Morocco: Moroccan Launches Jihadist Group in Syria
A long-time Moroccan jihadist launched an al-Qaeda inspired group in Syria.
Brahim Benchekroune created accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to attract Moroccans to his new jihadist movement, Sham al-Islam. The group also announced a media arm, “the Mashers” Foundation, to oversee its public outreach.
On August 31st, the group outlined its principles, based on al-Qaeda’s takfirist ideology.
“We consider democracy to be kufr against God Almighty and a doctrine that is in contradiction to God’s sharia,” Sham al-Islam said. The movement calls for engaging in jihad against apostates from Islam.
Its emir is one of the most prominent leaders of the Salafist Jihadist movement in Morocco. Benchekroune received his basic ideological training in Mauritania in the 1990s. He lived in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Once back in Morocco, he launched “Jamaat Tawhid Wal Jihad”. He spent six years in prison before joining fellow jihadists in Syria.
According to Abdellah Rami, a Moroccan researcher specialising in Islamic groups, the name of the new group “is for camouflage purposes only”.
This is not just about recruiting fighters for jihad in Syria. Benchekroune’s real goal, the analyst says, is to build a new Moroccan jihadist organisation.
“Although the name refers to Syria and that its field of operations is Syria, the majority of the group members are Moroccans. The new group was also announced in Rif Latakia, where most Moroccan jihadists who travelled to Syria are based,” Rami tells Magharebia.
Benchekroune is trying to exploit his new position in Syria – his presence on the battlefield and his ties to the main terrorist groups in the region – to introduce himself as an emir of the Moroccan jihadist salafist movement, Rami says.
Other Moroccans were already fighting in Syria under the banners of rival jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), he notes.
Dr Cherkaoui Roudani, a Moroccan legislator and geopolitical expert, agrees that the target of this new pro-al-Qaeda group of Moroccans is Morocco itself.
“Morocco’s stability and successful political experience is now confusing the plans of terrorist groups that al-Qaeda created in the region to wreak havoc,” he told Magharebia. “This is because al-Qaeda can only prosper in an atmosphere of chaos and a failing state.”
Roudani said that new group aims to recruit Moroccans and provide them with field training, before sending them back to the kingdom. Al-Qaeda is even focusing on the children of Moroccan expatriates, to lure them into bringing terrorism to their parents’ homeland.
“Extremist groups work very hard among Moroccan youths in Europe through the internet and mosques,” he tells Magharebia. “There are indications that these groups have actually sent them to training centres run by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria and Mali.”
Because of Morocco’s strategic importance as a bridge between Africa, Europe and the Arab world, “destabilising and weakening the country is a priority for al-Qaeda”, he says.
“We see what’s happening in Mali, Libya, Syria and the Algerian-Tunisian border, and how al-Qaeda is trying to take advantage of this chaos to turn North Africa into a volcanic crater,” the Moroccan lawmaker adds.
Sources close to salafists also claim that more than 30 per cent of terrorists released from Moroccan prisons have joined al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in Syria, Morocco’s al-Massae daily reported.
But Moroccan jihadists in Syria have been dealt strong blows in recent weeks, which some analysts suggest may have pushed Benchekroune to launch his new group.
Most of the Moroccans were based on the coast and Latakia, which have witnessed fierce battles.
Days before the announcement of Sham al-Islam, jihadist websites and forums reported the death of Mohamed al-Almi al-Suleimani, aka Abi Hamza al-Maghrebi. Released from prison in 2011 under a royal pardon, Al-Almi was a prominent leader of former Islamist inmates before leaving for jihad in Syria.
He ran a brigade of Moroccan jihadist called “the mashers” in the Syrian coastal town of Latakia before being killed on August 10th.
Moroccan jihadists lost many field commanders in Latakia, including Mohamed al-Nebras, a native of Tangier who led the “Ebada Ibn al-Samet” brigade, and Al-Sedik al-Sabe, aka Abu Adam al-Tazi, a Moroccan-born Dutch national.
But Moroccans who still choose to answer the call from Sham al-Islam face problems even off the battlefield.
These young Maghreb fighters are allying themselves with what many Syrians see as unwelcome interlopers.
“Problems will arise in Syria between the jihadist groups that seek to establish an Islamist regime and the secular opposition, exactly like what happened in other countries,” says Lies Boukraa, who heads the Algiers-based African Centre for Studies and Research on Terrorism (CAERT).
Meanwhile, Moroccan security authorities have been arresting jihadists returning from all fronts. According to the interior ministry, about 85 have been arrested in recent months for their ties with networks recruiting fighters for Syria and Mali, including some who returned from the battlefield.
“Those young people left Morocco with the intention of taking part in acts of war and killings,” said Said Chramti, the head of the Grand Rif Association for Human Rights.
“It would be wrong to allow them to enter the country normally and release them in society as if nothing has happened,” he added.