Theme: Although the Moroccan Combatant Group is Morocco’s main radical Islamist organization there is very little information available about its organization, leadership and operations.
Summary: The author analyzes Morocco’s most active radical Islamist group, reviewing its creation and the presence of Moroccan volunteers in Afghanistan, its relations with Osama Bin Laden and its logistic support to al-Qaeda and, finally, its shift in strategy following the attacks of 11 September 2001 towards more overt terrorist activities.
Birth of a radical organisation
Morocco saw the birth in 1969 of the first religious organisation preaching violence: the Shabiba Islamiya (Islamic Youth), set up by Abdelkrim Moutiï. This organisation had two wings: one for preaching, one for armed action. The man in charge of the military wing was Abdelaziz Nouamani. En 1981, Abdelkrim Moutiï set up on his own with a new military outfit called ‘Combatant Faction’. In 1984, Nouamani set up in turn another new organisation called ‘Organisation of Moroccan Fighters’. Meanwhile, the ‘Combatant Faction’ failed in its two attempts to carry out terrorist attacks in 1983 and 1984 and, as a result, Moutiï renounced violence definitively. Also, following the disappearance from the scene of Nouamani in 1984, the Organisation of Moroccan Fighters called a stop to their activities. While these organisations were manoeuvring inside Morocco, other ex-militants of Shabiba Islamiya, among whom was Abdelilah Ziyad, set up from Europe in 1993 yet another radical organisation called the ‘Islamic Combatant Movement’. At present, the ‘Moroccan Combatant Group’ remains the most active group.
However, it is still very difficult to understand the structure, the chain of command and the degree of consolidation of this group on Moroccan soil. To date observers have had to go on guesswork and intelligent questions, the leading one of which is whether it is still in its infancy or stillborn. What is the purpose behind the various names attributed to the group, from ‘Islamic Combatant Group’ to ‘Moroccan Armed Group’ or ‘Armed Islamic Group’ and occasionally ‘Moroccan Combatant Group’? What significance do these variants hold? Is it that this is an extremely complex organisation or simply that its leaders are masters in the art of contrivance?
To what extent was the group involved in the events of May 16? Should we see it as part of the organizational structure of the Salafist Combatant Group or is it a coalition in which all tendencies of ‘Combatant’ Islam can be accommodated?
Therefore, we must analyse how the group was created and how it has developed in order to be able to understand, albeit partially, what this shadowy organisation is really intent on.
Circumstances prior to its creation: from chaotic organisation to blind obedience
Two factors intervened in the creation of this organisation: the close ties with the Moroccan resistance fighters in Afghanistan, and the strategic change undergone by Bin Laden after the Taliban obtained power there.
A- The Presence of Moroccans in Afghanistan
The presence of Moroccan fighters in Afghanistan can be divided into three main stages.
(1) An early stage between 1979 and 1989, the dates of the first war against the Soviet Union. In this period almost 20,000 Arabs made the journey to Afghanistan to fight. Most of them came from Egypt, Algeria and the Gulf States. The Moroccans were not a particularly large contingent and only began to join the cause in 1989, almost at the end of the war. Furthermore, they were not necessarily combatants: they were mostly humanitarian workers and arrived in Kabul with the knowledge of the Moroccan authorities, although with no formal official status. Among those to arrive first were Abdallah Tbarek and Ahmed Rafiki, known as Abou Houdaïfa.
(2) The second stage encompasses the period of the civil war, between 1989 and 1996. This period was marked by growing hostility from the Afghans themselves towards the Arab combatants, whom they accused of interfering negatively in local efforts to achieve national reconciliation. They also came under strong pressure in this phase from the Pakistani government, which ordered them to withdraw immediately from their Peshawar headquarters. As a result, the Arab combatants were forced to move to Yemen, the country where, as from 1992, they set up what has since become known as the ‘Afghan Arab Movement’. However, other combatants preferred to join the Shiite leader Hekmatyar. The Moroccans were not directly involved in this phase as their tasks focused principally on humanitarian action. This explains why they remained in Afghanistan, while some, following in the footsteps of Ali Allam, preferred to go home.
(3) The third and final stage began with the taking of power by the Taliban in 1996 and the return of Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan. The numbers of Moroccans in the country began to increase thereafter. Those that had remained there throughout were joined by fellow countrymen who had gone to Iran (Qom and Machhed), Pakistan and even Europe. The latter were given military training in the event of their being needed to aid the Chechnyan fighters. Most of the Moroccans who reached Afghanistan directly from Morocco were won over by the Taliban’s religious propaganda, many of them deciding to remain in the ‘Islamic Emirate’. Many of them had relations in the country, having married women from the Gulf states.
Two basic things can be said about the nature of the Moroccan presence in Afghanistan in these years: it was limited quantitatively compared to the presence of other Arab nationals; and, from a qualitative standpoint, the Moroccans had no significant presence among the leaders of the Afghan Arabs, mostly Egyptians and Gulf Arabs. In addition, the leaders of al-Qaeda regarded the Moroccans merely as operatives. This was the predicament which left the Moroccans disorganised throughout the first and second phases and in a position of blind obedience in the third stage, which was when Bin Laden designed a new strategy, coinciding with the arrival in power of the Taliban.
B- Bin Laden’s New Strategy
By the time Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, the position of the Afghans and the Arab world in general had undergone significant changes. Bin Laden reached the conclusion that it was more necessary than ever to turn the country into a revolutionary stronghold from which to overthrow various Arab-Islamic regimes to liberate them from the dominance of the ‘infidels’. There were two prerequisites to this end. First, he signed a strategic alliance with the Taliban, a shrewd move because the Taliban leader, the Mullah Omar, had grave doubts about the wisdom of establishing a strong organisation such as that of Bin Laden in Afghanistan. To settle the matter once and for all in 1998 Bin Laden swore loyalty to Omar. At the same time he restructured his organisation to make it tighter and rid it of the contradictions that the Afghan Arabs within al-Qaeda had exhibited in the years prior to 1996. It is worth noting here that the Afghan Arabs held a variety of points of view, agreeing on one essential point only: the need to fight the Soviet Union. Bin Laden was determined to take a Wahhabist and Salafist line, particularly in the years following 1996. This gained him the undivided support of the regime of the Mullah Omar, unashamedly Wahhabist. The Mullah went so far as to oblige all the Afghan Arabs to make obeisance to Bin Laden. Thus the Arabs of Afghanistan in 1998 had to take two vows of allegiance that year, one to the Mullah Omar and the other to Bin Laden.
The search for unity and cohesion led to reconsideration of what it means to be a ‘true Moslem’, which in turn led to the conclusion that he must be, first and foremost, a true Salafist (Wahhabist). This means that he must be a person engaged in the Jihad, not against himself nor against the Devil, but fundamentally against Islam’s enemies: in other words, he must join the armed struggle. Defined as such, it is easy to see why the Salafists sharply criticise Islamic organisations that aim to bring about peaceful change and whose strategy is based on political participation. They are equally critical of organisations which hold violence to be a last resort.
Bin Laden’s new strategy was based on ‘local’ organisations as he was not content with being the leader of the Afghan Arabs but wanted to become the head of the Salafiya Jihadiya. His followers were thus drawn from the Salafists of the entire Arab-Moslem world and Europe. In this way, he drew a clear line between Salafism and the Afghan Arabs.
In 1998, which is when Bin Laden decreed the Jihad against the US, the Salafist movement had considerable force in countries where these local operational units were already present. Under the new strategy, combat took over from the Jihad, following in the path forged by the Libyan ‘Fighting Jamaa’ or ‘Salafist Jamaa for Preaching and Combat’ in Algeria.
The interest aroused by the establishment of local organisations encouraged the Libyan group to recruit Moroccan Salafist fighters living in Europe as the initial moves towards the establishment of a major new North African regrouping. This process, begun at the end of the 1980s, evolved eventually into the Jamaa Moroccan Islamist Combatant Group.
The build-up: from excommunication to explosion
The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 marked a turning point for the Moroccan Islamist Combatant Jamaa, which from then on began activities based on a very cautious organisational framework.
Change in Strategy
Since its inception at the end of the 1990s and until 2001, the role of the organisation was restricted to giving logistic support to al-Qaeda in Morocco, finding its members places to live, providing them with false papers, with the opportunity of marrying Moroccans and with false identities to allow them to travel to Europe. Since 11 September, however, which brought the Kingdom of Morocco in on the side of the fight against terrorism, the organisation switched strategies and opted for terrorist attacks within Morocco itself.
There are some signs that the establishment of this group dates from 1998. In the course of that year, certain militants decided to set up cells to steal and then forge official documents. This continued until 2002, when the Saudi members of a sleeper cell were arrested, initiating a wave of arrests of salafists that included members of the group of Zakaria El Miloudi, Abou Hafs and Youssef Fikri. One of the consequences of this was greater cooperation between the Moroccan security forces and their American counterparts. Faced with this prospect, the terrorists opted for suicide attacks, a strategy that requires a very special kind of ‘militant’. This policy, which began in 2002, resulted in the attacks of 16 May 2003, carried out as a warning from Bin Laden to Morocco. The policy change brought about a leadership change. All the signs are that Mohamed El Guerbouzi, nicknamed Abou Aissa became the leader of the organisation. From al-Qaeda’s point of view, having a local leadership in Morocco itself has a number of advantages. For this reason the organisation defends having operational structures that can handle much greater activity than mere political or religious leaders. Besides, El Guerbouzi does not have the makings of an emir. For this reason, the role played by Karim El Mejjati is now clear. It is now known that he trained the cell of Youssef Fikri and took part in the preparations of the attacks of 16 May. In fact, numerous suspects have confessed their relations with El Mejjati. How, then, is the group organised?
An Underground Organisation
We have very little knowledge of this. For the most part the structure is similar to that of other local al-Qaeda groups. It is centred round an emir, supported by specialist committees such as the choura (council) committee, and committees for security, military affairs, information and public relations. Yet it is difficult to discover whether this format is also employed by the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, given that there is still some doubt as to the name of the true leader. On occasions some experts incline to that of El Guerbouzi, others not. Some security services see him as the emir, others present him merely as the person in charge of the public relations committee.
That said, in terms of basic structure, it can be tentatively affirmed that the group has chosen the system of independent cells. This means that each cell is totally isolated from its peers, preventing communication (or betrayal) from one to the other. The militants are totally unaware that they form part of a much larger organisation. It is for this reason that an emir is appointed to lead a cell for which he is directly responsible. Thus, militants operate as independent members of an independent organisation. This is the scheme adopted by the group Youssef Fikri and that of Abdelouahhab Rebbaï, whose nom de guerre is Errabaa. The lack of information on the true nature of this organisation is mainly the result of its great success in remaining under cover. To achieve this, it uses two methods: first it isolates the cells one from another; secondly, it saves energy by recruiting individuals from pre-existing groups either in Morocco or elsewhere. For example, the ‘Islamic Combatant Group’ is active in Europe as the ‘Islamist Combatant Movement’ which Abdelilah Ziyad, ex militant of the Islamic Youth Movement, set up in the 1990s. The group was responsible for the shoot-out at the Hotel Asni in Marrakech in 1994. The services that this group provides for the Islamic Combatant Group often creates a certain amount of confusion and prevents one group from being distinguished from the other.
Nonetheless, inside Morocco, the group enjoys much support from the organisation of the Moroccan mujahidins which Abdelaziz Nouamani, a defector from the Islamic Youth Movement of Abdelkrim Moutiï, set up in 1984. The services it provides are of two types and demonstrate the ability of the leaders of the mujahidin organisations to hide their identity for a long time after the disappearance of Nouamani. Ali Bousseghiri, Nouamani’s successor, lived for many years under the false name of Abdelaziz Semni. For his part, Mohamed Nekkaoui returned to Morocco at the beginning of the 90s under the false name of Abdellah Oujdi or Riffi until arrested at the time of the attacks of 16 May. They also show a great capacity for recruitment. Indeed, many of those arrested for belonging to the Salafiya Jihadiya were, in fact, mujahidin recruits, in the same way that Richerd Pierre Robert, the founder of a cell in Tangier, was recruited by Nekkaoui.
Professor of Political Science, Hassan II University, Mohamedia