Morocco said on Wednesday that it had arrested 52 suspected militants inspired by ISIS and that it had foiled several attacks in the North African country by seizing arms and bomb-making materials.
It is the largest group arrested in years and the latest of a series of cells that the authorities say they have found plotting attacks inside and outside Morocco.
The North African kingdom, an ally of the West against militancy, has been on high alert since 2014, when ISIS took control of large swathes of northern Iraq and Syria.
The 52 arrested were among 143 people investigated in many Moroccan cities and towns, the interior ministry said in a statement.
Many members of the group were planning to create an ISIS province (Wilayat) in Morocco, the statement said.
They intended to assassinate Moroccan security and military officers and tourists, as well as targeting prisons and festivals and other institutions in the country.
Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation, the judicial part of the Moroccan domestic intelligence service, has tracked suspected militants since ISIS established itself as a global threat.
Morocco has dismantled 38 suspected militant cells with ISIS ties since 2013, the statement said, adding 159 cells had been found since 2002.
Hundreds of militants from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have joined jihadists in Syria. Some are threatening to return and create new militant wings in their home countries, security experts have said.
Nearby Libya has become a major draw for jihadists from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. ISIS has taken advantage of the security chaos there to build a base, operate training camps and take over the city of Sirte.
There are between 2,000 and 5,000 ISIS fighters from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Mali,Morocco and Mauritania deployed in Sirte, Tripoli and Derna, according to a report drafted by U.N. chief Bank Ki-moon.
Jean-Paul Laborde, U.N. assistant secretary general and head of its Counter-Terrorism Committee, has also said that nearly 30,000 “foreign terrorist fighters” are currently in Syria and Iraq.
“There are nearly 30,000, and now that the territory held by ISIS is shrinking in Iraq, we are seeing them return, not only to Europe but to all of their countries of origin, like Tunisia, Morocco,” Laborde said recently.
Morocco has been the target of militant attacks, most recently in 2011 in Marrakesh, when an explosion in a cafe killed 15 people, mostly foreigners.
Also Wednesday, Italian police said they have arrested two Moroccan residents on suspicion of distributing pro-ISIS propaganda.Police said the two men living in the Liguria region bordering France have previous arrests for dealing drugs and other offenses. A third Moroccan is under investigation.
The investigation was launched when a young woman reported receiving a photo on WhatsApp showing a woman posing with a machine gun in position to fire. The photo originated from a number in Morocco that was not in the phone’s address book.
The woman told police she had lent the phone to a Moroccan resident of a refugee home several months earlier. From there, investigators traced a network of “possible activism of the three suspects involving proselytizing for the self-proclaimed Islamic State.”