Authorities in Morocco are increasingly concerned about the impact of Moroccan jihadis returning from Syria. This unease was reflected in a series of precautionary measures, including amending anti-terrorism laws and tightening controls at airports and along the Algerian border. So far this year, security forces indicated they have dismantled a number of cells working to recruit young Moroccans for armed groups in Syria. However, the Moroccan authorities are also exaggerating the terrorism threat to ensure the Ministry of Interior consolidates its independence from the elected government and regains the impunity with which it used to act. 

Since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of the caliphate, Moroccan members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have worked intensely to attract and recruit peers via social networking sites. Propaganda tapes were published in turn that called for migration to Syria, extolling the earthly and eschatological gains that lie therein. A Moroccan ISIS member shared this sentiment on one of the tapes, saying: “Whoever wants [to attain] the worldly life, then he has [to go] to Syria. And whoever wants [to attain] the afterlife, then he has [to go] to Syria.”1

Some of the Moroccans fighting in Syria have furthermore threatened to launch attacks inside the kingdom. These types of pronouncements have raised fears among the security forces that jihadis currently in Syria or Libya could cross into the country via the eastern borders with Algeria to carry out violent attacks. This fear was bolstered by the dual announcements that splinter factions from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) joined ISIS, and that the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) plans to assassinate political figures, including Mustapha Ramid, the Minister of Justice and Liberties and member of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD). The specific threat to Ramid came in response to his efforts to dry up sources for attracting jihadis, particularly his success in convincing some Salafi-jihadi figures to disavow the group. As a result of these efforts, Sheikh Omar al-Heddouchi, the most prominent such figure, issued fatwas declaring his disavowal of ISIS and criticizing Moroccan youth who join the Syrian conflict. This led the radical stream of jihadis to sideline him, some of whom excommunicated him altogether. The degree to which the assassination threats are serious, however, is difficult to gauge considering that the defected branches from AQIM lack sufficient human and logistical resources. In addition, they and MUJAO are largely operating outside Morocco’s borders—between Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Mali.

In response to these threats, the Moroccan government issued a modified version of the anti-terrorism law on September 11, 2014. The amended law includes new provisions pertaining to Moroccan fighters in foreign trouble spots, such as instating heavy penalties ranging from five to fifteen years in prison and fines of up to 500,000 dirhams ($60,000) for anyone who joins or tries to join armed organizations inside or outside Morocco. Ramid justified these amendments on grounds that it would prevent youth from joining “these groups where death, murder, slaughter, bloodshed, and loss of life are meaningless and without any goal.” Beyond the amendments, the Moroccan army—for the first time—deployed rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns, and heavy weapons near sensitive areas along the Algerian border and airports in order to thwart any possible terrorist attack. 

But security forces’ tactics seem disproportional to the reality of the threats. To date, ISIS’s calls have not garnered much ideological support that could down the line translate into sufficient logistical support to carry out operations in the country. The most prominent Salafi sheikhs (those detained under the terrorism law and others outside of prison) disavowed the extremist group. Although these sheikhs are far from moderate, they object to ISIS’s tactics and exclusionary tendencies. Additionally, some Salafis believe that the majority of fighters in Syria are uninterested in returning instead they largely wish to spend the rest of their lives under the protection of the “Islamic State” or die there in combat.2 As for the few who do seek to return, they would do so out of disillusionment with the groups they are fighting for like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS than a genuine desire to execute violent attacks in Morocco.3

Although the seriousness of these threats cannot be denied, the Ministry of Interior is exaggerating them to tighten its grip on internal affairs as it once did. The ministry stands to gain most from the new set of security protocols. First and foremost, the Ministry of Interior wants to send a message to the prime minister—and consequently the PJD—that due to the terrorism threat, the security forces should be free from their oversight. The amendments to the terrorism law and the overall atmosphere of concern for national security, allow it to assert its independence from the elected government and to reestablish a free hand over internal affairs, unhampered by oversight from the government or civil society. 

The Ministry of Interior can now use the new measures to quiet NGOs critical of police abuses and alleged torture. In a speech Mohammed Hassad, the Minister of Interior, gave before parliament this summer about ISIS and Moroccan jihadis, he linked the terrorism threats to the work of some human rights associations that—according to him—are tied to foreign agencies. He claimed that they undermined the state’s efforts to combat terrorism. Since that period, the security authorities have confronted the secular Moroccan Association of Human Rights (French acronym, AMDH). The Interior Ministry banned 25 of the group’s activities in less than six months, and state media has ridiculed the association to tarnish its image. It also banned an annual youth camp organized by Amnesty International’s Moroccan branch in Rabat.

Additional measures seek to restrict the country’s religious sphere and discourse. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs issued laws banning imams and preachers from “taking any position of a political or union-based nature, or doing anything that would halt or impede the performance of religious rites.” Ever since, the number of ministry-approved Friday sermons has increased. 

The security approach, which favors a strong hand for the Ministry of Interior—even if one overlooks all the danger it poses for political and civil freedoms—is not likely to be effective to fight terrorism. However, it seems the ministry’s concern about terrorism is only secondary to its attempts to consolidate its grip once again. This, however, is not likely to enhance stability or security in the long term, and may indeed undermine it.

Mohammed Masbah is a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin and a regular contributor to Sada.

This article was translated from Arabic.

1. This is a play on words of a Hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: “Whoever wants [to attain] the earthly life, then he has [to seek knowledge from] the Quran. And whoever wants [to attain] the afterlife, then he has [to seek knowledge from] the Quran.” ?
2. Based on interviews the author conducted with Moroccan Salafis. ?
3. Based on interviews the author conducted with Moroccan Salafis. ?