Militants baffle global intelligence agencies
Edition: 2395 – 08/06/2014
Article translated by Kevin Moore.
Access original article here.
A few days ago the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prepared a detailed report on Moroccan fighters who had previously been arrested and placed in Guantanamo and presented it to US President Barack Obama within the framework of the country’s War on Terror.
Among the most prominent Moroccans profiled in the detailed report is Mohammed Mizouz, who leads the group “Sham al-Islam” in Syria after the death of its founder Ibrahim Bin Shakaran. This report comes within the framework of the American president’s warning against leniency towards militants after a deal to release some Guantanamo prisoners in exchange for an American soldier being held by the Taliban. Conversely, some senior Pentagon leaders warned against negotiating with the Taliban or opening the door to dialogue with them, which prompted the White House to apologize to Congress for the deal. This comes ahead of the latest developments in the complex Syrian issue, and the threats that fighting groups have come to pose to Morocco’s southern border, and their expertise in smuggling weapons and people from sub-Saharan states to the north.
Mohammed Mizouz and other fighters like him moved from the reality of living in Morocco toward “the jihadi El Dorado” after facing a series of frustrations and social/psychological difficulties. However, what specifically prompted Western and American intelligence agencies to highlight, on more than one occasion, Moroccan jihadis in Iraq and Syria, or even Libya and Sahel states that have become a new qiblah1 for them.
The answer is simply represented in the leadership positions that a number of them have come to occupy, as well as their tactical abilities that have noticeably contributed to the recruitment of more Moroccan militants, whether from Morocco or immigrants from Western Europe (France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium), in the context of endless networking operations being followed by local and global intelligence agencies.
One of the emirs of “mujahideen” accounts the characteristics of the Arab mujahideen, specifically Moroccans, saying: “The Moroccan brother is extremely peaceful, he calls you to the Emir al-Mu’minin.”2 He is quiet to the point that his silence is feared. He is well read in Islamic law and his love of religious books and reading is limitless. There is no doubt that the cognitive voracity for consumption of jihadi literature is demonstrated by Moroccan militants, and that their organizational discipline is a (direct) reason for their ascension to advanced positions and responsibilities in jihadi groups” in areas of tension, when military tradition requires blind obedience to commanders.
Some of them have led “jihad” operations in Afghanistan and Bosnia and Herzegovina, passing through Iraq and even Syria; and some of them even reached the narrow circles of al-Qaeda’s leadership. Having met one of them in Tangier — currently languishing behind bars — he calmly provided us with ideological justifications for his beliefs, in a mixture of his northern dialect and Iraqi grammar, to the point that it was difficult to determine his nationality. Thus, Moroccans of global “jihad” express the characteristic of quick adaptation and integration, helping them them rise to advanced positions. In short periods of time, they can reach leadership and ideologue positions, grasping the intellectual and strategic contradictions of fighting groups.
Through this file, al-Massae presents the names of several individuals within the structure of jihadi organizations In Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan; they can be classified as second-tier leaders. How did they come to join these groups? What are the most important characteristics of their social or jihadi paths? What are the different roles played by Moroccan leaders of jihad?
The following portfolio tries to answer these and other questions.
Abdel Karim al-Mejjati…the Moroccan who was a candidate to succeed Bin Laden
Abdel Karim al-Mejjati (nom de guerre Abu Elias) was long considered a most wanted by security forces, before his death on 5 April 2005 in an armed clash with Saudi security forces. The confrontation is considered the fiercest of its kind and lasted three consecutive days in the city of Ar-Rass in the Al-Qassim region of Saudi Arabia, where he was tracked down by many international security services from Europe, America and Arab states. Al-Mejjati was facing charges involvement in the Riyadh bombing, the May 2003 Casablanca bombing and the 11 March 2004 Madrid bombings. Washington also considered him a successor to Bin Laden to his close relationship with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Like the rest of the leaders of al-Qaeda, al-Mejjati surrounded himself in a shroud of secrecy, to the point of outlandishness. Despite the ongoing pursuit of al-Mejjati by security services around the world, he was always moving between three continents: Asia (Saudi Arabia), Africa (Morocco) and Europe (France).
Previously, one Moroccan jihadi — AbdelHai al-Asaas (nom de guerre Abu Abdullah), arrested by Saudi forces along the border with Iraq as he attempted to join the Iraqi resistance, and latter turned over to Morocco — said that he met with Abdel Karim al-Mejjati in the city of Tangier in northern Morocco.
He said that al-Mejjati, who hid from view after the Casablanca attacks, visited him at his residence in Tangier with another person affiliated with the Salafiya Jihadiya organization, which the Moroccan authorities charged with the explosions that shoot Casablanca.
The Moroccan security authorities had warned the Spanish authorities of al-Mejjati’s presence days after the Madrid bombings on its territory, pointing the finger at him following the expositions which lead to the death of 192 people.
For its part, Washington accused him of supporting the attacks of 11 September after confirming that he visited the United States in 1997 and 2000.
Considering all of these abilities to move, and the multiple charges of preparing acts of terror, the investigations of the Moroccan and Spanish security services revolved primarily around the collection of basic information about al-Mejjati and identifying his extraordinary ability to run al-Qaeda cells in the countries of North Africa and Europe, or at least other organizations loyal to al-Qaeda, especially the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), which was believed to have taken British territory as a springboard.
Even more, Washington, whose investigators visited al-Mejjati’s home and took samples of his DNA, was fearful that before his death, al-Mejjati was a successor to the leader of al-Qaeda Central (AQC), Osama Bin Laden, because of the power and influence that he enjoyed among followers and sympathizers of al-Qaeda around the world.
Abdel Karim al-Mejjati (nom de guerre Abu Elias), who was killed at the age of 37, belonged to a bourgeois Moroccan family from the city of Mohammedia. His father was Moroccan and his mother French, something that had an influence on his cultural formation and language proficiency. Besides Arabic and French, he was also proficient in English. Moroccan intelligence reports stated that he had an American wife, in addition to his Moroccan wife, Fatiha al-Mejjati. He was trained in bomb-making and military planning in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continuously under the guise of the Hajj and Umrah.
He was one of the seasoned warriors who lead the resistance in Bosnia and Herzegovina against the Serbian forces, and was charged with recommending and recruiting Moroccans and Arabs who wanted to join al-Qaeda, which explains the new generation of al-Qaeda’s affection for him.
Hassan al-Tur…faqih3 of fighter camps
Hassan al-Tur represents an exception amongst Moroccans who have held leadership positions in jihadi organizations, for unlike Moroccans who carried machine guns and lead brigades in the field, Hassan al-Tur carries books of fiqh and the Shari’a and took responsibility for moulding the fighters and providing them with necessary doctrinal preparation to enter into battle.
Born in the city of Casablanca, in the Aïn Chock district, he became famous in the popular neighbourhood for his piousness and his desire to spread da’wah4 among the deviants of the neighbourhood. He also became famous among the residence of the popular neighbourhood as a student of Islamic knowledge, and his fame spread after he started to question the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and bring books of fiqh and ask for help from some sheikhs in understanding some elements of Shari’a.
The dream of jihad began to entice him and he made up his mind to join the brigade of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who he had a lot of respect and admiration for; made him think about joining his brigade to fight and wage jihad.
He began to think about how to reach al- Zarqawi, so he traveled to Turkey. However he was not able to reach Iraq, so he returned to Morocco. As he failed to join the fighters of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, he decided to to settle in Morocco and got married. He was earning his living as a trader, when he opened a shop to sell herbs and honey, as well as pamphlets for those interested in religion.
But with the passing of time, and the images of wars and ongoing fighting in Arab and Islamic countries, the dream of jihad began to entice him once more. His desire to travel and fight increased after meeting with some individuals who were preparing to travel to Somalia to fight there.
He quickly looked into the matter, and after about seven months of waiting and training, brokers provided him with a plane ticket.
His destination was Somalia, setting him apart from the rest of the Moroccans who became famous as leaders and commanders in jihadi groups. To avoid being monitored by the intelligence agencies, which he believed were monitoring him for his relations with a group being watched by the authorities for their extremism, he did not travel to Somalia directly. Instead he flew to Kenya and from there some supervisors who provide services for new mujahideen transported him into Somalia.
After being transported to a military camp, he quickly became famous for his work and understanding of Islamic law and its sciences. Once the supervisors became aware of his abilities in Shari’a, they entrusted him with the task of preparing and delivering Shari’a lessons at the camp. In addition to becoming the one who shapes the mujahideen at the Mogadishu camp, he was entrusted with the Emirate of the Jihadi Group and became the top representative and commander of the group. In addition to supervising the shaping of fighters in the camp, he supervised the leadership of his group in battle. Death missed him several times, but one morning he lead his troop in a fierce battle in the Lower Shebelle region and was was shot dead.
Bin Shakaran…leader of “Sham al-Islam”
Ibrahim Bin Shakaran hails from the city of Casablanca. His name became prominent for the first time when it appeared on the list of Moroccan prisoners in the United States Guantanamo Bay prison on Cuban territory.
Bin Shakaran had traveled to wage jihad in Afghanistan when he was young. When the 11 September 2001 attacks happened, and the US attacked Afghanistan, Ibrahim Bin Shakaran was arrested along with a number of other Moroccans and Arabs on Pakistani territory. They were sold for $5,000 per person to the American forces, which transported them to Guantanamo, where they spent more than two years.
In 2004, the American authorities handed Bin Shakaran and a number of other Moroccans over to Morocco, where they were transported to the Salé prison and charged with threatening state security and belonging to a criminal gang. The court also charged them with receiving training on how to use weapons training build bombs, in addition to the charge of covering up the Moroccan members of the Moroccan Combatant Group. After several court sessions, serious debates between lawyers and the judiciary Bin Shakaran’s to his temporary release. They were expected to appear in court in Rabat, but lawyers and the judiciary failed to set a date.
Early on, Bin Shakaran was influence by the Salafi sheikh Abdel Karim al-Shazli in Casablanca. The young jihadi travelled to Mauritania across Salafi jihadi networks that supported al-Qaeda. There he received his religious and ideological education, before joining the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1999.
He took the kunya5 “Abu Ahmed al-Maghrebi,” and formed the “Sham al-Islam” group, linked to al-Qaeda, and fought in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra, where he was killed during a clash with Syrian forces in the Latakia highlands 3 April 2014. Killed in the same battle on the northern coast of Syria ere his two Moroccan colleagues Anas al-Haloui and Abdeljalil Akaddmira.
After he had previously spent time in prison for his affiliation to the Moroccan Islamist Group for Oneness and Jihad, Bin Shakaran continued his course in the Moroccan Salafi-jihadi strain. With the outbreak of the war in Syria, Bin Shakaran joined the local al-Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, and after that, with Mohammed al-Almi al-Suleimani (nom de geurre Abu Hamza al-Maghrebi) — an aide of Bin Laden — he formed a Moroccan jihadi group in the Syrian region of Latakia.
Al-Suleimani was killed with a number of militants last August, leaving Bin Shakaran at the head of the group, which had lost a number of its members. He changed the name of his group to “Sham al-Islam” and opened paged on Facebook and YouTube to inject new blood and and publish his sectarian-inspired views documentation from al-Qaeda literature.
Although Sham al-Islam is made up of mainly Moroccans, it also includes members of other nationalities, including Saudi citizen Abu Hafs al-Jazrawi, the movement’s mufti, and its military leader, the Egyptian Ahmed Muzin.
Mohammed Mazouz…commander of a group that has killed hundreds of Bashar’s soldiers
Mohammed Mazouz, who leads one of the largest fighting organizations in Syria, is considered on of the most important people being monitored by American intelligence, which prepared this week a detailed report on him, as he is one of the most prominent former Guantanamo detainees who is supervising the fight against the forces of Bashar al-Assad today in Syria.
Born in the city of Casablanca, he did not hide his loyalty to Osama Bin Laden, or even his jihadi inclinations when he was behind Guantanamo’s walls. He is also considered a first-generation jihadi, and one of the first to be be known as an Moroccan Afghan.
American intelligence prepared a report, presented to President Barack Obama, to warn him against hoping that former Guantanamo prisoners, among them Mohammed Mazouz, would change and that there remains very little hope. The report was prepared in the midst of the controversy caused by the deal to exchange prisoners between the Taliban and the United States in order to release an American soldier held by the Taliban for five years.
Mazouz (nom de geurre Abu al-Ezz al-Muhajir) is a Moroccan field commander behind the famous Ibrahim Bin Shakaran (nom de geurre Abu Ahmed al-Muhajr), the founder of the movement.
Mohammed Mazouz is considered a well-known jihadi, after gaining fighting experience alongside Osama Bin Laden. He was one of the most prominent Guantanamo prisoners and a founder of Sham al-Islam in Syria. He undertook two failed attempts to travel to Syria before he succeeded in joining militants there, appearing early this year in a video clip inciting Moroccan youth to join in the Syrian jihad and pledge allegiance to the commanders of the Sham al-Islam movement.
The American army arrested Mazouz along the Afghan-Pakistan border after his name appeared on a wanted list for involvement in fighting against US-led coalition forces. During an interrogation investigators confronted Mazouz with evidence of his involvement in fighting against them in the war that followed the 11 September 2011 attacks. After this he was transported by plain to the famous Guantanamo Bay prison where he stayed for more than two years. Mazouz refused to work as a spy for the Americans, and in summer 2004 the American authorities decided to hand him over to the Moroccans within the framework of the deportation of a number of prisoners who investigators did not believe represented a threat to US security.
After a spell in jail in Morocco, Mazouz was released on royal pardon. Salafists benefited from this amnesty in the midst of a popular movement occurring in Morocco at the time.
After his release, Mazouz appeared in a video, calling on Moroccan youth to support the Syrians, before joining his fellow former Guantanamo prisoners in Syria and joining Sham al-Islam, a movement made up of mainly Moroccans, Egyptians, Saudis and Tunisians.
Abdullah Tabarak…Bin Laden’s driver and keeper of his secrets
After the attacks of 11 September 2011, Osama Bin Laden and his general leadership sought refuge in the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan. The Americans, who were able to determine the locations of al-Qaeda’s leader through telephone surveillance, thought that Bin Laden was trapped. But when they attacked the person who was carrying the personal cellphone of the organization’s leader, it was only the Moroccan Abdullah Tabarak.
The case of 49-year-old Tabarak gained great importance after reports from the US State Department surfaced that he was the personal bodyguard of Bin Laden. The American authorities also took an interest in Tabarak as he facilitated Bin Laden’s flight in Afghanistan after the American raids, and his cell phone was picked up by American satellites, leading to his arrest. Previously Tabarak’s lawyer, Zahrash, stated that American security services and its collaborators raised the accusation against his client that he was the personal bodyguard of Bin Laden because it was in their interests to hide the crimes they had committed, especially after the decision by the US Supreme Court to grant prisoners of Guantanamo Bay the right to challenge their arrests in front of the American judiciary. Zahrash added: “From here, they started to release prisoners from European countries who challenged their charges, as well as others carrying European nationalities.” Zahrash added that Tabarak “mentioned that he knew Bin Laden and only worked with him in in his construction and mining businesses in Sudan. He was not his personal bodyguard, as I see it.” If he was really Bin Laden’s personal bodyguard, why did the US extradite him to the Moroccan authorities?
Tabarak was arrested after the events of 11 September and thrown into Guantanamo Bay, where he spent three years of his imprisonment at that terrible military base. He was extradited to Morocco, for release in August 2004. Today, he lives freely in Morocco, after the Salé court acquitted him in 2007 of terrorism-related charges.
When the Americans transported Abdullah Tabarak to Guantanamo Bay, they noticed that the other prisoners with him (over 600 others) were treating him with great respect and considered him an emir, prompting the Americans to isolate Tabarak from them. At the same time, the American media thought that the United States had gotten its hands on a “valuable catch,” as they say him as one of the personal bodyguards of Bin Laden and his private driver.
Since his release, Abdullah Tabarak has avoided speaking with journalists and lives in an unknown location. On of his relatives agreed to speak with the French “Le Monde” newspaper, provided that his name be kept confidential, because the Moroccan security authorities advised him to keep absolutely silent.
Was Abdullah Tabarak one of Bin Laden’s personal bodyguards and his private driver, who he placed great confidence in? In previous media reports, a person close to Tabarak lied about these details, saying: “He was just a person who chose to live in Afghanistan to live a real Islamic life.” Other sources insisted that Abdullah Tabarak chose to go to Afghanistan to seek answers to his spiritual questions or participate in the war that was taking place between the mujahideen and the Soviets. The file of the ruling, which contains the security interrogations of 2004, brings to light many details about his life: he was boring 12 December 1955 in a poor neighbourhood of Casablanca and worked as the money collector on a microbus in the city. In 1989, he decided to abandon everything and take his family to Afghanistan via Saudi Arabia. But how did he come to this decision? Veteran journalist Abderrahim al-Torani states that Tabarak is like just like all the Moroccans who went to fight the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets: he frequented the Al-Nour mosque in the Beausejour district, which is run by the Jamaat al-Da’wah wal-Tablighi6, who’s senior leaders are based in Pakistan. It was there that he became filled with jihadist ideas, eventually packing his bags and leaving for Afghanistan.
From Saudi Arabia, Abdullah Tabarak headed to Pakistan in order to secretly enter Afghanistan. Like any new delegate to the country during the time of war, Tabarak received military training and fought alongside the Afghan mujahideen until the Soviets finally withdrew from Afghanistan. After the war, Tabarak thought that Afghanistan might become the background for the mujahideed to defend sacred issues; however, bloody internal disputes between rival Afghan tribes sowed the seeds of chaos in the country and the volunteers of the war refused to join any alliances and decided to leave the country. A number of them returned to their countries of origin to organize combat operations, as was the case in Algeria and Yemen. However, a small group, including Abdullah Tabarak himself, preferred to travel to Sudan with a very rich and charismatic Saudi youth of Yemeni origin, who remained unknown until that time. So Osama Bin Laden chose Sudan in 1990 as a temporary shelter because strongman at the time, Hassan al-Turabi, wanted to transform the country into a theocratic Islamic state. This would complicate matters in Sudan, marking the beginning of a fierce war that eventually lead to the south’s secession.
In 1996, when the government of Omar Hassan al-Bashir decided to expel Osama Bin Laden and his followers from Sudan, Tabarak was one of those followers who decided to leave with who would eventually became public enemy number one for the Americans. They headed to Afghanistan, in which an Islamic state system had begun to take hold, led by the Taliban.
Younes al-Chekkouri…Bin Laden’s advisor and director of “human resources”
US intelligence classified him as one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda militants who took a lot of money and effort to arrest. He is considered the founder of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), for which he would later become the leader of its military council. An American report indicates that all of the operations Younes al-Chekkouri carried out in Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey were done so in his capacity as the military leader of the GICM, backed by al-Qaeda.
Younes al-Chekkouri is considered an associate of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and played pivotal role in recruiting militants for al-Qaeda.
Younes al-Chekkouri comes from a poor family, consisting of 9 brothers and 5 sisters. He was born in the city of Safi in 1968 and studied for two years at Université Chouaib Doukkali in the city of El Jadida. Like other Moroccan youths, he dreamed of going to Europe to finish his studies; however, his lack of financial means betrayed his dream. He was unable to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in Islamic Studies, but news and stories coming from Pakistan enthralled him and made his imagination wander. He heard about Pakistan from the men of Jamaat al-Da’wah wa-Tablighi who kept him company.
In 1990, after the withdrawal of Russian forces from Afghanistan, al-Chekkouri decided to go there, but he did not leave Morocco by himself: he went with his brother, his sister, and her husband. His sister’s husband died soon after, and she decided to return to Morocco, accompanied by his brother in 1993. Meanwhile, his other brother preferred to stay in Afghanistan.
In the beginning he joined organizations famous for doing charity work and decided to continue his studies at the Islamic University in the Islamabad between 1994 and 1996. He initially worked in Peshawar at one of the charitable organizations receiving Saudi funding.
After years in Pakistan, Younes received help from one of the workers at a charity he was working for to move to Yemen, where he attended some religious schools. He stayed there for several months, before heading to Syria, where he studied Shari’a, tazkiyah7, tarbiyah8, da’wah and irshad9> under some religious scholars for a few months at the Abu Nour Islamic centre, under the guidance of Sheikh Ahmad Koftaro.
Al-Chekkouri married in Syria and worked as an assistance in one of the local mosques; however, because of the marriage and deterioration of his financial situation, he decided to go to Afghanistan. From there he returned to Pakistan.
After the events of 11 September, the authorities rushed to close the centre he was based out of and the government collected the weapons in the mujahideen’s possession. In his testimony before the court, after his arrest, Al-Chekkouri said that the authorities seized a rifle from him that he was only using for self-defence.
Ahead of the chaos created by the American army’s determination to implement military strikes, he decided to send his wife with the Afghans who were heading to Pakistan, however, he followed her after going to Jalalabad to carry out a mission. But once he arrived to the city, all ports to Pakistan were closed, so he took refuge in the mountains.
He was arrested in the Parachinar region of Pakistan after fleeing with 84 other Arab militants to the Tora Bora mountains when American forces occupied most of the Afghani territory, according to what he told the CIA.
After his arrest, he was transported to Guantanamo to be put on trial. He attempted a failed escape with other prisoners when the American forces were transporting them to a Pakistani jail, but they were quickly caught and he was placed in a prison in Kandahar city before being transported to Guantanamo.
In court documents, the American administration discovered him to be Younes Al-Chekkouri, a member of the Taliban, and before that a member of the Pakistani Jamaat al-Tablighi, a group charged with recruiting for al-Qaeda. They also found out that Al-Chekkouri was considered the leader of the military council of the GICM, which received support from the al-Qaeda terrorist organization. After his testimony in front of the judge, Younes Al-Chekkouri denied the charges laid against him, accusing the investigators of fabricating the charges.
During his trial, Younes denied any relationship with the GICM. When the public prosecutor in the court asked him about his relationship with the GICM, he responded that he did not know anything about it and had not heard of it, indicating that he was sympathetic toward Jamaat al-Da’wah wal-Tablighi because it follows a peaceful approach against violence, does not believe in politics mixing with religion and does not have any relation to al-Qaeda, for the simple reason that Jamaat al-Da’wah wal-Tablighi is tolerant and renounces violence.
Mohammed al-Suleimani…the Moroccan who survived Guantanamo and ruled the Aleppo countryside
The walls of the terrible Guantanamo Bay prison did not succeed in breaking the fighting fervour of Moroccan jihadi al-Ilmi Mohammed al-Suleimani, nor did any attempt by Moroccan investigators to change his way of thinking and moderate him, not after failing to recruit him as a CIA spy among his fellow ex-combatants. After years of imprisonment he left Guantanamo for Moroccan prisons, from which he quickly left after royal pardon. However, as soon as the war in Syria broke out, he quickly proceeded to support what he believes is just, but death was on the lookout for him. Al-IlmiMohammed al-Suleimani is part of the first generation of Moroccan jihadism, which began with taking up arms under the banner of al-Qaeda. He went to Afghanistan during the wave of recruitment from a number of Arab and Islamic countries to fight the Americans.
In Afghanistan, al-Ilmi learned how to use weapons, received training in 2001 in the al-Farouq camp on fighting tactics and camouflage, in addition to other skills under the supervision of experts in the the field who were drawn to al-Qaeda from different countries. According to American intelligence, al-Suleiman was trained in the use of AK-47s and was known among the militants as an expert in cartography.
But the fall of a number of regions to the American forces and the intensification of the shelling against militant hideouts led him and his companions into the American prison (Guantanamo).
After his arrest, the American forces transported him to Guantanamo Bay where he was subjected to torture like his fellow prisoners. The Americans also offered him the chance to work as a US spy, but he refused.
However, in 2006 al-Ilmi’s fate would change after the American authorities agreed to deport him to his mother country — Morocco — to serve the rest of his sentence. This came in the context of a deportation process undertaken by the American authorities for a group of prisoners in Guantanamo under pressure from American human rights organizations, which called for the closure of the prison which had become a stain on the history of the United States of America. In Morocco, al-Ilmi was expected to complete his prison sentence, before he was released in the context of an amnesty that included a group of Salafists, which coincided with the popular movement that gripped Morocco.
With the outbreak of the war in Syria, al-Ilmi went there to participate in the fighting against the regime forces. He entered Syria across the Turkish border, and due to his military experience gained fighting alongside al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, he quickly began to shine. He established a Moroccan jihadi organization in the Latakia region of Syria with another Moroccan, Ibrahim Bin Shakaran, and took the nom de guerre “Abu Hamza al-Maghrebi.
Abu Hamza al-Maghrebi went to Syria with his family — his wife and children — and on his justifications, he said in an interview with France 24:
“I wanted to go to Syria with my family in order to live in the Islamic State, for all of us to contribute to the establishment of this expected state, and in order for us to live a truly Islamic life. So despite the problems, the fighting and the internecine fighting present today, Moroccans are still flocking to Syria, and I am still a believer in the project of the Islamic State.”
Abu Hamza refuses to return to Morocco, given the decline in many of the Moroccans who had come to fight and their preference to return to Morocco. He says: “A number of Moroccan jihadis are returning to Morocco, but personally, I will not start down the path of returning because I am completely aware of the injustice and imprisonment happening in Morocco and I do not intend to ever return.”
However, Syria was different than Afghanistan and Abu Hamza was soon after killed during a clash with Syrian regime forces, leaving his friend Ibrahim Bin Shakaran at the head of the organization.
Abdul Latif Nasir…Osama Bin Laden’s Minister of Defence
In 2001, Pakistani border guards arrested Moroccan national Abdul Latif Nasir and he was taken to the Baghram base. A routine investigation would reveal that man was wine of the closest associates to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He was taken to the American base in Kandahar, where he spent six months before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay and charged with participating in fighting against America and its allies in Afghanistan.
Abdul Latif Nasir is from Casablanca and studied Physics and Chemistry for two years at Université Hassan II before turning to commerce to earn a living. He became famous among his friends and those who knew him as someone sympathetic to Jamaat al-Da’wah wal-Tablighi, a group famous for spreading the teachings of Islam in a peaceful manner, far removed from violence or extremism. Abdul Latif set off to the countryside and marginalized neighbourhoods to preach Islam and guide people to the religion before coming across Jamaat al-‘Adl wal-Ihssane10. The period when he joined the group is not concealed from Western documents, and CIA documents devoted to Abdul Latif claim that he joined al-‘Adl wal-Ihssane and subsequently came to occupy a leadership position in the “Shabiba.”11
His origins in Jihad came after he travelled to Libya in 1990, where he spent more than two years staying at his brother’s house. He worked in Gaddafi’s country selling mobile phones, while at the same time maintained his habit of seeking knowledge of the Shari’a at a religious university in Libya.
His time in Libya lasted just two years. He left for Sudan and like in Libya, he worked as a phone merchant before he was able to work at as a representative for the Wadi al-‘Aqiq construction company, which was owned by the man who would become the leader of the most wanted organization in the world: Osama Bin Laden. Was it a coincidence that Abdul Latif worked at Bin Laden’s company? American reports indicate that it was no accident, but was the beginning of Bin Laden’s gathering of recruiters tasked with looking for zealous youth to fight against the “kuffar.”12
This would be confirmed shortly, for after working for the company, Abdul Latif had the opportunity to meet Osama Bin Laden.
On the other hand, Abdul Latif Nasir did not forget the call to Allah when he was in Sudan. He joined the Sudanese chapter of amaat al-Da’wah wal-Tablighi, but after a short period of time, was recruited to the ranks of those who wanted to fight in Afghanistan, where brokers succeeded in convincing him to wage jihad. After his recruitment, Abdul Latif decided to head to Afghanistan by way of Yemen. In Afghanistan he joined the Afghan fighters in their fight against the Soviet forces.
Abdul Latif Nasir travelled to Afghanistan in 1997 and underwent intensive military training, during which he learned how to use weapons, fighting tactics, camouflage and security surveillance. After his arrival in Jalalabad, he was taken to a holding centre to welcome new fighters, before going to Tora Bora and staying in a centre for the accommodation of new jihadis. There, al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden gave a zealous speech and after that Abdul Latif spent six months in the al-Farouq centre of al-Qaeda, during which he trained in the tactics of using missiles, landmines, AK-47s, and also received training at the Sulahfah camp from an Afghan militia leader. Abdul Latif has admitted that he spoke with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Abdul Latif advanced to a number of leadership positions until he held the position of leader in a recruitment centre in Afghanistan called “Suhail.” Within the organization, he was also known to be a professional trainer and firearms expert. When Kabul fell to the Americans, it was announced that Abdul Latif Nasir was the commander of the Arab mujahideen.
Abdul Latif Nasir was considered the field commander against the American forces in Afghanistan, so the US placed him among the senior leaders of al-Qaeda and Washington considered him to be one of the most dangerous militants leading the battles against its forces.
Abdul Latif Nasir’s fame and experience in the field led his friends to the American intelligence, as shown by secret and confidential documents on the topic.
In the document containing the charges against him, for instance, he is classified as being the primary official for arms deals to al-Qaeda, and one of the organizations most prominent experts in planting mines and explosives. He had with him approximately 52 fighters when the American forces launched an air raid against him. 35 were killed, while the remainder were able to escape; however, they were soon arrested.
After his arrest, American intelligence held Abdul Latif and refused to extradite him to Morocco like many others, for he had held high positions in al-Qaeda and met with its leader, Osama Bin Laden.
Abdelaziz al-Mahdali…the Jabhat al-Nusra defector who became an ISIS commander
It is the story of an exciting life, whose hero is a street merchant from northern Morocco who became one of the most famous jihadi faces in Syria and throughout the whole world after he became a symbol of the fighting on the ground for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), before losing his life in the wilds of Syria.
In the bustling Mediterranean city of Fnideq, Abdelaziz was like hundreds of other simple merchants who earned a living by trafficking in garments, after his professional beginnings as an assistant to his father at the “Ibn Omar” shop, he started his own work as a trader in the same market. Not one of the residents of Fnideq or his colleagues could have expected the quiet young man with a smile on his face to become one of the most famous jihadis in Syria. Abdelaziz al-Mahdali, was born in Fnideq in the Ras Louta district in 1986, and died in the Syrian countryside.
Abdelaziz completed the third year of middle school but did not attend high school due to circumstances that forced him to work at that time, concerning his qualifications, he said that he was self-taught after leaving the classroom early. He decided to continue to learn and read and dedicated long hours to studying Shari’a through his reading of books and attending scholarly and jurisprudential lectures.
However, in 2006 a radical transformation occurred in the life of al-Mahdali when those around him noticed the appearance of changes in his behaviour and general mood. He grew his beard and committed himself to the hardline Salafi manhaj,13 and before long a circle of “brothers” clustered around in a snowball effect.
His brother added: “He got to know a number of his predecessors in (religious) obligation and religiosity, and his commitment has remained free so that he does not belong to a (political) party or group.” After five years of “unstructured” da’wah and exchanging opinions and ideas within Salafi circles, al-Mahdali became a ideal candidate to undertake “jihad” in the Middle East. By 2011, al-Mahdali had joined the 20 Février Movement and its marches in Morocco, where activists who interacted with al-Mahdali said that he: “was an activist within the 20 Février Movement like other youth, and he worked to raise awareness among his friends of the importance of peaceful action inside Morocco and to participate in demonstration.” However, his activity inside the movement was not all that it appeared to be. Among the Salafist circles there emerged a body called the “Joint Committee for the Defence of Islamist Prisoners.” Al-Mahdali joined the group and participated in the marches it organized in the city and beyond.
He joined the “al-Jihad al-Shami” group on Tuesday, April 19, 2012 and too the legal rout to travel from Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca to Turkey, accompanied by a number of Moroccan jihadis (at least two others). A Syrian then transported them across the border between Syria and Turkey. His brother said: “My brother did not travel via Ceuta travelled as rumoured.”
When he arrived in Syria, another change happened in the personality of al-Mahdali. He became more aggressive and quickly followed the paths of the militants. Gradually, he became the only Moroccan who enjoyed the confidence of Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership, which tasked him with leading a military brigade. Previous media reports detailed that the police thought al-Mahdali was “Abu Zakariah al-Maghrebi,” the leader of Ahrar al-Sham in the Latakia region, however, more importantly for al-Mahdali before his arrival to the emirate was his great influence on the recruitment process. Many young Moroccans fought beside him, some of them even travelled to Syria directly in order to join his brigade. Even today, word of his fighting prowess reaches the Ibn Omar market and the population of the city of Findeq.
The first incident that will contribute to the elaboration of Abdelaziz al-Mahdali’s personality is the death of Mohammed al-Yassini, the young man who accompanied him on his trip of “jihad,” and who was also a merchant in the Ibn Omar market. He died just after beginning to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra, and after that al-Mahdali would become an enigma. News would circulate of al-Mahdali’s (or Abu Osama al-Maghrebi) decision to leave Jabhat al-Nusra and join the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (popularly known as ISIS14). Jihadis on social networking sites described this as a “dangerous switch,” where as ISIS considered this an “important gain and new victory for Islam and Muslims.”
Abu Osama al-Maghrebi displayed marked exuberance for combat and quickly grew close to commanders and warlords until he became the first assistant to one of the leaders, Omar al-Shishani, who tasked al-Mahdali with military operations against Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo and the surrounding area. The most important of these operations was “al-Ghazwa al-Shahira,”15 as the invasion to conquer the Menagh Military Airbase is called, during which more than five Nusra-controlled villages were liberated. Among the list of his “heroic feats” was that he was the first to blow up a tank in Syria. Additionally, al-Mahdali was entrusted with implementing “limits” (i.e. punishments for violating Shari’a), such as death sentences that he carried out personally. He became famous for treating offenders with severity, including other opposition fighters. His standing made him become a “emir” of fighting and a famous field commander all across Syria. News of daring would increase with his ability to recruit and mobilize the desire of young Moroccans from the northern cities of the kingdom, who went straight to ISIS, especially Fnideq’s youth, who joined al-Mahdali’s brigade as he was a great ISIS emir.
In the first week of March 2014, during al-Mahdali’s brigade’s movement towards the city of al-Bab, and after the arrival of confirmed information about his presence in the brigade and his intent on shelling Jabhat al-Nusra locations, al-Mahdali fell in an ambush carried out by what is called the “Ghurfat al-‘Amaliyat al-‘Askariya,”16 made up mainly of members from Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Mujahideen. Al-Mahdali was killed.
Unusual action began on social networking sites and jihadi forums, as users mourned Abu Osama al-Maghreb, the simple man who sold clothes from China and Europe and became a “Lion of Islam,” “Knight of Islam” and “Field Commander.”
Interview with Abdullah Rami*: Moroccan jihadis liaison between militant organizations and mainstream supporters and sympathizers in the diaspora
Can we say that the experience of “Moroccan Afghans” is on its way to being repeated in Syria?
It is useful to point out that the phenomenon of Moroccan volunteers in Afghanistan in the 1980s differs drastically from its current iteration, ideologically and dogmatically, in terms of the organization, number of volunteers and their age group, as well as their capabilities, spread and available means. Not to mention the difference in the geostrategic environment. Very briefly, there were few “Moroccan Afghans” and the majority of them were “leftovers” of the Shabiha Islamiyah in Moroccan and abroad, or they were volunteers from al-Tablighi or “al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah,” which was led by current Prime Minister Mr. Benkirane.
The phenomenon was very limited, and its rhythms were controlled by the authorities; t was disciplined in the option to volunteer to face the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Subsequently, the state at the time did not get involved in promoting or stopping youth from going to Afghanistan; it was a partner in the Cold War and in its pioneering role contributed to the development of propaganda scenarios and religious mobilization against the “Communist heresy.”
It can be said that most of the members of this phenomena were collaborators with the state, therefore the experience of Moroccan Afghans did not represent real security challenges to Morocco. Unlike the “global Salafi-jihadi” phenomenon, which the “Moroccans of Syria” are a part of, this stream is dogmatic, takfiri17 and determined, does not recognize borders and believes in carrying weapons and training in how to fight. In light of that, it is a devotional way to effect change and “apply Shari’a.” This phenomenon is focused on the youth and a new era of religiosity. It is distinguished by the fact that it is unstructured, doesn’t have a central leadership and strikes everywhere and in every direction. One way or another, the authorities contributed to the militarization of the Salafi phenomenon through a policy of “turning a blind eye,” which allowed hundreds of Moroccan Salafi-jihadis to immigrate to Syria in order to fight there. The authorities were implementing their objectives, whether strategic — since the state is one of the members of the alliance or bloc (Friends of Syria), which aims to topple the Assad regime — or for a sincere security objective undertaken out of a desire to stop this social class that represents a burden on state security.
It is my personal believe that the era of the Syrian jihad will contribute to the production and hatching of various and differing models and templates of the jihadi condition. It differs from those that crystallized during the era of the Afghan jihad or even the Algerian Civil War in the mid-1990s. Then, in the midst of globalization, the potential implications arising from the jihad in Syria will not take years until its effects are felts in Morocco; it will quickly interact with the local reality.
What will the fate of the “Moroccans of Syria” be in the event that the war ends, knowing that their return to Morocco means throwing them in jails?
If these groups fail to overthrow the regime in Syria and are defeated, it is likely that the return of these broken Moroccan jihadis to the homeland will stir up social problems, and security problems especially. Whoever does not return, it is likely that they will engage in regional conflicts that could become other jihadi hotbeds. There is also the possibility that some Moroccans in Syria will be subjected to “recycling” in the midst of jihadi recruitment. Between most of the partner states in the Syrian conflict, it is possible that Moroccan militants, whether those in Assad’s prisons or those embedded in the groups that deal with regional intelligence agencies — especially Syria’s neighbours — will be subjected to reprogramming and directed to serve the interests, considerations and threats of those countries. We should not rule out this scenario in the midst of geopolitical affairs and interactions between multiple axes. In more than one region, with the knowledge that the jihadis’ card has become one of the means most relied upon in the game of nations, settling accounts and changing maps.
How do you explain the rise of Moroccan jihadis to leadership positions in many jihadi organisations?
This could be a modern characteristic in the Moroccan Salafi-jihadi movement. For example, ISIS leadership is Iraqi, Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders are Syrian, the leadership of AQIM are Algerians, al-Qaeda leadership in Khorsan is Egyptian and in Yemen they are Saudi and Yemeni. This is in terms of the core leadership. Whereas, with regard to leaders of the Shura18 council or field commanders, or with regard to the authority of fatwas, these can be from different nationalities. Really, the Moroccan members have avant-gardist roles in a number of these organisations today, as well as in the past. In this regard I point to the jihadi Abdullah Tabarak, who was responsible for the protection of al-Qaeda leader Bin Laden and held his secrets. It was this position that made him the prayer leader for all Guantanamo Bay prisoners. There were also Moroccans who were training camp leaders in Afghanistan, the main reason for which was the fact that Moroccans have played pioneering roles in the jihadi movement relative to their numbers. There has been a jihadi boom amongst Moroccan youths, wether from within the country or from the diaspora, but in the past there number was small.
In the same vein, we can also point to Mohammed Mawmo (nom de guerre Abu Qaswarah), who held the position of emir in the north of the Islamic State of Iraq, and to Mohsen Khyber, who was named Bin Laden’s commander, and to Sheikh Sayyid, who was considered on of the most important jihadist propagandists in the global jihadi movement, and to Abu Ubaidah, the security leader of ISIS, as well as others like them who are leading Moroccan factions in different organisations found abroad. We must not forget the pivotal role undertaken by Sheikh al-Hadochi in guiding the global Salafi-jihadi movement through his lessons and fatwas. There are estimates that al-Hadochi is the main spiritual guide to Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership in Syria. In any case, he did not deny his support for this group in his opposition to ISIS.
What are the roles that Moroccan leaders are playing in networking and communication operations between jihadis around the world?
The most important role played by Moroccan leaders in the in jihadi hotbeds is that of liaison between the militant organisation and the mainstream of supporters and sympathisers in the diaspora. Most of the material, human and media support was coming from Western countries, and Moroccans were involved as liaisons and coordinators because of their language skills, relationships with immigrants, and investment in the atmosphere of freedom and well-being.
Are Moroccan leaders limited to field commanders or do they extend to the field of jihadi thinking?
I think they are involved in both. Sheikh al-Hadochi is the most important thinker for Jabhat al-Nusra by far, likewise for al-Mejjati and to some extent Sheikh Abdel Razaq, who are considered among the most important ideological and media members in ISIS. Meanwhile Abu Ubaidah combines field leadership and ideological production for al-Baghdadi’s organization.19 As for Sheikh Abu Khubza, even though he is not consider part of the jihadi movement, he enjoys respect and great symbolic recognition by all the leaders and sheikhs across the spectra of the global jihadi movement.
Do you agree with some of the Western reports, which indicate that the return of these militants to Morocco represents a security threat to the country?
All countries today are worried about the phenomenon of (militants) returning. There was a previous belief that the Syrian regime would fall quickly, Iranian influence would be contained and the al-Qaeda project crushed all at once. Interestingly, we have contributed to this belief without carefully studying its grave consequences without heeding the consequences of retreats. The irony is that during the first Afghanistan war, despite use being allies of American in the war against the Soviety Union, the authorities did no allow Moroccan youth to emigrate to Afghanistan. Meanwhile today, despite our experience with September 11, the Casablanca events and an atmosphere of terrorism, and in light of the counterterrorism policy and its recognition as a security priority, we opened the borders for former Guantanamo inmates and hundreds of Salafi-jihadis to migrate to Syria in order to fight, network and communicate with their Salafi counterparts from different corners of the world. It was incumbent upon us to focus on the seriousness of migration before paying attention to the phenomenon of return, but there was strategic blindness, not a miscalculation.
Let me explain the gravity of jihadis’ return, which could turn out to be not only a challenge, but a security nightmare, and God forbid, a disaster. Our real fear currently is not primarily from the return. These Moroccans have been deceived. The problem is that these militants will return to Morocco with a radical ideology and fighting skills, but without any clear outlet or strategy to contain or treat the dogmatic militarism and “addiction to fighting.” There is no recipe or method of experience and expertise to get rid of those who have a “war being” occupying them. This very complex psychological nature is taught by professional solders who have fought in wars, not to mention that the worry is the strongest it has been, when we know that there are hundreds like these Moroccan militants in the diaspora who participated in the war in Syria, and these people have connections to their motherland. Finally, we must expect many security challenges in the coming days, especially in confronting the phenomenon of “individual jihad” (i.e. self-initiatives to engage in violence).
Portfolio prepared by Abdul Samad al-Za’li and Yousef Moncef
*Researcher at the Moroccan Centre for Social Studies, Université Hassan II – Aïn Chock
1 Direction of prayer – for Muslims, it is fixed as the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca
2 Commander of the Faithful
3 Expert in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence)
5 Arabic teknonym, where the name of an adult is derived from that of his/her eldest child – often used as a nom de guerre by militants
6 “Society for Spreading Faith,” a religious advocacy group
8 Islamic education
9 spiritual guidance
10 the Islamist “Justice and Charity Group”
11 a radical Islamist youth group
13 methodology to understanding Islam
14 ISIS is more commonly known now as IS (from Islamic State, as the group prefers to refer to itself). In Arabic, its detractors refer to it as “Dā’ish” (داعش) in Arabic, an acronym for ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fīl-Irāq wash-Shām (الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام). This acronym, now commonly used in a derogatory manner to refer to the group, has led to members of the group being referred to as “dā’shī” (plural: duwā’ish), in Arabic: داعشي (plural: دواعش).
15 “The Famous Invasion”
16 “Military Operations Room”
17 Declaring another Muslim to be an apostate or infidel, permitting them to be killed under Islamic law
19 ISIS is lead by its supposed “Caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdad.