On 4 October, Morocco's Interior Ministry claimed to have dismantled a terrorist cell comprised of ten women. The group was claimed to have been planning attacks in the cities of Kenitra, Tan Tan, Sidi Slimane, Salé, Tanger, Oulad Teima, Zagora, and Sidi Taibi on behalf of ISIS. It was further claimed that the all-female terror brigade had relatives who were already deployed on ISIS frontlines in the Levant and nearby Libya. The arrests were by no means an unprecedented development for Morocco. Prior to the 4 October incident, authorities dismantled two suspected ISIS terrorist cells in the towns of Oujda and Tandrara in the Oriental region in mid-June. A week earlier, an Italian national was arrested at Oujda-Angad Airport, which services the town of Oujda, on suspicion of plotting attacks in Casablanca.
The spate of arrests has raised growing concerns that Morocco may be the next Maghreb state to see ISIS spread and entrench, as it has done throughout the region. With the group already declaring wilayats, or provinces, in Egypt and Libya, in addition to executing attacks in Tunisia and Algeria, an incident in Morocco seems only a matter of time. Indeed, Morocco's relative immunity from ISIS and other terrorist-related activity may be more indicative of the acumen of the country's security apparatus than the lack of a threat. Prior to the aforementioned arrests, Morocco's head of counter-terrorism, Abdelhak Kiam, confirmed during a February 2016 briefing that as many as 25 terrorist plots had been uncovered in the country in the past year. The most significant of these was linked to ISIS: militants had planned to launch chemical attacks, purportedly using mustard gas, against four undisclosed cities in the country. In May 2016, Morocco's security services also claimed to have arrested a Chadian national believed to be part of an ISIS cell planning attacks on western tourists in Tangiers.
An ISIS attack in the North African state seems only a matter of time.
The arrests and thwarting of terrorist plots in Morocco speaks to the emphasis the country has placed on its security infrastructure, specifically its counter-terrorism capabilities, over the last decade. Following the 2003 Casablanca bombings, which was attributed to the now effectively defunct al-Qaeda-aligned Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (MICG) and its local affiliates, the country passed the constantly evolving Law to Combat Terror bill which has provided the security services with enhanced powers. Along with evolving counter-terror legislation, Morocco has sought international assistance in refining its intelligence gathering techniques, invested in countering violent extremism (CVE) programs, and enhanced border security. It also continues to regulate the religious sphere to mitigate against fundamentalist Islam being disseminated. These measures – which have perhaps been implemented with greater flexibility and decisiveness than neighbouring countries – have seen Morocco demobilise 155 terrorist cells in the country since the Casablanca bombings. This focus on constantly evolving its counter-terrorism policy has set Morocco apart from its neighbours countries, as has its willingness to partner with the US on this issue.
But as proficient as the Morocco security services may be at thwarting terrorist attacks, local jihadis may be equally inept at executing them. While the North African country has long exported Islamist fighters to transnational groups such as al-Qaeda and, more recently, ISIS – whom as many as 1,500 Moroccans are believed to have joined – attempts at fomenting any form of sustained or complex terrorist campaign within Morocco's borders have proved difficult. This may specifically speak to the trajectory of the MICG. The group failed to position itself as a grassroots Islamist extremist movement capable of harnessing civil discontent in Morocco as a formidable armed campaign against the state.
Formed in the 1990s by Moroccan veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war, the MICG became one of a plethora of al-Qaeda franchises operating across the Maghreb. In its formative years, the group threatened to become as prolific as its Algeria-based counterpart, namely al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with attacks such as the raid on the Atlas Asni Hotel in Marrakech in 1994 – which killed two Spanish tourists – and the 2003 Casablanca bombings in which no less than 12 suicide bombers detonated their explosive vests at facilities associated with foreign and Jewish interests. The MICG was also implicated in the 2004 Madrid train bombings and other acts of terrorism in Europe – a testament to the centralisation of the group's leadership outside of Morocco and its ability to pose a transnational threat. However, perhaps its greatest asset ultimately proved to be the MICG's ultimate weakness when a Europe-wide crackdown on the organisation's leadership significantly debilitated its operational threat, both on the continent and in Morocco. By the turn of the decade, the MICG and its affiliates had become largely defunct, posing a negligible threat to Morocco's internal security.
Since 2003, Morocco has demobilised 155 terror cells.
Unlike neighbouring countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, any ISIS expansion into Morocco would occur in the absence of a local Islamist extremist network that the group can infiltrate and eventually assimilate. Similarly, any acts of terrorism perpetrated by or on behalf of the group will lack the established support networks which are intrinsic in both the planning and execution of complex attacks.
This does not, however, render Morocco immune from ISIS violence, as the arrests and foiled plots indicate. The resonance of ISIS' ideology among some Moroccans suggests that the country will remain susceptible to violence by self-radicalised perpetrators acting on behalf of the group. Attacks in this regard, however, are unlikely to be sophisticated and will generally conform to opportunistic violence (such as the spate of tourist stabbings in the country's major cities last year). Attempts at more complex attacks will either be conducted by unsophisticated actors or require external planning – avenues of terrorism which Morocco's security services have proved adept at countering.