Sleeper terrorist cells highlight Morocco’s homegrown threat

BCIJ has dismantled 57 militant cells allegedly planning attacks in the country, including 20 in the last two years.
Sunday 06/01/2019
On alert. A police vehicle is seen on a road near the tourist village of Imlil in the High Atlas range,  December 18.  (AFP)
On alert. A police vehicle is seen on a road near the tourist village of Imlil in the High Atlas range, December 18. (AFP)

CASABLANCA - The terror attack in Morocco’s Imlil region, in which two Scandinavian women were killed, was based on the attackers’ initiative and not outside influences, officials said.

The decapitated bodies of Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, from Denmark, and Maren Ueland, 28, from Norway, were found by other tourists December 17 in an isolated area in Chamharouch, 10km from the village of Imlil in the Atlas Mountains, a popular tourist spot known for hiking and trekking.

A grisly video purporting to show the beheading of one of the victims and authenticated by the Danish intelligence service went viral on social media. The video was reminiscent of the Islamic State’s style of killing victims and was intended to sow fear among viewers, analysts said.

Moroccan authorities said four suspects in the killings acted on their own initiative, although they had pledged allegiance to Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a week before in a video posted on social media.

“We cannot remain seated, witnessing the destruction caused by Crusader planes,” said the suspects in the video in reference to Western air strikes in Syria and Iraq.

However, police and domestic intelligence spokesman Boubker Sabik said the attack was not coordinated with ISIS and described the suspects as “lone wolves.”

A Swiss man with a Spanish nationality was arrested December 29 in connection with the killings. He is suspected of “involvement in recruiting Moroccan and sub-Saharan nationals to carry out terrorist plots in Morocco against foreign targets and security forces in order to take hold of their service weapons,” the Central Bureau for Judicial Investigations said.

Political analyst Hafid Ezzahri warned that Morocco was facing “franchised terrorism,” in which terrorists act as lone wolves to jeopardise the country’s security.

“Terrorism has no religion or a specific identity. The Imlil attack showed that there are sleeper cells which are likely to strike anywhere and announce their allegiance to ISIS,” Ezzahri said.

The Imlil terror attack is the first of its kind in Morocco’s rural areas. The most recent previous terror attack in Morocco was in April 2011 in Marrakech, claiming 17 lives. Morocco has been largely spared militant attacks thanks, at least in part, to its efficient security services.

Abdellah Rami, a Moroccan expert on Islamist movements, told the New York Times that the attack targeted vital matters such as tourism, which is an essential component of the Moroccan economy.

“It is hard for the authorities to protect these areas and easier for organisations like ISIS to start operating in these places,” said Rami.

Ezzahri echoed Rami’s remarks, saying that the attackers chose soft targets in an area with far less security than in major cities.

“The suspects’ choice was strategic due to the high tourist activity in the Imlil region,” said Ezzahri.

Morocco set up the FBI-like Central Bureau for Judicial Investigations (BCIJ) in 2015 to counter terrorism. BCIJ has dismantled 57 militant cells allegedly planning attacks in the country, including 20 in the last two years.

Hundreds of Moroccans joined ISIS in the conflict zones in the Middle East. Moroccan authorities said that 242 out of a suspected 1,669 Moroccan jihadists, including some with dual nationality, had been arrested.

BCIJ has adopt­ed a pro-active policy to counter terrorism by closely monitoring Moroccan jihadists returning from conflict zones.

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