Casablanca, Asharq Al-Awsat- After 10 years of operating in secrecy, the followers of “Salafi Jihadi” movements in Morocco are set to go mainstream , taking advantage of the new parameters offered by the protest movement currently taking place on the Moroccan street within the framework of the Arab Spring.
In the past few months, Al-Qaeda’s black flags have been fluttering next to pictures of Che Guevara, and the Amazigh [Berber] flags above the heads of the participants in the 20 February demonstrations that demand an “end of corruption” and radical political reforms in Morocco. This is the first time that Al-Qaeda flags are openly carried in a demonstration in Morocco. The participation of the followers of the Salafi Jihadi current in 20 February [Movement] demonstrations has been public since May. They have been able to garner some support for their demands, particularly those demands for legal rights, related to the release of prisoners, the condemnation of the practice of torture, and the trial of those involved in the torture in Moroccan prisons.
The participation of “Salafia Jihadia” supporters was particularly noticeable in the demonstration called for by the 20 February Movement outside the headquarters of the Moroccan intelligence services, in a forest near the town of Tamara, south of Rabat, which allegedly houses a torture center. This has been denied by the Moroccan authorities, which moved to organize visits for rights organizations to confirm that there was no secret prison or torture center [in the building].
During the demonstration in Tamara, the followers of the “Salafia Jihadia” clashed with the security forces, which intervened to disperse the demonstrators and prevent them from reaching the building of the intelligence services. Having failed to reach the building of the intelligence services, the demonstrators moved their protest to outside the parliament, in the center of the capital Rabat. There, security forces and demonstrators, particularly the followers of the “Salafia Jihadia” movement, engaged in a tug-of-war tactics. Among the main personalities who were arrested during those incidents, was Mohamed Oussama Boutaher, the national coordinator of the Coordination of the Former Islamist Prisoners, an organization that includes former prisoners who had been condemned in terrorist cases in the last 10 years in Morocco, as well as a group of former Moroccan Afghans [who had fought with the Afghans against the Soviet occupation]. Boutaher, and some others, were taken to court over the clashes with the police and the use of violence during the demonstration.
In the same context, two followers of the “Salafia Jihadia” movement were taken to court, accused of assaulting the head of security of Tangiers during his supervision of a [police] efforts to disperse demonstrators who were about to organize a group of people’s trip to Rabat ahead of protest which had been called for by the 20 February Movement outside the building of the intelligence services in Tamara in May. During the same week, violent riots by prisoners jailed for terrorist activities broke out in the prison of Sale, near Rabat, where the court specialized in terrorist cases in Morocco sits. A strong intervention by security forces was needed to put an end to the riots.
The Tamara protest was not the first in which the followers of the “Salafia Jihadia” movement took part. They have participated in several protests that were organized by the 20 February Movement every weekend in many Moroccan cities. In particular, in those that took place in Tangiers and ended in clashes with the security forces. However, the Salafi Jihadi current does not integrate the demonstrations organized by the 20 February Movement as is the case of the fundamentalist Al-Adl wal-Ihsan movement, which has opted for a policy of melting into these protests to the extent that observers could hardly distinguish its followers from other participants, and that despite the fact that they form the bulk of the people taking part.
The followers of the “Salafia Jihadia” movement often participate as a separate group, carrying their own banners and demanding the release people who had been jailed in terrorist cases as well as investigation into human rights violations. Recently, followers of the “Salafia Jihadia” movement organized protests independently from those organized by the 20 February Movement, and take to the street after the dawn prayer. Meanwhile, the 20 February Movement followers have been staging their protests at the weekends.
According to Abdullah Rami, a researcher at the Moroccan Social Studies Institute, the participation of the Salafia Jihadia followers in demonstrations organized by the 20 February Movement, is part of the general policy of Al-Qaeda and the movements affiliated to it, to be involved in the social and political developments that have engulfed the region in recent months.
He said: “We have seen elements of Al-Qaeda being involved in the Tunisian and Libyan revolutions. We have seen them taking part in the protest movement in Egypt and Jordan. However, we must not forget that the mentality of the Salafi Jidadi current, and the aims for which it got involved in this movement, are particular to it, and different from the other parties. It tries to take advantage of the developments for its own purposes.”
As for the espousal of some [human] rights principles by the Salafi Jihadi current, which has been noticed recently, and which seem alien to its ideology, even if it could be seen as a sign of development in the current political thinking, Rami said: “Their interest and focus on [human] rights issues stems from the reality on the ground. Their leaders are in prison, so it is not strange that their demands for such rights are a priority.” Rami rules out any intention to set up a political wing by the Salafia Jihadia. He said: “They believe that Jihad is the only way to achieve change. They also believe that the practice of politics in its modern sense amounts to not believing in God. So far, there are no documents or clear orientation that suggests that such a development is possible.” Rami also thinks that the main goals of the involvement of the leaders of Al-Qaeda and the Salafia Jihadia in the civilian protest movement, are to gain sympathy for their imprisoned comrades and bring pressure to bear to obtain their release, as well as attracting media interest.
However, taking part in demonstrations has not been the only activity of the organizations that are close to Al-Qaeda in recent months, in Morocco. During the period in which the 20 February Movement was preparing the demonstration outside the intelligence services, the idea of which is thought to had been entertained by activist in the Salafia Jihadia in the first place, Morocco was shaken by a terrible terrorist bomb attack that targeted the “Arcana” Café, in the Jama Lafna, in Marrakesh, on 28 April, in which 17 people were killed, the majority of whom were tourists. [The incident] reminded [everyone] of the reality of the terrorist threat and the extent of damage it may cause.
Earlier, in January, the Moroccan security services dismantled a cell linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which is active in the desert area on the Mauritanian, Algerian and Malian border. The cell had attempted to smuggle weapons into Morocco, by securing them in hiding places in the Amgala border area, near the town of Laayoune, one of the largest desert urban centers. Another incident, which shows how much the terrorist organizations are interlinked, took place on 21 July. The Moroccan Border Guards intercepted a terrorist group on the eastern border in the middle of an operation of purchasing a consignment and transporting it to Algeria. Gunfire was exchanged, resulting in the wounding of a Moroccan soldier. The terrorists managed to flee across the border.
AQIM stemmed from the Algerian “Salafi Group for Call and Combat”, which paid allegiance to Osama Bin Laden in 2006. As a result of the severe blows inflicted by the Algerian authorities on the group in 2007, the latter moved south to settle in a vast desert area that extends from Mauritania, to Mali, Niger and southern Algeria. The group has been trying to attract the sympathizers of Al-Qaeda in North Africa, and form a regional organization similar to the other Al-Qaeda regional franchises. But it has failed. Its basic organization is still formed of the old Algerian “Salafi Group for Call and Combat”, in spite of being resourced by Mauritanian Jihadist organizations, and some Touareg elements from the neighbouring African countries. Algerian terrorist leaders are still running the organization.
The number of fighters of AQIM is estimated at between 400 and 600. The war waged by the countries concerned against the organization is very difficult due to the small number of the [organization’s] fighters, the vastness of the desert area in which it operates, and the local complicities.
The organization has focused its attacks on government installations, diplomatic missions, security forces, and military barracks, particularly in Algeria and Mauritania. However, it has come more to the fore thanks to its blackmail activities and kidnap of western nationals, as well as its links with networks that smuggle narcotics between Latin America and Europe through the Sahara, making it the main source of funding its terrorist activities. The number of tourists and employees of international oil companies who have been kidnapped by AQIM in the last couple of years has reached 23. About 14 of them were released after the payment of millions of dollars in ransoms. Four were, however, killed and negotiations are still underway for the release of five others. The organization has been able to buy the silence and complicity of many groups of local residents and high-ranking officials in the Sahel countries thanks to the money it had earned from its kidnapping and securing drug trafficking routes in the Sahara.
An atmosphere of fear and tension has fallen over the region over the last few weeks following reports that the organization is preparing major attacks after it had received military material and explosives from Libya and recruited new fighters and mercenaries who had worked for Gaddafi. Al-Qaeda’s attacks have been fewer in the region over the last few months, particularly after the combined Mauritanian-French military operations against it, and the pushing of its fighters beyond the Mauritanian-Malian border by the Mauritanian forces. However, the suicide attack against an Algerian police station, carried out in the first half of this month, suggests that the bloody Al-Qaeda operations have resumed.