The Changing Face of the Moroccan Jihadism

Since the 70s, Morocco has reasonably been considered a Western-friendly state in a North African geopolitical scenario, which it was not. This is due to the fact that the Kingdom of Morocco has begun a long attempt to approach the EU rules, in order to expand its internal market and to raise the standards of life of its citizens. For many years, this has been a win-win game. However, this virtuous path has been dramatically interrupted in 1992, when the EU Parliament refused to approve the Renovated Mediterranean Policy (RMP). This is basically a financial cooperation framework between the EU and Morocco. The reason why the EU Parliament posed its veto to this protocol was directly connected with a difficult internal political situation, that the Kingdom was facing at the time. Indeed, between 1992 and 1996 Morocco experimented huge human rights violations inside its boundaries, which were related to the Western Sahara problems. This occurrence could be considered a valuable starting point of this analysis dedicated to the problem of jihadi terrorism in the Kingdom of Morocco. From a Western point of view, Morocco has always represented a solid outpost to tackle the menaces coming from North African and Sub-Saharan geopolitical spaces. The reality is far from this idealistic considerations. The presence of a violent form of Salafism in Morocco can be traced back in the 80s and has been largely underestimated. Assessing the entity of this phenomenon is the purpose of this article.


Ideological “sui generis” genesis. In Morocco there is a peculiar form of state-sponsored radicalism. More precisely, the Kingdom has been the first – inadvertent – supporter of its homegrown radicalism. This could be read as  an unintentional consequence of an intentional action, as the community of the sociologist are used to define. Indeed, during the 80s the Kingdom of Morocco has “encouraged the importation of Wahhabism” to “counter the growing menace of political Islam”. At that time the monarchy was suffering from a lack of social trust that had to be contained. Exercising the power often requires a form of quietism and a social community able to recognize its lawfulness. This led the King Hassan II to choose the Wahhabi-Salafi ideology “which albeit being puritanical, contemptuous of modernity, and scornful of Moroccan forms of Islam, was distinguished by its political quietism and deference to Muslim rulers”. The unintentional – but terrible – consequence of this choice has been the raise of “the groundwork for the surge of modern Moroccan terrorism”.

Technically speaking, the Moroccan way of embracing Salafism was inspired by the so-called Salafiyya ‘ilmiyya (scholarly or scientific Salafism), whose central ideas are orthodoxy (a static set of beliefs) and shari’a (a fixed divine construct). Political Islam was viewed as a painful source of perversion, punishable by any kind of violence. As often happens in the institutionalization of terrorist movements, there are charismatic leaders able to fuel the disengaged people by catalyzing their radicalization. In Morocco, this has been the case of the late Fiqh Zamzami (d. 1989) of Tangiers. Thanks to his being an excellent orator and to his sermons about immorality, injustice and corruption, in 70s-80s he was able to radicalize hordes of discontent people. Without exceeding in too many details, it is worth underling that Zamzami’s Salafism was a sort of hiatus inside the Moroccan religious debate. A notorious precursor of Zamzami, was Allal al-Fassi, the inspirer of the first wave of Moroccan Salafism (1925-1954). Despite they have expressed the same kind of puritanical approach to the religion, the first and the second wave of Moroccan Salafism differed in the final outcome of the preaching: a) the first wave aimed at defending the Moroccan identity from the risk of being absorbed by colonial invaders; b) the second one was about the depuration of the Moroccan society from those conducts able to make it slippers towards the jahiliyya.

In order to understand the explosive power of the Moroccan Islamic radicalism, Wahhabism is not the only ideological factor that matters. Indeed, Moroccan jihadism is a mixture of “the Saudi tradition of aggressive Wahhabi militancy and the revolutionary political trend of Egyptian scholar, Sayyid Qutb”. This ideological osmosis between Wahhabism and Qutb-style jihadism began during the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, when a little group of Moroccan combatants travelled to the Afghan powder keg to reinforce the International Islamic Brigade. Differently from the Syrian and the Egyptian mujahideen, the Moroccan combatants had their formative religious years only once they landed in Afghanistan. This resulted in a commingling of a wide range of ideological pills absorbed by an equal spectrum of Islamic schools.

From ideas to actions. Violent actions are not a direct consequence of radical ideas. In order to jump to violence an individual need some other catalyst factors able to activate the entire process. In the Moroccan Salafism these individuals can be profiled as the anthropological type of the marginal person, disengaged from the rest of the society and discontented about both the internal and the international political situation. In Moroccan contingency, the young people dissatisfied by the stagnation of their individual situation and angry towards the Kingdom have been particularly prone to radicalize. The Gulf War and the huge role of the American troops was probably the most important international catalytic factor for the Moroccan radicalization. The empowerment of Al-Qaeda and the heavy charismatic role that Bin Laden occupied in it, channeled the Moroccan Islamic Radicalism in a new era. Indeed, many converts to the jihadists’ ideology openly embraced Osama Bin Laden and joined his battalions in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Central Asia and Chechnya. These Moroccan jihadists were perfectly trained by the Al-Qaeda organization and, as in other countries, represents a concrete menace for the security of states also today.

Nevertheless, the 80s have been the key years to understand the process of institutionalization of the Salafi-Jihadism in Morocco. This because:

“Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, this apolitical, puritanical, and backward-looking wave of new fundamentalism benefited greatly from globalization and the widespread alienation generated by the painful IMF/World Bank policies of economic and financial structural adjustment programs. The Wahhabi salafists proved adept at manipulating slogans, generating themes and appropriating them for their own purposes. Through networks of storefront or makeshift mosques, they consolidated their ability to disseminate their ideas and operate in the shantytowns of the major cities in the kingdom”.

From 2000 onwards Moroccan militants have carried out a huge number of deadly attacks: from the train bombings in Madrid, to the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the executions of more than 166 Moroccan civilians regarded as “bad Muslims”. The same thing occurred in other safe havens for terrorist groups as for example in the Balkans. Thus, the Afghan mujahedeen came back to their homeland and tried to conquer space inside it. This core generation of mujahedeen has represented the most powerful factor in the subsequent re-organization of the Salafism. A tangible proof of that could be found in the after 9/11 detection and subsequent disruption of a suspected al-Qaeda cell in Morocco, which planned to attack U.S. and British military ships in the Straits of Gibraltar. The Kingdom of Morocco, an example of moderation and the ideal partner country in an EU perspective, were becoming more and more prone to violence and radicalization. Moroccan Kingdom and its security services put the pieces together and developed a strategy to counter the homegrown terrorism. This strategy to tackle radicalization in the country has been particularly strict. Secret services and police have carried out raids against suspected extremist groups like those of Zakaria El Miloudi, Abou Hafs and Youssef Fikri.

This violent reaction, sponsored by the same country that during the 70s allowed both the Wahhabi and the Qutb-style doctrine of the Salafim, has been perceived as a deep injustice by the Moroccan-based jihadist groups. In other words, the violent reaction to terrorism resulted in the counterproductive outcome of fueling other violence. The Kingdom of Morocco and its allies started to be perceived as similar enemies. This has shaped in a decisive way the Moroccan Jihadist movements organization. Broadly speaking the jihadist network in the kingdom could be considered a clear example of glocal movement, in the same way as in other context like Algerian and South-Eastern Asian networks. Along with a purely local strategy, terrorist groups are linked to the global jihad network by aligning to common programmatic purposes. In general terms, the local objectives have never been focused to a truly attempt to tackle the Moroccan political system in its architectural structure. It correspond to a particularly important concern that animated each wave of Moroccan jihadism: the consciousness of not being able to engage a front battle with the security forces, because the homegrown jihadist network “is less cohesive in membership, consisting of cells, and operating with subtle, decentralized links to groups that provide funding, publicity, shelter and recruitment facilities”.

The “new wave” of the Daesh’s Moroccan branch.

At present, the Moroccan Salafi-Jihadist network lacks in organization and cohesion and seems to be unable to directly destabilize the country. This is partially due to a change in the counter-terrorism policies developed by the Kingdom from the 2003 onwards. Indeed, after the spreading of radical actions towards the country, King Mohammed VI decided to change its strategy to fight the Salafist menace through the rebalancing of the religious Islamic radical doctrine with a more tolerant interpretation of Islam. The choice has fallen in the promotion of the Moroccan form of Sufism, considering it as “a counterweight to foreign forms of religiosity – Salafism first and foremost”. Basically, the Kingdom aims at using “the Sufi orders to contain extremist tendencies that were beginning to spread among the youth” in an approach that “was meant to provide an effective mechanism to protect the kingdom from anything that would threaten its security or the stability of its political system”.

This strategy has shown its effects in several occasions. On November 6, 2015, King Mohammed VI pardoned a group of 37 Salafi detainees, who had been convicted of terrorism charges, including Sheikh Hassan al-Khattab. According to the Ministry of Justice, this decision came “when they officially declared their loyalty to principles of the nation, its holy sites and national institutions, and after we reviewed their ideological positions and tendencies and they renounced extremism and terrorism”. The pardon strategy has been the latest element in the Kingdom’s ability to deal with terrorism. This allowed the government to rethink its security agenda by including radical Salafist prominent figure in a more institutional context, avoiding to exacerbate the groups’ willingness to plot the country. At first, the pardon-strategy has been quite successfully. Then, after the self-proclamation of Daesh, the empowerment of the Sufi institutions has been severely criticized. Despite its peacefully attitude, the Moroccan Sufism – which exist as a political subject since the 70s – has been accused of lacking in concrete political vision. This has been particularly manifested in the aftermath of the Arab Spring awakening. For these outlined weaknesses, Sufism has been considered unable to “provide a socio-religious current, as the state was hoping it would, strong enough to become an alternative to Salafi-jihadi and takfiri ideologies”. Indeed, “the latter have yet to lose their appeal and recruiting capabilities among some fragile social groups”.

In light of these considerations, the growing power acquired by the Daesh’s propaganda has been able to penetrate the Moroccan solidity too, finding in some marginalized social groups the ideal ground to foster its presence in the country. According to Sarah Feuer, North African analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “in 2015, reports indicated that up to 300 Moroccans were training in Libya. So it stands to reason that these militants will one day seek to return home and plan attacks when they do”. Last February and March, a Daesh’s cell was broken up as it planned to unleash explosives in public places and suspected Daesh militants who were allegedly plotting biological attacks have been arrested. According to the government intelligence, “As Islamic State militants gain territory in Libya, Morocco is facing a growing threat from IS”.

In order to tackle the Daesh institutionalization in the country, Morocco has increased its security collaboration and intelligence sharing with the Western governments, especially after the terrorist attacks in France because “a number of men of Moroccan background were involved in the violence”. This form of security collaboration has surely a positive outcome in the fight against Daesh in Northern Africa, but it can also exacerbate anti-Western jihadist groups, fueling their propaganda.

Federico Solfrini

Master’s degree in Economics and Institutions in Islamic Countries (LUISS Guido Carli)



Boukhars, Anouar. “The Origins of Militancy and Salafism in Morocco.” Terrorism Monitor, No. 3 (12). June 17, 2005.

Hmimnat, Salim. “Recalibrating Morocco’s Approach to Salafism”. Carnegie Endowment For International Peace. January 14, 2016.

Kajjo, Sirwan. “Islamic State Threat Rising in Morocco, Analysts Say”. Voice of America. March 9, 2016.



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