A full week after a bomb devastated a popular tourist café in Marrakech killing 16 people and injuring 21 others, Moroccan authorities announced the arrest of three suspects in the attack. Yet despite the information released in the wake of those detentions, it’s still uncertain whether the strike was the work of local extremists operating on their own, or as operatives of the regional terror network al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb’s as suspected.
That detail may seem academic to some, since the bombing achieved its likely goals of killing foreigners—14 of whom were among the 16 casualties—and threatening the nation’s $8 billion annual tourism industry the Moroccan economy and regime depends on. Yet given the difficulty of the Algerian-dominated al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to federate other extremist groups in North Africa under its direction, proof of its involvement in the Marrakech bombing would constitute a worrying precedent—and offer evidence it has subsumed the formerly independent Moroccan Islamic Combat Group (MICG).
“The MICG was influential in both the Casablanca attacks and Madrid bombings, and always maintained autonomy and distance from other jihadist groups—particularly the Algerians, who tend to alienate other Arabs despite their common cause,” says Jean-Louis Bruguière, France’s former top counter-terrorism official, who still works in the field with foreign justice and intelligence services. “If it’s confirmed the Marrakech attackers were part of or associated with AQIM, it would suggest the group has replaced MICG as the primary extremist force in Morocco, and obtained a foothold in the country it had been denied up to now.”Early speculation AQIM may have been involved in the Marrakech attack increased Thursday, when Moroccan officials said they’d arrested three men they believe were behind the strike. Authorities described the group’s leader as “a keen jihadist who has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda”. The Moroccan Interior Ministry said the lead suspect had “made two explosive devices, which were triggered from a distance after he took them to Marrakech” and left them in the café. The trio was arrested in Safi, around 220 miles south of Casablanca . On Friday, Moroccan Interior Minister Taieb Cherkaoui said the main suspect (whose identity has not yet been revealed) had been expelled from Portugal and Libya in recent years as he sought to travel and join jihadist fighters in Chechnya and Iraq. Cherkaoui noted all three men “admire al Qaeda, are filled with al Qaeda ideology and with Salafist ideology”.
That isn’t the same thing as being members of or allied to AQIM, however. It therefore remains to be seen whether the trio—if guilty of the bombing as charged—acted with direction and assistance of AQIM as part of the group’s efforts to replace older Moroccan Islamist organizations as the chief jihadist force in the country.
“AQIM has staged attacks and kidnappings in Algeria, Mauritania, and in the Sahel, but it has been rebuffed by local Islamist groups in Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya,” Bruguière says. “If it’s confirmed AQIM was behind the Marrakech strike and is now operational in Morocco, that would be troubling news on its own, as well as a potential worry in other North African countries that are generally less stable these days than Morocco is.”
But that’s a significant “if” for now. Wording by Moroccan authorities seems intentionally to avoid making direct, operational ties between the three suspects and AQIM. Meanwhile, AQIM has yet to claim responsibility for the Marrakech bombing—discretion it has failed to demonstrate after its other terrorist actions.
“All major jihadist organizations have their own video and audio production units, and put a high premium on communication, so the fact AQIM hasn’t claimed responsibility yet is interesting,” Bruguière says. “That silence could be strategic–to avoid giving investigators direction. It could be a sign AQIM leaders were too affected by Ben Laden’s death to communicate as planned. And it could be because AQIM wasn’t involved—though its leaders would never step up and say that.”
Sadly, discovering the full story behind the Marrakech attack won’t change much for its victims. But because establishing AQIM’s involvement will allow counter-terrorism officials to learn whether influence and power among extremists groups in Morocco is shifting or not, finding out whom was actually involved the Morocco blast winds up being anything but academic.