Although the estimated number of Moroccans fighting in Syria varies sharply, with the highest at 1,000, local Salafist-jihadist leaders claim that the number could be even higher, in the 1,000-1,500 range. The increasing presence of Moroccan fighters draws further attention to the domestic issue of Salafist-jihadist detainees. The failure to resolve or address this issue or the underlying causes of radicalization have – along with other motives – encouraged Moroccan Salafist-jihadists to join fights in Syria and elsewhere.
The first wave of Moroccans to join the fighting in Syria (mostly fighters belonging to Al-Qaeda in Iraq) arrived in early 2012. Afterward, groups of young Moroccans (from inside Morocco and abroad) began to join various groups in Syria, particularly the Nusra Front. Under the leadership of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, Nusra was the most popular recruiter of Moroccan fighters until the founding of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi divided their loyalties.
Most Moroccans fighting with ISIS are foot soldiers, though a few of them advanced to become second-level commanders, as with the case of leader Abdul-Aziz al-Mehdali (aka Abu Usama al-Maghribi), who was killed recently along with 20 fighters during clashes with the Nusra Front. ISIS is now the second most popular group, after Sham al-Islam, which has seen a more steady inflow of Moroccan fighters since the summer of 2013. Sham al-Islam is estimated to include 500-700 Moroccans, who form its majority. It was until very recently led by Brahim Benchekroun, a former Guantanamo detainee who is the single most influential figure for Syria-bound Moroccan volunteers, particularly for former Salafist detainees who formed friendships behind bars. Dozens of Moroccans – including Benchekroun – have been killed during recent fights with the regime in Latakia province, and it remains to be seen whether recent deaths will influence the number of Moroccan fighters joining Sham al-Islam.
The motivation to join the fight in Syria is twofold: logistical and ideological. Moroccan jihadists find that the logistical aspects of fighting in Syria are easier compared to other regional theaters. Travel to Syria is both easy and inexpensive, which has encouraged a number to join. Most fighters leave alone or in small groups of colleagues after establishing contacts in Syria.
In terms of ideology and religion, Syria holds great significance as a place that will witness decisive fights between Muslims and “nonbelievers” at the end of time. And however different their levels of conviction, once they are in the training camps, young fighters are converted into Salafist-jihadism through indoctrination of jihadist theory alongside basic weapons and combat training. This transformative process has led to the emergence of a new generation of more radicalized and active fighters. Even those entering the conflict as hardened Salafist-jihadists find that this training and ongoing developments generate greater extremism. This new generation is seen as more radicalized, but the size of its numbers within the ranks of Moroccan fighters in Syria is difficult to ascertain.
In terms of recruitment, the process appears rather organic and done on an individual basis, and most volunteers finance their own travel. Once there, some groups, including ISIS, provide their fighters with a salary – another motivation to join the fight – and all fighters share the spoils they seize.
So far, it appears the process of recruitment takes place at a microlevel that depends heavily on personal relationships and online social networks. Many young Moroccan jihadists, for instance, remain active on Facebook while fighting in Syria, keeping in touch with their friends back home and encouraging them to join the conflict. The majority of fighters come from the northern and western parts of the kingdom, including major cities such as Tangier, Salé, Casablanca and Fez. These areas all have prominent Salafist movements, in addition to high youth unemployment and high rates of urbanization. The high emigration to Europe from these regions highlights another source of Moroccan fighters. Many of the fighters coming to Syria from Western countries are in fact second- and third-generation Moroccans living in Europe.
Moroccan authorities attempt, inconsistently, to crack down on recruitment processes, cooperating in some instances with other intelligence agencies (such as Spain’s) to break up cells recruiting youth to fight in Syria. However, more consistently, the authorities have turned a blind eye to jihadists leaving for Syria, perhaps motivated by a desire to get rid of them.
Exporting Moroccan jihadists (or tacitly allowing them to leave) is indeed a far less costly and contentious remedy to the issue of Salafist-jihadist radicalization. But when many of them return unharmed from the battlefield, the authorities throw them in jail, often straight from the airport, for fear that returning battle-hardened jihadists could form a core group for armed action within Morocco itself. Most of the returnees receive a four-year prison sentence based on a broad interpretation of the anti-terrorism law – deceived by their own misinterpretation of Morocco’s hosting of the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakech in December 2012, which they interpreted as an “official” endorsement of the Syrian revolution that encouraged them to join the fight. Jailing them not only compounds the issue of Salafist-jihadist detainees but creates a vicious circle: Those coming from battle are thrown in jail, and those in jail leave for battle once released.
One fundamental barrier to a serious and comprehensive resolution is the one-dimensional, security-based approach to the Salafist-jihadist issue in Morocco. As a crucial security issue, it is primarily managed through the Interior Ministry and the domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, which fall under the purview of King Mohammad VI, where the elected government has little say. The Salafist community expects the leading Justice and Development Party (PJD) to do more on the issue by releasing some of the detainees, which the palace refuses to do for security concerns. In turn, the PJD blames the Salafist community for not doing enough to prevent young jihadists from joining the fight in Syria.
However, a recent Friday sermon attended by the king and led by Mohammad al-Fazazi, a former Salafist-jihadist detainee under the anti-terrorism law, signaled that the monarchy’s sensitivity to Salafists is perhaps lessening and that a solution might be reachable. This would be contingent upon the latter’s ability to provide enough guarantees and concessions, including recognizing the authority of the king (as Commander of the Faithful) and renouncing violence – at least domestically.
Drafting a law that prohibits non-state actors from joining fights in external conflict arenas may also prevent some jihadists from traveling to Syria in the short term. However, the issue is more systemic. An ideal long-term solution would require a balanced approach that guarantees security without sacrificing basic human rights and freedoms – one that restores confidence in the political process and integrates all groups that renounce violence.
Mohammed Masbah is a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin and a regular contributor to Sada. This article, translated from Arabic, was based on a series of interviews with Moroccan Salafist-jihadists. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).