Middle East

Islamist Movements in Morocco

The Saber and the Quran

Sheikh Yassine
Free to Preach: Imprisoned for six years, Sheik Yassine emerged more influential than ever, attracting faithful from abroad (Photo: AFP).

At the open bazaar of clichés about Morocco, there is one that has stubbornly held on—and probably for good reason: Given the fact that the king has assumed the title of commander of believers [Amir al-Mouminin], radical Islamism was destined to have only a residual place in the kingdom. A natural barrier and a vaccine against religious extremism, the very presence of Amir al-Mouminin has prevented a shift toward the traditional pattern of Islamic mobilization from occurring as easily as it has elsewhere in the Maghreb and the Arab world.

Certainly, inequities and economic fragility in Morocco are fertile ground for Islamists. But, as the cliché holds, did not a clever man, [former King] Hassan II, offset his modernist and secularist “provocations” with measures inspired by fundamentalism? Is it not true that he was effectively aided in this task by a political and labor-union opposition that is more credible than in Algeria and Tunisia? And as for his son and successor, Mohammed VI, the “king of the poor,” has he not acted with zeal and sincerity in the field of charity, which is so highly valued by Islamists?

Without our realizing it, these facts have profoundly changed. Slowly, the political parties have virtually crumbled, and opposition participation in the government, involving alternation between political parties, has merely increased the Moroccan people’s mistrust, particularly among those at the bottom. The regime’s openness and the dismantling of the most coercive divisions of the Makhzen [the Moroccan state] have placed the monarch on the front line, deprived of the protective screen of the repressive system and the political elite.

The apparatus to keep the ulema in check, put in place in 1980 by Hassan II with the creation of the High Council, has had some perverse effects: Domesticated and bureaucratized, the clerics have gradually lost touch with the masses of the faithful. A void was created, which the Islamist movements were quick to fill.

The traditional societal and psychological role played by the “bearded ones” did the rest. Better than anyone else, they are the ones who know how to break the solitude of exclusion, how to re-create the social bonds broken by the rural exodus, how to restore the self-esteem of their followers, and how to put their finger on real injustices.

In 2002, two events help to gauge how widespread this phenomenon is. One was this past June, when a terrorist network linked to Al-Qaeda was put out of commission, and people realized that this network was as at home among the most radical fringes of the Moroccan Islamist movement as a fish in water. Then there were the legislative elections slated for the end of September, elections that were to be transparent and democratic for the first time in the country’s history.

The extent of the electoral “green tide” that is welling up should not be overestimated—if only because the largest of these Moroccan Islamist movements, Justice and Charity, advocates a boycott of the elections. Yet some observers foresee a new forward thrust of the fundamentalists, like the one that marked the entry of the “bearded ones” into Parliament in 1997 and 1999. Either by violence or through the ballot box, Islamism has therefore become ascendant in the kingdom and is a worrisome trend.

Born at the start of the 1990s with the return of some 40 fighters from the jihad in Afghanistan, Salafi Jihadi (Salafist Combat), a little-known underground movement, is the only one that has clearly opted for armed struggle. For two months now, this group of some 400 active militants intent on martyrdom has been decimated by arrests.

Salafi Jihadi recruits its followers in poor neighborhoods and shantytowns, with a predilection for itinerant merchants, and its figures of reference are the blind sheik, Omar Abdel-Rahman (the founder of the Egyptian Jamaa Islamiya); Sayid Qutb; Ibn Taimia; the London preacher Omar Mahmoud Omar alias Abu Qatada al-Filistini; and, of course, Osama bin Laden.

Organized in clusters of cells of three or four members each and determined to restore the caliphate [a united Islamic state] by force, Salafi Jihadi is led by some dozen emirs, all independent of one another. Anything that serves the cause is licit. Mohammed Fezzazi in Tangiers, Omar Hadouchi in Tétouan, and especially Zacaria Miloudi in Casablanca thus perpetrate a veritable Islamist reign of terror where they operate.

Miloudi, who was recently arrested, organized punitive expeditions after the evening prayer in Sidi Moumen in Casablanca, against police, drug dealers, or consumers of alcohol. Very fluid, this group has very few ties with foreign countries, and the attempts to coordinate its actions with their Algerian “brothers” of Hassan Hattab’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat appear to have been unsuccessful.

Yet, when the three Saudis from Al-Qaeda arrested [in May in Casablanca] for plotting terrorist acts confessed, they admitted they had found the necessary aid and hideouts within Salafi Jihadi. How had they gotten in contact with that network? No doubt, it was through the intermediary of the person who appears to be the group’s emir of emirs: Ahmed Raffiki. Now an old man, this former male nurse from Casablanca, who in the 1980s was the main recruiter of Moroccan volunteers not only for Afghanistan but also for Chechnya, Bosnia, and Kosovo, is the only local figure recognized by the Salafists, even though he has refrained from perpetrating any criminal acts.

The police are still seeking to determine whether Raffiki (one of whose sons is the emir of Salafi Jihadi in Fez) was connected with the contact person for the three Saudis, the Yemeni Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri alias Mullah Bilal—a close associate of Osama bin Laden—who is hiding out somewhere in the Palestinian areas. According to informed sources, the trio had had sufficient time before they were arrested to distribute among his Moroccan contacts some small manuals on how to make crude bombs or concoct a deadly poison.

The name Ahmed Raffiki has also turned up at Guantánamo, of all places. According to Moroccan intelligence services, who dispatched a few of their agents to the U.S. prison camp to question some Moroccan nationals detained there (a half dozen), Raffiki had the opportunity to meet a certain Abdallah Tabarak, alias Abu Omar.

This Moroccan, whose identity had been kept secret until then, is a big catch. He left Morocco in 1989 to enter the service of Osama bin Laden. First he was in Sudan, where he managed part of the Saudi billionaire’s assets. Then he served in Afghanistan. Arrested in early 2002 in Tora Bora and sent off to Guantánamo, he asserted he did not know Bin Laden. The CIA, obviously, does not believe a word of this, nor does the Moroccan DST [intelligence service], which has asked that he be turned over to them—so far in vain.

With its estimated 30,000 members, its multiple charitable, educational, and recreational associations, Al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Charity) is without any doubt the most important Islamist movement in Morocco. The group owes much of its importance to the charisma of its founder, 76-year-old Sheik Abdessalam Yassine, a former regional inspector in the Ministry of National Education.

This Arabic scholar—originally from the Sous [in southern Morocco] and raised and educated in Marrakech—had a “crisis of faith” in 1965. First he was a disciple of the Sufi mystic Al-Hajj Abbas, but he made a sensational entrance on the political scene nine years later by addressing an open letter to Hassan II: “Islam or the deluge.”

This was an impertinent gesture that was to cost him six years in custody. Placed under house arrest in Salé, he regained his freedom only in May 2000 by order of Mohammed VI and immediately made public his second address: “Memorandum to whom it may concern.” To the young sovereign he said this: “Redeem your father from torment by restoring to the people the goods they are entitled to”—in other words, the royal fortune, which, according to him, is equivalent to the kingdom’s foreign debt.

Yassine is in fact engaging in a radical criticism of the monarchy but carefully refraining from advocating any use of violence. For him, the toppling of Morocco into the caliphate will occur automatically and as a self-evident outcome when his movement numbers at least 4 million members. As the head of this counter-society that is Justice and Charity, Yassine is increasingly becoming the object of an out-and-out personality cult—a peculiarity that the militants of the Salafi Jihadi see as “irreligious.”

At his home in Salé, the sheik makes short appearances before the faithful who have come in pilgrimage, sometimes from as far away as the United States or Chile. The few road trips he has made inside Morocco since his release have sometimes given rise to scenes of mass hysteria.Yassine, the new Khomeini? Things have certainly not yet gone that far, but the sheik, who has artfully integrated the Moroccan traditions of Sufism (the cult of the leader, retreats, asceticism, psychological preparation…) displays an impressive capacity to mobilize.

As the undisputed leader, Yassine enjoys the right to veto all decisions of the seven-member General Orientation and Leadership Council that heads Justice and Charity. If he dies, his successor should, in principle, be the oldest member of this “politburo.”

After conducting a lot of investigations, the Moroccan police had to yield to the evidence: Justice and Charity receives no financing from foreign sources. Its operating budget comes entirely from donations and dues from members within the country or from Moroccans who have emigrated. Each member is obligated to contribute 2.5 percent of his salary or monthly income to the association.

Among the movement’s priority targets is the student world, which Yassine’s partisans have penetrated with alarming effectiveness. Justice and Charity’s student division has taken control of most of the university associations (law, letters, medicine).

In February 2002, the organization attempted a spectacular takeover of the National Union of Moroccan Students. The operation failed because the left had thrown all its forces into the battle to prevent it from succeeding, but the fight has most likely only been postponed for another day.

Al-Adl wal-Ihsan, which was for a long time amateurish, has professionalized its structures. The movement has set up watch committees to flush out police informants and to improve the transmission of the latest watchwords. Even some policemen have been “turned” to work for the sheik. Finally, the practice of jogging and martial arts is recommended for the movement’s followers, who are supposed to be “sound of body”…and ready for the Great Evening.

The Party for Justice and Develop-ment (PJD) are the Mensheviks (or the social democrats) within the Moroccan Islamist nebula. Fourteen of their elected representatives serve in Parliament, and sometimes they cause a commotion there. But they advocate taking power through elections, and they do not call into question the monarchy or any of the existing institutions.

The number of elected members of the PJD could double after the September elections—and they might attain the key number of 40 [which would be significant] if the previous voting system were still in effect. In 1997, 250,000 voters voted for the candidates of that party, which has only 5,000 active members. How many will do so tomorrow?

At first glance, the PJD looks like an ordinary and conservative party, which could be considered to be to the right of [the nationalist political party] Istiqlal. It is militant for the Palestinian cause, opposed to the integration of women, and against micro-credit (which they see as encouraging usury). It is religious, certainly, but not too much; it enjoys a sound organization where managerial staff, attorneys, and physicians work together.

It is relatively well established, has a minority labor union (the National Union of Workers of Morocco, particularly strong in educational circles), and has about a hundred municipal council members and six municipal presidents.

For a long time it supported the government of Abderrahmane Youssoufi before distancing itself in October 2000, and it even has a woman, Bassima Hakkaoui, among its leaders. But in fact, those who have studied the history of the PJD, as well as the readers of Attajdid, the party’s unofficial daily paper, know that all the above is an empty shell, a mask that conceals a reality that is much more Islamist: the Movement for Unification and Reform, the MUR.

The main craftsman of this infiltration is the director of a private school in Rabat and a PJD representative in Parliament: Abdelilah Benkirane, age 48. This former member of Istiqlal’s youth movement is quite familiar with militant fundamentalism, because he learned his lessons there. During the 1970s, Benkirane frequented the Moroccan Islamic Youth Movement (MJIM) of Abdelkrim Moutii. Taking refuge since then in Libya and then in Norway, Moutii disappeared from the Moroccan scene. Benkirane stayed. The result was a break with violence and a slow evolution toward working within legal structures. In 1981, Benkirane left the MJIM and, together with men like the attorney Mustafa Ramid or the psychiatrist Saadeddine el-Othmani, both currently PJD representatives in Parliament, founded the Jamaa Islamiya. 

Some say it was for purely tactical reasons, while others, including the Salafists and Justice and Charity, claim that it was because he had wandered from the path of God, but his followers assert that he did so for sincere reasons.

Now Benkirane advocates recognition of the monarchy and participation in political institutions. In 1988, the Jamaa became the Movement for Reform and Renewal, and then, after merging with the League for an Islamic Future of Ahmed Raissouni, it took the name of Movement for Unification and Reform.

After the failure of an attempt to infiltrate Istiqlal in 1993, MUR was looking for a political party under whose cover it could express itself in complete legality. It opted for a small, then little-known political formation, the Party for Justice and Development of Abdelkrim Khatib.

The takeover succeeded in 1996 and, the following year, the PJD won nine seats in Parliament and a position of counselor in the Upper House. Be-cause Driss Basri, then interior minister, gave his blessing to this operation, Abdelilah Benkirane was quickly suspected of acting for his mentor. In fact, if there was any manipulation, there is no proof that it was not the other way around.

Little by little, what remained of the leadership of the original PJD was put on the sidelines by MUR’s Islamists—except for the symbolic figure of Khatib. All of the elected representatives of the party and 13 of the 18 members of its General Secretariat are active MUR members.

The PJD, having been “Islamicized” in this way, will therefore be the only party to represent the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the September legislative elections. Will it get the votes of the other religious movements? This is far from certain, even though the differences that separate them have more to do with form and strategy than with substance.

In the area of day-to-day mobilization, this party, which is rather elitist, suffers from the competition of the intrusive Sheik Yassine. As for the Salafists, they profess disdain and scorn for him. It remains to be seen whether the police, in their investigation of the Al-Qaeda network, were surprised to discover that the second Moroccan wife chosen by the Saudi Zouhair Tabiti, the head of the group, was a militant of the quite presentable MUR. And so, from the alleys of Sidi Moumen to the halls of Parliament, the Islamists make up a large family.