Islamic State will not be able to gain momentum in Morocco following killing of two tourists in Atlas Mountains
Risk of copycat attacks against Western tourists will persist in coming weeks, but longer-term threat of sophisticated violence remains low
Jihadists will continue to prioritise activities in less stable regions such as Sahel or Libya
Moroccan police detained a Swiss national in Marrakesh on 29 December, marking the twentieth arrest in the ongoing investigation into the killing of two Scandinavian hikers. The bodies of the Danish and Norwegian tourists had been discovered on 17 December, 10 km from Imlil in the Atlas Mountains. No group has claimed responsibility for their deaths, but the authorities are investigating possible links to Islamic State (IS). Earlier, police said that four other key suspects in the case had released a video on social media in which they pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before the murders.
This was the first suspected jihadist attack in the country since a bombing in a Marrakech cafe in April 2011 killed seventeen people. The Government blamed al-Qaeda in the Maghreb for that blast, though the group denied responsibility. Nonetheless, Morocco has a substantial jihadist-Salafist community, and up to 2,000 individuals have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with IS since 2012. The group has in the past year called on its global supporters to carry out attacks in its name, especially in new countries, as this will enable the group to claim that it is expanding despite the defeat of its Caliphate in 2017. This will most likely have inspired local IS sympathisers to carry out the opportunistic murder of the two hikers. The attackers will have in part hoped to damage Morocco’s tourism industry, since this would impact the broader economy and fuel discontent with the Government, thereby creating new recruitment opportunities for jihadists.
However, the lack of claim from IS’s central leadership suggests that the group did not have direct contact with the assailants and was therefore unable to provide proof of its involvement. The killing of Scandinavian tourists also offers less propaganda opportunities to IS in comparison to French nationals, given Paris’ colonial past and leading role in anti-jihadist operations in the Sahel. Nonetheless, the absence of a claim, along with the unsophisticated nature of the attack, reflects that jihadist capabilities in Morocco remain low, despite the relatively high number of sympathisers in the country. Jihadist weaknesses reflects the Governments success in monitoring suspected jihadists and thwarting plots, including by maintaining a strong security presence near popular tourism locations. Additionally, Morocco is not a priority for jihadist groups, which focus their activities on relatively unstable countries such as Libya that offer them greater recruitment and logistical opportunities.
IS will consequently struggle to maintain momentum following last months attack, though there remains a risk of copycat attempts against Western tourists in the coming weeks. Many jihadist supporters will also travel to fight elsewhere, including Libya and the Sahel, while the security forces will continue to infiltrate most pro-IS cells. This will ensure that the risk of a campaign of sustained IS attacks in Morocco remains very low.