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.



  1. Some remarks

    1. This is not the first Islamist terrorist attack in Morocco since the 2003 simultaneous bombings in Casablanca. Attacks or attempts have taken place in March & April 2007 and in August of the same year. Even though there were very few victims, the fact those individuals chose to blow themselves up/where wearing suicide belts leaves little doubt about their affiliation. So, it’s a bit of a stretch to state that Maroc has been free of islamist terrorist attacks in the last couple of years;

    2. It remains disputed whether GICM as an organization was responsible for the Casablanca attacks or whether the attacks where carried out by a local network with ties to international extremism. GICM as an organization certainly did have international ties, as it’s main manifesto was discovered in Cremonese & Brussels in 1997-1998 and as many of the individuals who were thought to be part of the GICM did receive training in the camps in Afghanistan.

    3. Over the last couple of years, AQIM has been very wary of attacking civilian targets in Algeria. By far and large, police and (para)military targets make up the majority of it’s operations. It may be argued that the venue in Morocco was an ‘international symbol’, which may be more of a legitimate target for an organization like AQIM. Yet, even in Algeria, such ‘international symbols’ (even though there aren’t that many) are no (longer) on their radar. Why ? Most likely because the group hasn’t got the capacity to strike such targets. With that in mind, is it reasonable to think that they have the capacity to strike such targets in Morocco? To me, that is very unlikely, given the limited operational stretch the group seems to have in the country. On top of that, the modus operandi (suitecase bomb) has hardly been a well-known AQIM tactic in the last couple of years.

    4. So who did it ? Local salafi-jihadist networks, maybe. Or some other -dark- forces. Who knows. This is Morocco, after all.

    • Thanks for the very in depth comment and thoughts. I’ll make sure to route to Geoff as well and see if he wants to add some more details. He wrote that post within an hour or so of the bombings and he might have more to add.

      Thank you, and I hope you voted on the AQ Strategy poll. I need your vote and insights on North Africa.

  2. Dear Me,

    Thanks for your insightful comments. I just drove 500 miles and am a little tired so some brief responses below.

    1) Stretch or no stretch, I acknowledged in the piece that there were attacks in 2007, and as you point out, no one was killed except the bombers themselves. If you put Morocco in the broader context, it has been relatively free of Islamist terrorism in recent years. Morocco hasn’t experienced anything on a par with Algeria, Mauritania, Mali or Niger. Not much else to say.

    2) I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. But GICM was a nationalist group, not a transnational one.

    3) It’s tricky to compare the CT environment in Algeria to Morocco. I’m sure you’ve traveled in both countries and have seen the differences first hand. The different historical experiences and different targeting opportunities have led to different responses, but as I’m sure you would acknowledge, the targeting opportunities in Morocco are much richer than in Algeria and the CT presence much more restrained. One can move about with relative ease in Morocco, whereas Algeria presents a much more challenging operating environment. Regarding the type of attack – suitcase bomb or not – don’t discount AQIM’s ability to evolve. Why wouldn’t they?

    4) I’m not sure what you mean by “this is Morocco, after all.” Conspiracy theories have their place, but you’re mistaken here. The Makhzen is not the Pouvoir.

    We’ll see how this plays out. None of it will be straight forward, but I don’t think we’re going to see another attack any time soon.

    Matkich bladi.


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