Porter’s take on the Morocco bombings & AQIM

The Marrakech suicide bombing today killed 14 people and targeted mostly foreigners in a popular cafe. A stunning turn in North African events when compared to the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.  Morocco has witnessed suicide bombings before and produced a large number of foreign fighters to Iraq (particularly martyrs).

I think a big question on everyone’s mind now is: who did it?  AQIM? a self-starting group of AQ affiliated foreign fighter veterans?  A totally separate extremist group emerging from the ashes of the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group?    I just launched the poll asking about capabilities and threats of different AQ affiliates and thus far AQIM had not gotten many props.  I imagine this might change.

Within just a couple hours, Dr. Geoff Porter sent me an outstanding initial take on the bombings, its origins, and its implications.  Porter is a certified knowledge ninja in my opinion and I’m always counting on him for North Africa analysis.  Thankfully, Geoff granted me permission again to post his take on this blog.  Thanks Geoff!

From Dr. Geoff Porter:

“An explosion at Marrakech’s popular tourism destination, Jama’a al-Fana, killed 14 and wounded 20 others on 28 April. If the explosion is credited to Islamist terrorists, the attack will be the first Islamist terrorist attack in Morocco since the 2003 simultaneous bombings in Casablanca.

Despite Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) activity in neighboring Algeria, Mauritania and Mali, Morocco has been free of terrorist attacks in recent years. The 2003 bombing in Casablanca was carried out by the Moroccan Islamic Combatants Group (GICM), a domestic salafi jihadi organization that did not have transnational ties. Following the 2003 attacks, the Moroccan government stepped up its counter-terrorism efforts and arrested 6000 people in connection with the attacks. With an ever more challenging environment in which to operate, the GICM decamped and moved most of its operations to Spain, where it participated in the 2004 train attacks in Madrid. The GICM never reconstituted itself in Morocco. Other Islamist extremist groups, like Al-Sirat Al-Mustaqim, were unable or unwilling to carry out attacks. There were intermittent acts of Islamist violence in 2007, but the perpetrators’ affiliations were never clear and the attacks did not cause any casualties, except to the attackers themselves.

Although no group has yet claimed credit, the attack is likely linked either directly or indirectly to AQIM. AQIM’s activities in over the last two years have been contained within the Sahara and Sahel states. The group has undertaken sporadic attacks against Mauritanian military installations and it has carried out kidnappings of foreigners in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, many of whom they have ransomed for significant sums.

Importantly, AQIM’s stated objectives are to move north out of the Sahara and carry out attacks in Morocco and Algeria. Their desire to move out of the Sahara is also reflected in the names AQIM chooses for its terrorist units and in its members’ noms de guerre. For more on this, see my article on “AQIM’s Objectives in North Africa” in the February 2011 issue of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s Sentinel http://geoffdporter.com/articles.php.

While the attack is not likely to signal the launch of a sustained terrorist campaign in Morocco, the implications for Morocco’s economy are dire. Morocco is heavily dependent on tourism and experienced an uptick in visitors following instability in Tunisia (a comparable destination). Tourism, though, is fickle and tourists flee at the slightest possibility of violence. The 1997 terrorist attacks in Luxor Egypt had a devastating impact on the Egyptian economy. The attack could not have come at a worse time for Morocco because peak tourism season is rapidly approaching. For more on this see Tourism Meets Terrorism in Morocco http://tinyurl.com/3sh2koc.

The loss of tourist revenue will spell economic trouble for the monarchy, which is already experiencing widening budget deficits because of high oil and food prices. The king’s socio-economic policies were viewed as unsustainable and wildly unrealistic and the attacks will make them even more unlikely to be carried out.

On the political front, however, Moroccans will rally around the king. Moroccans are frustrated by the slow pace of democratization and the limited impact the king’s economic reforms have had on their daily lives, but they are even more afraid of Islamist violence. The majority of Moroccans see the monarchy as the guarantor of security and stability and this sentiment is likely to become more engrained.

Regarding security, the government will intensify its already rigorous counter-terrorism programs. The Moroccan police are ubiquitous and their public profile will be more conspicuous. The police also operate without many of the constraints that structure counter-terrorism investigations in Europe and the US. Consequently, it is expected that the government will claim to have identified and captured individuals associated with the cell in the coming weeks if not days. In the long term, Morocco is not likely to become a hotbed of terrorist activity. The country will still face political and economic hurdles, but the generally good security environment is unlikely to worsen.


Foreign Fighter Terrorism: Worry about ‘Fighters’ more than ‘Martyrs’

The Sinjar records served as human resources files for al Qaeda in Iraq.  Much like any job, al Qaeda recruits provided all sorts of biographical information and answered recruitment questions upon arrival in Sinjar. One data entry from the Sinjar records that I initially overlooked was the question: “Work”.  Over time, I realized this response may be the most significant data point in the Sinjar records.

In this question, incoming recruits were asked what role they wanted to play in al Qaeda in Iraq.  The responses mostly consisted of two distinct answers: ‘Fighter’ or ‘Martyr’.  Occasionally, an oddball (less than 1%), would respond with “media specialist” or some other random task.  An important note about this data point, the “Work” selection is quite likely influenced by group think and recording error.  For example, recruits that arrive together likely respond in a similar fashion to this question or are lumped together by the data recorder.  However, deviation in foreign fighter recruit responses remains quite significant despite this potential error.

Differences between the two main responses forecast strategic terrorism implications for the West.  For those that chose ‘Martyr’, the connotation is simple: “I want to be a suicide bomber.”  For those that choose ‘Fighter’, the message morphs to something more complicated: “I’ll fight the infidel, but if I survive, I’ll probably head home or to another safe haven and ultimately fight again somewhere else.” While ‘Martyr’ recruits are tactically devastating, ‘Fighter’ recruits have far greater strategic impact.  Only poor performing ‘Martyr’ recruits survive the battlefield but high performing ‘Fighter’ recruits are more likely to head back home (equipped with skills and combat experience) and become the thread for future jihadi campaigns at home or in the West.  See the below table.  Moroccan, Libyan and Saudi foreign fighter recruits were far more likely to choose ‘Martyr’.  Meanwhile, Algerian, Yemeni and Tunisian foreign fighter recruits were more likely to choose ‘Fighter’.

Recently, we have seen significant growth in two affiliated al Qaeda groups:  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  The 2007 Sinjar recruits told us what was to come.  In 2008, Algeria and Yemen were the top two locations for terrorist attacks outside of Iraq and Afghanistan (See Countering Terrorism from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut).  These same two countries had the largest percentage of ‘Fighter’ recruits to Sinjar in 2007.  It’s quite likely the return of ‘Fighter’ recruits to their hometowns in source countries that helped spearhead the expansion of these two al Qaeda affiliates.

Analysis of the “Work” responses by country suggests al Qaeda recruits likely come from two different recruiting environments and radicalization processes. ‘Fighter’ recruits, from towns in Algeria and Yemen, likely arise from neighborhoods with a long history of rebellion. Young men tend to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, brothers, uncles, and friends; continuing long histories of fighting colonial and internal government repression.  The attraction is tradition, social acceptance, and honor.  Meanwhile, the ‘Martyr’ recruits, from towns in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, may be more influenced by messages of religious fulfillment or fame.  These recruits might be more repressed socially and seek their own purpose in the world.  Ironically, Moroccans and Saudis also showed greater propensity to access terrorist websites than other countries (See Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?) suggesting that attractive martyrdom messages distributed via the web might be more influential  in these locations. Ultimately, I haven’t done enough research into this Internet hypothesis to test its validity but I’d be interested to see what Internet Haganah thinks about this based on his cross-country data.

I believe there is a different recruitment process between these two groups: ‘Fighter’ and ‘Martyr’.  The implications of this difference suggest 1) future terrorism is likely to arise from ‘Fighter’ recruits and 2) countering recruitment in the Middle East and North Africa probably requires two different messaging strategies depending on the flashpoint city and its propensity to produce either ‘Fighters’ or ‘Martyrs’.

Countering terrorism from foreign fighters- Key Finding #2 from the Sinjar Records- Focus on ‘Fighter’ recruits more than ‘Martyr’ recruits.  Recognize different recruitment messaging for these recruits depending on their source country.

If I were an analyst in Afghanistan today, I would be examining all recent foreign fighters trying to identify the ‘Fighter’ recruits and where they came from.  They are likely to be the strategic vein of al Qaeda inspired terrorism for the next five years.  The Turkish and German recruits may be the most scary of this lot.  More to follow on this.