Moroccan Militants and the Syrian Jihad

Andrew McGregor

October 18, 2013

A recent al-Qaeda video and Syria’s growing anti-Alawite jihad have raised alarms in Morocco, where a traditional monarchy is attempting to resist efforts to Islamize the nation’s society and government.

The 41-minute video, entitled “Morocco – The Kingdom of Corruption and Despotism,” was produced by al-Andalus, the media arm of the Algerian-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and calls on young people in Morocco to rise up in jihad to implement Shari’a throughout the northwest African country. The video focuses on the allegedly corrupt monarchy of King Mohammed VI, which is described by AQIM leader Musab Abd al-Wadoud as supporting a “Jewish-Crusader union” and being “a traitor to Allah and his Prophet and all his believers” (Reuters, September 17). Footage within the video contrasted the King’s enormous wealth with the desperate conditions of Morocco’s slums and shantytowns. The video also cites a 2009 Forbes magazine article describing the king’s enormous wealth and a 2012 book by Catherine Graciet and Eric Laurent that profiles the inner workings of the court and the concentration of wealth amongst the king’s family and close associates. [1] The King’s family, known as the Alaouite dynasty, has ruled Morocco since 1666.

Ali Anouzla, the director of independent Moroccan news website was arrested on September 17 for posting a link to the video as carried by the website of Spanish daily El Pais. There are suspicions that the real reason for the arrest and the threat of a six-year prison sentence under Morocco’s anti-terrorism legislation was Anouzla’s critical coverage of monarch Mohammed VI, a taboo for most of Morocco’s generally tame media. El Pais removed the link after the Moroccan government complained to Madrid; YouTube similarly removed the video from its website after determining it broke the site’s guidelines on inciting violence. A statement from Reporters sans Frontières claimed that Moroccan authorities “have shown that they are confusing journalism with inciting terrorist acts” (Reporters sans Frontières Press Release, September 26).

On June 21, eight residents of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta (a deeply impoverished coastal remnant of Spain’s Moroccan Empire) were detained on charges of recruiting individuals for the Syrian jihad. All eight of the detainees are Spanish citizens. After the eight were arrested, a video was released calling for “divine punishment” of the police agents of the Policia Nacional and the Guardia Civil made the arrests. The families of the security agents were also threatened in the video, which was believed to have originated in a mosque in Benzu, near Cueta’s border with Morocco (, July 31). Most of those recruited for jihad in Syria travel through Spain to Turkey, where they are infiltrated across the border to bases near Latakia (El Pais [Madrid], June 27, 2012). Five of those recruited by the Ceuta cell are believed to have perished in suicide attacks.

Belgian authorities arrested Moroccan national Ismail Abd al-Latif Allal on September 26. Allal, the subject of an international arrest warrant, was described by the Spanish Interior Ministry as the organizer of a network that recruited Spanish and Moroccan youths for jihad in Syria. Earlier in September, Spanish security forces arrested two other Moroccan recruiters for Syria’s Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra movement, Muhammad al-Bal and Yassine Ahmad Larbi (a.k.a. Pistu).

Salafist-Takfiri groups have established themselves in the shantytowns outside urban centers such as Fez, Marrakesh, Tangiers and Casablanca, where displaced populations try to survive outside the traditional communal support systems or government services available in the impoverished inner city neighborhoods. These shantytowns are the source of most of the suicide bombers and other extremists that have emerged in Morocco in the last decade.  

Moroccan Jihadists in Latakia, Syria   (Magharebia)

Veteran jihadist and former Guantanamo inmate Brahim Benchekroune (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad al-Muhajir) formed a new al-Qaeda-sympathetic movement in late August under the name Harakat Sham al-Islam. The movement’s apparent purpose is to recruit fighters for the Syrian jihad while establishing a militant force within Morocco that could utilize the military experience of fighters returning from Syria and Mali. Moroccan authorities continue to arrest any individuals suspected of having returned from jihad activities abroad.

Moroccan fighters have suffered heavy losses in Syria, including commanders such as Muhammad al-Alami Suleymani (a.k.a. Abu Hamza al-Maghrebi), who was killed in August. A video released by Sham al-Islam in mid-September depicted the death and funeral of al-Alami, a former Guantanamo inmate who was released in 2006. Also shown in the video is Ibrahim bin Shakaran, another former Guantanamo detainee who is now a combat leader in Syria. [2]

A new Islamist-led government was formed in Morocco on October 10 when Abdelilah Benkirane’s Parti de la justice et du développement (PJD) created a new, broad-based coalition to end that left several important posts (such as the Ministry of the Interior and the Foreign Ministry) in the hands of pro-monarchists. The Islamist PJD has taken steps to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood to avoid the political turmoil that followed the election of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia (Arab News, October 13).


1. Catherine Graciet and Eric Laurent, Le Roi Predateur, Editions de Seuil, Paris, 2012.

2. See

This article first appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor on October 18, 2013