Over a dozen men are under arrest after Moroccan Special Forces dismantled a militant cell linked to the Islamic State (IS) that was plotting a series of attacks on key public figures.
Officers with Morocco's brand new Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ) arrested 13 men as part of the bust, and seized an important weapons cache in the seaside town of Agadir, including "440 rounds or ammunition, six handguns, and 31 handcuffs." The group operated in several cities across the North African country, including Tangier, the Western Saharan town of El-Aaiún, and major tourist destinations like Agadir and Marrakesh, officials said.
BCIJ Director Abdelhaq Khyam said Monday that a preliminary investigation shows the weapons were smuggled through the Spanish enclave of Melilla, a port town on the northern coast of Morocco.
The BCIJ — Morocco's equivalent of the FBI — said the suspects, who are all between 19 and 37, were planning to attack security officials in order to steal their weapons, before launching a series of attacks on key military and public figures. According to Khyam, the "number of plastic hand ties recovered" by authorities suggests the men were plotting IS-style executions of the hostages.
Authorities, who have been monitoring the cell for five months, believe the group was actively recruiting young Moroccans to fight alongside Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq, despite none of its members ever having traveled to those areas.
The bust is only the latest in a string of operations against suspected militant cells operating in Morocco. In September 2014, Spanish and Moroccan security forces dismantled a Moroccan recruitment cell as part of a joint operation in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. The group, which called itself the Islamic State in the Extreme Maghreb, was responsible for sending Moroccan recruits to Iraq and Syria, before bringing them back to Morocco via Algeria, where they would receive weapons training at the hands of Jund al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria), the group responsible for killing French hiker Hervé Gourdel in September 2014.
In December and January, the Spanish and the Moroccans mounted another joint operation in Ceuta and Melilla, this time to dismantle a recruitment network responsible for sending women to IS in Syria and Iraq.
Related: Spain Jails Four Accused of Recruiting Women for the Islamic State.
In 2014, Morocco stepped up its counterterrorism efforts, boosting both its legal and national security arsenal to respond to the threat of returning jihadists. In September, the government granted Moroccan courts the power to sentence non-nationals or nationals who had trained with Islamist militant groups abroad. And in October, the country launched operation Hadar — a nationwide surveillance and prevention campaign involving the police and the military.
A threatening homecoming
According to Khyam, there are currently 1,300 Moroccans fighting alongside Islamist militants in Syria, Iraq, and Libya — a figure that is making Moroccan authorities uneasy.
This is not the first time Morocco has had to deal with the threat of returning home-grown militants trained in camps run by militants abroad. Jeffrey D. Palmer, a researcher at Georgetown University, has drawn the parallels between Morocco's current returning jihadist problem and the homecoming of Moroccan militants trained in Afghanistan under the Taliban in the late 90s. After receiving "radical indoctrination and training in heavy weapons and explosives" in jihadist training camps in Afghanistan, the recruits came home to Morocco, where they used their newfound knowledge in a series of domestic terror attacks, including the 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca, in which 41 people died.
According to Romain Caillet, a researcher and specialist in Islamic movements based in Beirut, the return of Moroccans from Afghanistan was largely explained by the militants losing several of their strongholds in the country.
Speaking to VICE News on Wednesday, Caillet explained that IS militants are still operating in a logic of conquest, and that for now, Moroccan recruits are too busy expanding the caliphate to come home and launch operations on home soil. For now, said Caillet, there is no "massive wave" of returning jihadists, and IS is asking recruits "to join Libya if they have trouble reaching Syria."
"Of course, IS will expand its reach as far as it can," said Caillet. "But Morocco is bottom of the list," said Caillet, adding that, "The country does not border an IS-controlled territory, like Tunisia with Libya." The two attackers who killed 23 people in Tunisia's Bardo museum last week received weapons training at IS camps in Libya.
The closest thing to a Moroccan militant group operating in Syria is Harakat Sham al-Islam (HSI), a jihadist group that has been active since 2013. According to Caillet, HSI is "made up of al Qaeda supporters," and its numbers have significantly dwindled since the death of its leader, Abou Ahmed al-Maghribi, in April 2013.
While Morocco definitely remains a militant "target," said Caillet, it is still relatively safe on account of having largely avoided the turmoil of the Arab Spring.
"There are supporters [of militant groups] in Morocco, but no armed groups on the scale of Algeria," Caillet said.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray
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