Religious PoliciesResearchWhere do the Moroccan Jihadists Come from and Who do they Affiliate With?

Over the past two years, jihadist activities has decreased thanks to Morocco’s security vigilance and because ISIS became less attractive
Mohammed Guenfoudi Mohammed Guenfoudi14/06/2024164544 min


Over the past two years, jihadist activities has decreased thanks to Morocco’s security vigilance and because ISIS became less attractive.


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Apart from « Argana » bombings in 2011, Morocco hasn’t witnessed any other terrorist attacks since then. Even though the regional environment is tense and the presence of Moroccan fighters in the hotbeds of tension, Morocco remained immune to the terrorist threat. This is thanks to the fact that terrorist organizations didn’t find ground in Morocco because they face many pre-emptive operations led by security services, who were able to dismantle dozens of terrorist cells. The decline of the organization of the Islamic state control in Syria and Iraq affected the number of dismantled terrorist cells in 2017 decrescendo. The Organization of the Islamic State took the lead in terms of the number of dismantled and ideologically affiliated cells, while Tangier-Tetouan and Fez-Meknes topped the list of cities concerned by dismantled cells.



Since the Casablanca bombings of 2003, the Moroccan authorities have developed a pre-emptive approach, which led to dismantling of 168 terrorist cells and arrest 2,963 persons[1]between 2001 and February 2017. Their ideological affiliations vary from allegiance to al-Qaeda in both central and regional levels, be it In the Islamic Maghreb organization, or the Islamic State (ISIS) after 2014, in addition to the local jihadi groups.

Until 2014, the Sahel and Sahara have been the most important strongholds of polarization, but also Morocco’s security threat, especially attempts by AQIM to export terrorist operations to the Moroccan interior, or by creating cells to attract Moroccan fighters to the ranks of the organization. Al-Qaeda activities in the Sahel and Sahara have mobilized Morocco’s security services, which have been able to dismantle a number of cells attached to it. But with the rise of the star of ISIS in 2014, Morocco’s security services attention turned to other hotbeds of conflict, especially in the Syrian and Iraqi regions, because of the shift of allegiance of al Qaeda jihadists to the organization of the “Islamic state”.

This report seeks to monitor the dynamics of the jihadist current in Morocco between 2011 and 2017 by analyzing open source data on dismantled cells, particularly those provided by the Ministry of the Interior and the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ) and published in the media. In this context, we collected data on 44 terrorist cells, a sample representing half[2]of the 87 dismantled cells during that period. This sample has been selected because it provides sufficient data by identifying the areas from which these jihadists originate and also their ideological affiliation. It should be noted that the report also aspired to a deeper analysis of the sociological characteristics (especially age, occupation, and previous Islamic experiences …) of the cells that were dismantled but the data provided by the open source does not provide it all, and therefore we contented to only geographical and ideological data.

In the first axis of the report we monitored the security efforts in dismantling the jihadi structures, which enabled us to follow up the development of patterns of jihadist phenomenon in recent years and the transformation that it has known after the emergence of the ISIS organization in 2014. In the second axis we tried to describe and analyze the organizational / ideological distribution, as well as its geographical distribution through the affiliation of its members to the cities and regions of the Kingdom.


Morocco’s efforts to dismantling terrorist cells

In October 2014, Mr. Yassine Al Mansouri, Director General of the General Directorate of Studies and Documentation (Foreign Intelligence Service), presented at a meeting of the Counter-Terrorism Committee of the UN Security Council the data on the activity of elements of the Salafi Jihadist, especially those who chose to travel to Syria and Iraq, Showing that their number reached 1203 Moroccans traveling from Morocco, 218 of them former detainees and 254 killed in the battlefield there or carried out suicide bombings, distributed between 219 people in Syria and 35 others in Iraq with 500 people waiting to travel to this region[3].

However, these figures have increased significantly in recent years. In September 2016, Mr. Mohammed Mufakir the Director General of International Cooperation at the Ministry of the Interior, announced that the number reached more than 1,600 Moroccans[4],while some think tanks and research centers refer to larger numbers. The estimated number of Moroccan fighters was about 2100 people, according to a study published by Firil Center in 2015[5].

In February 2018, Abdelhak El Khayam, director of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation, told France’s Le Monde newspaper that the security authorities had dismantled a total of 49 “terrorist” cells since the establishment of BCIJ in 2015, i.e. a percentage of one cell per month, adding that most of the cells dismantled were affiliated to ISIS. Besides, the security problems posed by “jihadi migration” towards countries plagued by armed conflicts were present in El Khayam’s statement, who said that the Bureau followed the cases of 97 returnees, 84 of whom came from the Iraqi-Syrian area and 13 from Libya, as well as 53 people who have been expelled from other countries[6].

This statement of El Khayam’s shows clearly that the official player is keeping abreast of the terrorist phenomenon in Morocco, through the establishment of that security institution (BCIJ), especially with the rise of terrorist activities due to the growing rise of the ISIS and its ability to attract Moroccans to join its ranks either in forms of recruitment or to conduct internal attacks.

In terms of the timeline related to the dismantling of terrorist cells, the years 2014 and 2015 knew the culmination of the activity of these cells. In 2014, the security services dismantled 22 cells against 21 cells that were dismantled in 2015. Since this year, Morocco has known a decrease in the number of cells until 9 cells in 2017, the figure closest to what was recorded in 2011 and 2012, as a percentage of dismantling 4 or 7 terrorist cells per year.

Graph (1)

Source: compiled by the author


The graph suggests that the number of dismantled cells decreased in 2017 compared with the last two years 2015 and 2016. According to the Ministry of the Interior in 2015, was 21 cells, down to 19 in 2016 and only nine in 2017. This decline could be interpreted, in addition to security efforts, as the decline witnessed in the Iraqi and Syrian arena of the Islamic state organization and the succession of defeats which caused it a large number of its main strongholds in both countries leading to the erosion of the organization’s luster, a success that it achieved in 2014 and 2015.


Ideological affiliation of the dismantled cells

The 44 cells, which has been analyzed[7], are divided into three categories: first, groups that carry the ideology of al-Qaeda, the second kind sympathize with or affiliates to the ideology of the Islamic state organization; the rest are small local organizations established by Moroccan locals. Geographically the cells are distributed on the whole of the Moroccan soil, with variations in geographical belongings, especially in the north. This will be exposed in the axis of the geographical distribution of cell members.

Since 2011, jihadist organizations have not been able to build a strong well organized base in Morocco, with the exception of a few elements that have declared their allegiance to organizations abroad and those who have decided to join them in battlefields in hotbeds. Other elements have begun to establish local cells without the ability to expand their activities or recruit other elements. Graph 2 shows that external organizations are divided between the organization of the Islamic state in its central parts in Syria and Iraq, as well as its branch in Libya, then al-Qaeda in both its central and sub-sectors, representing the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb based in the Sahel region.

Graph  (2)

Source: compiled by the author

Prior to April 2014, most of the cells dismantled by the security services belonged to al-Qaeda. Since then, and with the success of the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, the number of cells connected to the organization of the Islamic State has increased reaching about 57%. As for the cells belonging to local organizations, they did not exceed 7% of the total number of cells. The security services did not declare the affiliation of the members of the cell to any of al-Qaeda or the Islamic state, which means that they adopt jihadist ideology without an organic link with jihadist organizations abroad. The group of jama’at Al muwahidin/At-tawhid of 20 members, which was dismantled, is one of the non-affiliated groups neither organizationally nor ideologically. It has taken from the territory of Nador a rear base to intensify its activities, forging links with extremist elements in the city of Melilla, as well as elements in European countries. Another group called Al amr bi lma’aroufwanahay an almounkar (the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice), which includes five people concentrating their activity in the city of Tangier, were imposing the “respect of Shari’a Islamic law,” and playing the role of “religious police.”

The attractiveness of an Islamic state organization can be explained by the increasing frequency of conflict in the hotbeds of tension in the Middle East and North Africa region, especially the Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan fronts. The military victories achieved by the organization of the Islamic state since its emergence in 2014 – especially its ability to include many major cities such as Mosul[8]in Iraq, Al-Raka and Deir al-Zour[9]in Syria, as well as its declaration of the caliphate in June 2014[1] and its secession from al-Qaeda in the same year – has created a prominent propaganda for this organization among the youth and jihadist currents in Morocco[10], which has contributed to the promotion of recruitment, both for “jihadist migration” towards these hotbeds, or for the creation of local cells / non-organizationally linked to external jihadist movements to carry out attacks or terrorist operations. This explains the high number of cells dismantled by the security services in 2014 and 2015.

The Islamic State organization started the decline since 2016 until the beginning of 2017 due to the military moves against it in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and the subsequent loss of the territories it once controlled. Moreover, the Moroccan security efforts to dismantle the cells and carry out pre-emptive operations contributed to the decline witnessed in the last two years, in terms of the activity of terrorist groups and the numbers of dismantled cells.


Geographical affiliation of the dismantled cells

The findings of this study show that the geographical distribution of the dismantled cells is as follows. The cities of Tangier, Fez, Marrakech and Nador top the list of cities concerned with the dismantled cells during the period of this report (2011 to 2017). The graph below shows the nature of the geographical distribution of dismantled cells. It appears that the Tangier-Tetouan region occupied the top spot in terms of recurring cities with cells that were dismantled in the period between 2011 and 2017, followed by Fez-Meknes, the east region, Marrakech-Safi, Rabat-Salé-Kenitra and Casablanca-Settat.


Graph (3)

Source: compiled by the author


As shown in the graph, the distribution of the dismantled terrorist cells on a geographical basis throughout the Moroccan territory. This covered all parts of the Kingdom except the Dakhla– Oueddahab region, which did not know during the study period, any dismantling of any terrorist cell.

Map (1)

Source: compiled by the author



The figures about the chronology of dismantled terrorist cells in Morocco from 2011 to 2017 show that today Morocco is experiencing a less terrorist threat than in previous years. The decrease from 22 cells dismantled in 2014 to 9 cells in 2017, confirms that the development in fighting hotbeds, particularly in the Sahel, Syria, Iraq and Libya have cast a shadow over security developments in the country.

On the other hand, there are still fears of continued instability in the Middle East and its impact on the security situation in Morocco, especially the  return of foreign fighters from the hotbeds of tension, but also indications of ISIS transformation and its move to other geographical locations.


 Appendix 1 shows a sample of terrorist cells that were dismantled between 2011 and 2017

Number Geographical location Organizational affiliation year Month N
27 Amghala site (220 kmfar from Layoune southern Morocco) Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)  2011 January 1
3 N/A Al-Battar brigade/ Al-Qaeda 2011 September 2
3 Outskirts of meknes N/A 2012 April 3
N/A N/A Morocco’s Mujahdine/ Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) 2012 May 4
9 Rif region, Ouazzane, Sale, Rabat Al-Qaeda 2012 November 5
8 N/A AnsarShari’aa in the Islamic Maghreb/ Al-Qaeda 2012 November 6
N/A Nador, Casablanca, Guerssif, Layoune, Qala’atSraghna Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) 2012 November 7
6 Fez Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) 2012 December 8
N/A Fenidq, Tangier, Houceima, Meknes Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) 2013 January 9
N/A Nador province Al muwahidin/ At-tawhid 2013 May 10
N/A N/A N/A 2013 December 11
N/A Nador, Tetouan, Houceima, Taza, Fez, Marrakech Al-Qaeda 2014 January 12
N/A N/A ISIS 2014 April 13
N/A Fez, Outat al haj, Zayou The Islamic State organization 2014 September 14
8 Nador The Islamic State organization 2014 September 15
3 N/A The Islamic State organization 2014 November 16
5 Tangier Al amr bi lma’aroufwanahay an almounkar 2014 December 17


Agadir, Bi jaad, Marrakech, Taroudant, Tiflet, AinHarouda, Tangier, Eastern Layoune, Laayoun The Islamic State organization 2015




N/A NorthernMorocco The Islamic State organization 2015 March 19
8 , Sale, Tangier, Jorf el malha, Qalaat Sraghna The Islamic State organization 2015 July 20
14 Fez, Casablanca, Deriouch, Nador, Houceima The Islamic State organization 2015


August 21
5 Beni Mellal, Sidi Allal Bahraouinext to Rabat, Tinzouline village in Zagoura province The Islamic State organization 2015 September 22
9 Middle and southernMorocco The Islamic State organization 2015 December




7 Dar Bouaaza (outskirts of Casablanca) The Islamic State organization 2016 January 24
7 Marrakech, Layoune, Boujdour


The Islamic State organization 2016 February 25
4 Meknes, Tetouan, Martil,Agouray N/A 2016 February 26
10 Essaouira, Meknes, Sidi Kacem N/A 2016 February 27
5 small villages « al hidat » and « zbirat » in sidibennour, had essoualem, Marrakech, and Esmara The Islamic State organization 2016 March 28
9 .Esmara, the regions of « belfaa » and « ait oumira » ait baha province N/A 2016 March 29
3 NorthenMorocco The Islamic State organization 2016 April 30
1 Tangier The Islamic State organization 2016 May 31
52 N/A The Islamic State organization 2016 June 32
1 Meknes The Islamic State organization 2016 June 33
1 Oujda N/A 2016 June 34
10 Essaouira, Meknes, Sidi Kacem, El Jadida N/A 2016 June 35
6 Tetouan, Martil, Casablanca N/A 2016 July 36
4 Casablanca, the rural commune « almagran » (Kenitra province) The Islamic State organization 2016 August 37
3 Oujda, Casablanca, Fez The branch of the Islamic State in Lybia 2016 September


9 Rabat The Islamic State organization 2016 December


4 Tangier The Islamic State organization 2017 May


7 Tetouan The Islamic State organization 2017 April 41
4 Essaouira The Islamic State organization 2017 June


5 Benichiker outskirts of Nador The Islamic State organization 2017 September


11 Fez, Meknes, Khouribgua, Casablanca, Zaouiat cheikh, sidi bennour, damnat, sidi hrazem The Islamic State organization 2017 October



Source: data compiled by the author based on data of the Ministry of the Interior




[1]“Moroccan authorities have dismantled 168 terrorist cells since the attacks of 11 September 2001,” the site of TV Channel 2M (February 2017) link:السلطات-المغربية-فككت-168-خلية-إرهابية-منذ-هجمات-11-شتنبر-2001/

[2]See Appendix

[3]YassineMansouri, Counter-Terrorism Committee meeting, October 2014, Link

[4]“Al Khayam: 1609 Moroccan is the number of Moroccans in Daesh,” the website of aljarida 24, (September 2016) link:

[5]Mostafa Al Bahiri, This is the number of foreign fighters in Syria and these are their countries of origin, Al-Araby (21 November 2017), link:هذا-هو-عدد-المقاتلين-الأجانب-في-سوريا-وهذه-بلدانهم

[6][6] ” Daech n’a pas disparu, il s’est délocalisé vers le Sahel », selon le patron de l’antiterrorisme marocain”, LE MONDE, Avril 2018, Link :

[7]See chart 1 in appendix.

[8] “Daesh fighters control Mousoul, northern Iraq, and Al-Maliki calls on the parliament to declare the state of emergency, “BBC Arabic, June 2014, link:

[9]“After Al-Raka,” Daesh controls Deir Al-Zour and expels Al-Nousra and Ahrar Al-Sham, CNN Arabic, July 2014.:

[10] “ISIS announces the establishment of the “Islamic State” and declares allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a caliphate of Muslims, “France, 24 June 2014, link:داعش-القاعدة-خلافة-إسلامية-إرهاب

[10], The Islamic state we have known: pre-eminent insights and implications, Rand Corporation، 2016، link :


Mohammed Guenfoudi

Mohammed Guenfoudi

Mr. Guenfoudi is a researcher in sociology. He is an Associate Fellow at Justice Sector reform program with the National Center of State Courts – Morocco office. He published studies and articles on Political Islam and Sociology of religion.

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