Jihadists returning from Syria pose threat to Morocco

With hundreds of Moroccan jihadists joining the ranks of armed groups fighting in Syria, questions have arisen about the threats they pose upon their potential return to their country.

al-monitor Syrian citizens residing in Morocco demonstrate against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Rabat, Jan. 14, 2012. Photo by REUTERS.

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syria, morocco, jihad, jabhat al-nusra

May 29, 2014

Hundreds of Moroccans have joined the ranks of Salafist and jihadist groups fighting in Syria; their numbers were limited to a few dozen in 2012. A major fighting brigade consisting almost entirely of Moroccans has participated in the intense and fierce battles in Syria, and its popularity keeps growing. The participation of fighters in Syria puts them at risk for bloody deaths, and raises concerns about their return after having participated in a civil war.

“He died a martyr in the battle while fighting with courage.” This is the message that often appears on Twitter accounts and websites of Salafist and jihadist groups in Syria when announcing the death of one of their fighters.

Since the beginning of the clashes, foreigners, including Moroccans, are increasingly joining their ranks. In 2012, some studies said there were no more than 100 Moroccans [fighting in Syria]. Yet a Moroccan security member said that their numbers were estimated at 1,250 in March. In the same month, pro-Assad Syrian media outlets said that 150 “Moroccan terrorists" were killed. Jihadist sources, which prefer the term “martyr” instead of “terrorists,” said nearly 60 [fighters] of Moroccan origin have been killed since their operations in the northwest of the country were launched in early March.

Moroccans on the front

Even if all these figures are taken with a grain of salt, and seen as manipulated as part of psychological warfare, the phenomenon does exist. Many photos of the fighters — who use pseudonyms, all ending with “al-Maghribi” [meaning “the Moroccan”] — are circulating on the Internet. The pictures keep coming in and look alike: Men in combat uniform, with a gun in their hand or a cartridge belt of high caliber placed on their shoulders, wearing a traditional Moroccan or Afghan hat on the head, while pointing their forefinger to the sky and smiling. Other pictures show men in sparsely furnished rooms, sitting on carpets, surrounded by some symbolic objects such as carefully coordinated elements of decor and an open copy of the Quran placed atop gun magazines.

It is often difficult for specialists to identify the names, faces and pseudonyms of foreign fighters of the multiple groups scattered all over Syria and comprising North African, Arab and even Caucasian jihadists.

Brahim Benchekroun, Mohamed Souleimani Alami, Najib Housseini and dozens of others have been killed on the Syrian front. In Morocco, security services announced in early April the dismantling of a new cell recruiting people for jihad in Syria. This cell had a total of 17 people who were all arrested in several Moroccan cities. It was not the first cell of its kind. In total, nearly 70 people were arrested for the same reasons in the past month. The trial of some will start soon.

The return from jihad

What are the motives behind Moroccans joining the fierce and violent fighting in Syria? Mohamed Darif, a political scientist and expert on Islamist movements, said, “Concerning former [Moroccan] detainees that were known to be Salafists, their future looked bleak.” He added, “[When they got out of prison], they were expecting to be reintegrated into society, but they felt that the state was watching them closely and marginalizing them.” A large number of these former prisoners are going to Syria.

In October 2013, Mohammed Masbah, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and an expert on Islamist movements, said, “Thirty percent of Moroccans fighting in Syria served time in jail under anti-terrorism laws.” In this regard, Vish Saktivel, an American researcher who has lived in Morocco, said, “Many of the Salafists who were incarcerated, sometimes unfairly, have became radical.” Yet, not only former prisoners are present in Syria.

According to different views, the excessive media coverage of the Syrian conflict is an important reason for joining the front. On the Internet, videos of battles always glorifying the martyrs proliferate. In a public letter, a Moroccan explained that after Egyptian religious scholars issued a fatwa in June 2013 calling for jihad in Syria, he joined the battles. Many preachers in the Gulf, namely on satellite channels, encouraged fighters [to join the battles], before some of them [preachers] changed their minds, just like when Moroccan Sheikh Omar Haddouchi retracted his call for jihad.

The clashes have erupted in light of the Arab revolutions, and the rebels were largely seen as heroes; that was before some groups committed actions that raised criticism. Several governments that actively supported the Syrian revolution had difficulty blaming jihadists. In parallel, the cruelty and blind violence that pro-Assad forces unleashed against their opponents have raised outrage and incited an equal reply.

“Yes, I think those who are dying there are heroes,” said a Moroccan youth as he was leaving a mosque in Casablanca. Another older, regular visitor of the same mosque said in a lower voice, “Many youth are certainly fascinated [by this phenomenon], not just Salafists. Everyone is watching what Bashar al-Assad is doing to ​​his people. Thus, some believe that the mujahedeen are not only defending Islam, but also democracy, widows and orphans.”

The war in Syria has revived the idea and act of ​​jihad, which had lost its popularity after al-Qaeda’s multiple defeats. Once more, for some, it makes sense to fight a shameful regime that is the enemy of the faith and solidarity of the Muslim community.

Crossed paths

Fighters have to get to their destination. To provide the brigades operating on the front with fighters, small networks have been established all over Morocco, particularly in the north. In addition to the promises of compensation on site — a very small amount — some groups offer aid to the families of jihadists.

Moroccans start their journey in Istanbul, although some travel through Tunisia, where networks are efficiently working to recruit jihadists. According to the expert on strategic issues at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Rubin, after they reach Istanbul or Ankara, usually by air, Moroccan jihadists go to Gaziantep, a Turkish city bordering Syria. Once there, they complete a training period ranging between a few days to four weeks in the training camps. A security source said the overall cost of the trip can be up to 8,000 dirhams ($972).

Benefactors are sometimes asked to contribute and pay the bill; there also are foreign sponsors, mostly from the Gulf, who financially support the fighting brigades in Syria. On the ground, Moroccans join different groups, who are almost always of Salafist or jihadist obedience. According to Romain Caillet, a French researcher specialized in Salafism and jihadism and residing in Lebanon, in addition to the large majority of Moroccans in Harakat Sham al-Islam, Moroccans, among others, fight alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Ahrar al-Sham. In 2013, Moroccan national Abu Ayman al-Gharbi committed a suicide attack in Homs in the name of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra.

Chronicle of a death foretold

As evidence of the dangers the fighters are exposed to, we only learn about their presence in Syria after the announcement of their deaths. In July 2013, a young man using the pseudonym Abu Azzam al-Maghribi was killed in the city of Raqqa following a raid by Ahrar al-Sham on military barracks. The young man, whose actual name is believed to be Ahmed, was a native of Tetouan. In November 2013, Abu al-Baraa al-Maghribi, affiliated with ISIS, was killed in the suburbs of Aleppo and was portrayed as the martyr of Morocco.

While many Moroccan fighters are not familiar faces, others are prominent figures and their deaths cause a litany of tributes. This was the case of Abu Usama al-Maghribi, often described as a [frontline] commander for ISIS, who died in Tel Jijan in March 2014, during fights between ISIS and its rival Jabhat al-Nusra. Abu Usama had a noticeable importance. In other pictures, he was seen heading groups of dozens of men or accompanying Abu Omar al-Chichani, the Georgian leader of the group of Caucasian fighters, Jaish al-Muhajireen. Before perishing in this infighting, the Moroccan national had tried in vain a last mediation attempt. Numerous eulogies were given for Brahim Benchekroun, leader of Harakat Sham al-Islam. While danger lurks for these men, governments are also concerned about the danger they represent.

They are leaving, but only to come back

“Morocco, alongside its European partners, is carrying out foresight exercises to prevent the departure of Moroccans wishing to fight in Syria,” a security source said. “Just like Moroccans who returned from Afghanistan with experience, some might be tempted to set up their own groups once they go back to their country,” Saktivel said.

The kingdom does not want to relive the experience of the return of fighters who, in addition to being hardened, were exposed to violence and intense propaganda. “There is always much to fear from people who return home with a solid experience in handling weapons and explosives, especially when it comes to potential recidivists,” an officer of the Directorate of National Security said.

In November 2013, Minister of Justice Mustapha Ramid expressed similar fears in front of a parliamentary committee. He stated, “Our country will not be safe even if only a hundred out of the hundreds of men who left to fight in Syria return.” Ramid admitted with great sadness that he was the lawyer of a former Guantanamo detainee who went to Syria right after serving his sentence.

The solution is to track the baseline networks. The method consists of good coordination between the two services, i.e., the Directorate General for Territorial Surveillance and the National Brigade of the Judicial Police. As for the Directorate of Studies and Documentation, it must track down potential fighters on their journey and document their activities on the battlefield.

The thorny legal issues that some potential jihadists raise remain to be settled. In a long letter presented to the Moroccan media by his wife a few weeks ago, Anas El Haloui wondered on what basis Morocco bans travel to Syria; Morocco has officially sided with the Syrian opposition, and as a Muslim country it should allow Muslims to defend endangered innocent people. “On this point, he raises an interesting question, since Morocco has even hosted one of the Friends of Syria meetings,” Mohamed Darif said.

Security men, who are not inclined toward rhetoric, should address the issue through amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Law, which the Ministry of Justice is currently revising to criminalize the participation of Moroccan nationals in foreign conflicts. Meanwhile, people who are arrested for recruiting volunteers for jihad are generally prosecuted for “forming a criminal gang and holding unauthorized meetings.”

Picked up back home

Moroccan authorities have also started arresting fighters who have returned home. Abderrahim Mouhtad, president of Ennassir, an association for the support of Salafist prisoners, stated, “For about two months, Moroccans returning from Syria were being arrested and imprisoned upon their arrival to the kingdom. Today, 10 of them are held behind bars on charges of being affiliated to a criminal group.” This is a repressive policy with consequences: It may deter some fighters from returning to Morocco, yet it will also lead other fighters to believe that the state is hostile to their cause and thus consider it an enemy. 

The Moroccans who went to fight still have troubled intentions. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi posted on his website: “The testimony of a muhajir who fought in Latakia suggests that the purpose of Harakat Sham al-Islam is using Syria as a training ground in order to prepare for a fight against the Moroccan government upon the return of its members.” However, Tamimi added that this claim does not appear in the group’s discourse. Saktivel recently confirmed that Benchekroun, leader of Harakat Sham al-Islam, had recruited some members to carry out attacks in Morocco.

Regarding the governments of fighters' home countries, problems may differ according to the groups they join. Indeed, Caillet recalls that Ahrar al-Sham is an integral part of the Islamic Front and represents its Salafist wing. The Islamic Front would be, according to many experts, supported by countries such as Turkey and Qatar, and the Americans may converse with it. Countries showing solidarity with the Syrian revolution could talk with this group and prepare scenarios for the future Syria. The situation is much less certain in the case of ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, two organizations with a more radical discourse, which sometimes suggest their intentions to continue the fight elsewhere after the hypothetical defeat of the Syrian regime.

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