The Magazine

The Islamization of Morocco

Extremism is displacing moderation in the North African kingdom.

Oct 2, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 03 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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A LITTLE MORE THAN three years ago, Morocco experienced Islamic terrorism firsthand. On May 16, 2003, Casablanca was hit with four simultaneous attacks that left 45 people dead and hundreds injured. The attacks were perpetrated by Moroccan citizens who were members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (known by its French acronym, GICM).

Needless to say, the kingdom was stunned that its sons had turned violently against it. Now, the dismantling of another extensive Islamist cell in Morocco confirms that extremism is spreading inside what has long been viewed as one of the most moderate countries in the Arab world.

In a series of arrests over the past month, Moroccan authorities have seized 59 people and over 30 kilograms of TNT, more than was used in the 2003 attacks but of the same type. The alleged targets were political and military leaders, along with locations in Marrakesh, Morocco's premier tourist destination, the air force base of Salé, and the U.S. embassy in Rabat.

But the most troubling aspect of this cell by far is its membership. While the suicide bombers of 2003 came from the slums around Casa blanca, the newly arrested suspects are from all walks of life. They include five members of the military, three policemen, a Domestic Security officer, two imams, and four society women. Two of these women, the wives of Royal Air Morocco pilots, had volunteered for suicide missions in Iraq and Israel.

The cell leader, Hassan Khattab, who had spent two years in prison for his support for the 2003 terror attacks, had persuaded the women to finance local jihadi attacks because Morocco is the "ally of the Americans and the Zionists." Coincidentally, these four women had befriended Fatiha Hassani, the widow of the top Moroccan al Qaeda operative who was killed by Saudi forces in April 2005. The indictment accuses the cell members of "planning terrorist acts to overthrow the regime and install an Islamic caliphate."

The potential infiltration of the army by jihadists has clearly alarmed the authorities. As of August 31, they have eliminated compulsory military service in order to avoid giving free military training to potential terrorists. In addition, military officers and troops alike have been forbidden to perform Friday prayers in uniform.

Beyond the army, there are other clear signs of the rapid Islamization of Moroccan society. Nowhere is this more apparent than in women's dress. In just a few years, Moroccan women have gone from the miniskirt to the hijab. Interviewed in the French daily Le Monde a few months ago, a Moroccan high school teacher named Soukaina (she said she was afraid to use her last name) said that she no longer recognizes her country. Twenty years ago her high school had only one veiled teacher. Today everyone is veiled, teachers and students alike. Soukaina resigned more than a year ago under subtle pressure from Islamists, who wanted her to wear the hijab. She concluded: "It is only a matter of time until Islamists are leading the country."

Both in Morocco's big cities and in its villages, street vendors sell Islamist propaganda calling for jihad and the subjugation of women, spewing anti-Semitism and hatred of the West, on audio and video tapes, CDs and DVDs. One of the bestselling CDs is a rant by a salafi preacher named Abdellah Nihari, who teaches that "women are creatures of Satan" even when they are veiled. For him, women's liberation is to blame for every evil in society. Islamists also have their own freelance "religious police" who operate illegally, mostly on beaches, targeting unmarried couples for harassment, assault, and even, in a few cases in recent years, murder.

Another sign of Islamization can be found in opinion surveys of Moroccan youths. According to a January 2006 study by L'Economiste, 44 percent of Moroccans aged 16 to 29 think al Qaeda is not a terrorist organization, 38 percent "don't know," and a mere 18 percent consider it a terrorist group. Furthermore, a July 2006 landmark report ordered by the Ministry of Planning and entitled "Morocco 2030" revealed that lots of high school graduates dream of a liberated Palestine, the destruction of Israel, and the fall of the United States.

In such an environment it's only natural that the leading Islamist party--the PJD (Justice and Development party), closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood--has been gaining traction. Already the third largest party in parliament, the PJD is projected to win 47 percent of the vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections, according to a recent poll by the International Republican Institute. This would make it the largest party, and the king would be obliged to ask it to form a government.