How Dangerous Are Morocco's Salafists?

Recent altercations have raised fears of emerging Salafist groups in Morocco, but the the threat of Ansar al-Sharia in Morocco remains a cause for debate, reports Mohammed Boudarhan.

al-monitor Moroccan Salafists demonstrate against an anti-Islam film made in the US that mocks the Prophet Muhammad outside a mosque in the impoverished Rahma neighbourhood of Sale, September 21, 2012. Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

terrorism, salafists, al-qaeda

Dec 12, 2012

In Tangier on Nov. 27, 2012, a “bearded” demonstration turned into an open confrontation. On the one hand was the police. On the other were a hundred Salafists noisily demanding the release of one of their own who allegedly tried to kill a policeman and is thought to be one of 24 suspected terrorists specializing in sending jihadists to northern Mali.

In recent months, the Salafists have come out of the woodwork and the authorities responded in the following manner:

On Oct. 17, after the afternoon prayers in the al-Inbiaat neighborhood of Salé, two individuals were arrested as they were about to storm a house in the neighborhood. Their target? An old woman they accused of witchcraft. Their goal? According to police sources, they planned to hang her. When they were arrested, they were carrying knives, hoods, a hammer and two ropes, one of which was tied and ready for use. 

“These two persons are known to the police, which has been watching them for some time,” said a security source in Rabat. The two had finished prison sentences for terrorism and one of them was released in late 2010. Information obtained from their interrogation helped the National Brigade of the Judicial Police arrest eight other alleged members of a terrorist cell.

A few days later, another cell affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia in the Islamic Maghreb was dismantled. According to security sources, its eight members were about to act. They had readied explosives to attack government buildings, public figures and tourist attractions.

From Sidi Moumen to El-Rich

At the beginning of October, a high school in a small town near el-Rachidia called el-Rich was the scene of another serious incident. Salafist teachers attacked a fellow teacher who taught philosophy. At first, they tried to dissuade students from attending his courses, because Salafists consider philosophy to be a form of apostasy. When that didn’t work, they decided to use harsher methods. After severely beating the teacher in front of his students, one Salafist made a throat-cutting motion with his index finger. The victim, whose initials are H. B., filed a complaint and an investigation is underway.

Other equally serious incidents have been ignored. Two months ago, a group of Salafists beat a couple in a vacant lot near Sidi Moumen, Casablanca. According to the police complaint, the two young people were only chatting as they strolled.

Not even the police escaped Salafist condemnation. In a video that is still circulating on the Internet, a certain Moussaab Nadori promised a large sum of money to anyone who would take vengeance on a police officer who brutalized a Salafist inmate’s wife as she was demonstrating in front of Oukacha prison.

Sharia advocates

“Giving Sharia its true place in society," "warning against secularism and man-made laws" and "working to restore the Caliphate” are just a few points in the manifesto issued in early September by a new group calling itself Ansar al-Sharia in Morocco. That group first appeared on social networks. It was present at the street demonstrations against the film Innocence of Muslims, especially in northern cities like Tangier, Martil, Tetouan and Fnideq, where it was out in force. It has benefited from the “advice” of several famous Moroccan Salafists such as Omar Haddouchi, who was pardoned in April 2011, and Fatiha Mejjati, aka Umm Adam.

What are some of the features of Ansar al-Sharia in Morocco? First is their flag, which is identical to that of their counterparts in Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. It is a black flag displaying the slogan “there is no God but God.” They claim to have no connections to foreign countries, but they do not hide their sympathy for extremist movements around the world, first among them al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghre.

Their leaders? Until a few days ago, nobody claimed to be their leader. But on Sunday, Oct. 21, police arrested a certain Younsi Hassan in Tetouan, when he was visiting a few “brothers.” Known among Salafists for his activism, the former inmate presented himself as one of the leaders of Ansar al-Sharia in Morocco. A local source said, “We suspect that this group is recruiting jihadists to fight in Syria, especially in Tetouan.”

Allah’s madmen

Is there reason to fear the latest Salafist unrest? Mohamed Darif, a political scientist and expert on Islamist movements thinks not, at least with regard to Ansar al-Sharia in Morocco.

“I think the movement’s name scares people because it is associated with those movements that advocate violence and that emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring.” According to Darif, Ansar al-Sharia in Morocco revealed its program when it declared itself against secularism but not against the regime.

“Let us remember that in 2005, King Mohammed VI told El-Pais that Morocco is not a secular state,” said the researcher. But what about the violent acts by militants proclaiming Salafism? “I think what happened in Salé was an individual act. What we should fear is organized violence,” said Darif.

In conclusion, Darif believes that we should not exaggerate violent acts committed by “Allah’s madmen” because that may lead to other abuses. It is understood that some security organizations may benefit from the legitimization of human rights violations, as was the case after the May 16, 2003 attacks. Meanwhile, Salafists — be they jihadists or not — are not hiding anymore. Not a week goes by without them demonstrating in several Moroccan cities.

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