat extremism by offering a road map for religious reform.

A final consideration in ISIS’s targeting of Morocco is the role of Spain, the historical site of Al- Andalus. Once the site of an Islamic caliphate encompassing much of modern Spain, the issue of Al-An­dalus has been central in the radical discourse of al-Qaeda and more recently ISIS. What’s more, the presence of two Spanish enclaves in Morocco — Melilla and Ceuta — points to the historical remnants of the Crusades against the Islamic world. To erase this legacy and con­quer Spain, the extremists reason, they must take Morocco first.

A stable country comfortable with religion and offering a robust model in combating extremism, the Kingdom of Morocco represents both a threat and a target for ISIS.