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Monday, September 25, 2006

The Islamization of Morocco

The Weekly Standard

A LITTLE MORE THAN three years ago, Morocco experienced Islamic terrorism firsthand. On May 16, 2003, Casablanca was hit with four simultaneous attacks that left 45 people dead and hundreds injured. The attacks were perpetrated by Moroccan citizens who were members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (known by its French acronym, GICM).

Needless to say, the kingdom was stunned that its sons had turned violently against it. Now, the dismantling of another extensive Islamist cell in Morocco confirms that extremism is spreading inside what has long been viewed as one of the most moderate countries in the Arab world.

In a series of arrests over the past month, Moroccan authorities have seized 59 people and over 30 kilograms of TNT, more than was used in the 2003 attacks but of the same type. The alleged targets were political and military leaders, along with locations in Marrakesh, Morocco's premier tourist destination, the air force base of Salé, and the U.S. embassy in Rabat.

But the most troubling aspect of this cell by far is its membership. While the suicide bombers of 2003 came from the slums around Casa blanca, the newly arrested suspects are from all walks of life. They include five members of the military, three policemen, a Domestic Security officer, two imams, and four society women. Two of these women, the wives of Royal Air Morocco pilots, had volunteered for suicide missions in Iraq and Israel.

The cell leader, Hassan Khattab, who had spent two years in prison for his
support for the 2003 terror attacks, had persuaded the women to finance local jihadi attacks because Morocco is the "ally of the Americans and the Zionists." Coincidentally, these four women had befriended Fatiha Hassani, the widow of the top Moroccan al Qaeda operative who was killed by Saudi forces in April 2005. The indictment accuses the cell members of "planning terrorist acts to overthrow the regime and install an Islamic caliphate."

The potential infiltration of the army by jihadists has clearly alarmed the authorities. As of August 31, they have eliminated compulsory military service in order to avoid giving free military training to potential terrorists. In addition, military officers and troops alike have been forbidden to perform Friday prayers in uniform.

Beyond the army, there are other clear signs of the rapid Islamization of Moroccan society. Nowhere is this more apparent than in women's dress. In just a few years, Moroccan women have gone from the miniskirt to the hijab. Interviewed in the French daily Le Monde a few months ago, a Moroccan high school teacher named Soukaina (she said she was afraid to use her last name) said that she no longer recognizes her country. Twenty years ago her high school had only one veiled teacher. Today everyone is veiled, teachers and students alike. Soukaina resigned more than a year ago under subtle pressure from Islamists, who wanted her to wear the hijab. She concluded: "It is only a matter of time until Islamists are leading the country."

Both in Morocco's big cities and in its villages, street vendors sell Islamist propaganda calling for jihad and the subjugation of women, spewing anti-Semitism and hatred of the West, on audio and video tapes, CDs and DVDs. One of the bestselling CDs is a rant by a salafi preacher named Abdellah Nihari, who teaches that "women are creatures of Satan" even when they are veiled. For him, women's liberation is to blame for every evil in society. Islamists also have their own freelance "religious police" who operate illegally, mostly on beaches, targeting unmarried couples for harassment, assault, and even, in a few cases in recent years, murder.

Another sign of Islamization can be found in opinion surveys of Moroccan youths. According to a January 2006 study by L'Economiste, 44 percent of Moroccans aged 16 to 29 think al Qaeda is not a terrorist organization, 38 percent "don't know," and a mere 18 percent consider it a terrorist group. Furthermore, a July 2006 landmark report ordered by the Ministry of Planning and entitled "Morocco 2030" revealed that lots of high school graduates dream of a liberated Palestine, the destruction of Israel, and the fall of the United States.

In such an environment it's only natural that the leading Islamist party--the PJD (Justice and Development party), closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood--has been gaining traction. Already the third largest party in parliament, the PJD is projected to win 47 percent of the vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections, according to a recent poll by the International Republican Institute. This would make it the largest party, and the king would be obliged to ask it to form a government.

The PJD is your classic double speak party, carefully presenting itself as a Moroccan version of the German Christian Democrats, the soul of moderation, in order to achieve broad appeal. But its program, history, and membership leave no doubt about its real intentions. In its unofficial newspaper, At-Tajdid (Renewal), the PJD reveals its true nature. The party pretends it has nothing to do with At-Tajdid, but the paper's editors and publishers are PJD leaders, several of them even members of parliament.

routinely expresses ex trem ist views, especially on moral issues and foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel and the United States. For in stance, At-Tajdid explained the December 2004 tsunami by pointing out that the affected Asian countries were corrupt and were being punished by God for not following the true Islam. The magazine implied that Morocco might be next, for the same reason.

But most worrisome are the PJD/At-Tajdid links to terror. Right after the 2003 attacks, Moroccan police arrested the treasurer of the party in Kenitra for his alleged involvement in the plot. Indeed, at the time, most political parties and King Mohammed VI favored banning the PJD. It is widely asserted in the Moroccan press that the U.S. ambassador pressured the king to give up this idea.

Also, At-Tajdid's website has a permanent link to the Union of Good, an umbrella organization of Hamas-funding charities, five of which are listed by the United States as Specially Designated Global Terrorist entities (SDGTs), and another two of which are accused of supporting al Qaeda.

Last, according to the Moroccan daily Al Ahdath Almaghribia, Hassan Khattab, the terror ringleader just arrested, was initiated into Islamism by PJD members including the director of At-Tajdid, Abdelilah Benkirane.

Considering all this, it is baffling that Mustafa Khalfi, editor in chief of At-Tajdid, was awarded a prestigious 2005/2006 Fulbright/American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship. This honor has afforded him the opportunity to work for congressman Jim McDermott of Washington, to take a course at Johns Hopkins University, and to be a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Similarly, the head of the PJD, Saad Eddine Othmani, recently visited Washington and met with members of Congress.

It's almost enough to make you think some in Washington are quietly positioning themselves for a PJD victory.

Olivier Guitta is a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant in Washington, D.C.

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