Interview by Imrane Binoual
For several months, the February 20 Movement (M20F) has successfully rallied thousands of young Moroccans seeking legislative reforms. In an odd partnership, Salafist jihadists have begun using the youth movement as a megaphone to voice their own demands. Abdellah Al-Rami of the Moroccan Centre for Social Sciences (CMS2) in Casablanca talks with Magharebia about this new face of the once secretive group.
Magharebia: How would you characterise Morocco’s Salafist Jihadists?
Abdellah Al-Rami: This movement lacks a clear ideology. Even its leaders lack influence at the local and national levels. The ideology comes from abroad. It is a complicated movement, because it is made up of small cells, small clusters, groupings and small networks. The members know each other, but their actions and decisions are different, diverse and decentralised. That’s why it is difficult to identify the direction of the movement.
Magharebia: But they have recently increased their public presence. What triggered this change from their past secrecy?
Al-Rami: Their activity is now more visible, particularly since the arrival of the February 20 Movement. For the Salafists, the arrival of the M20F enabled them to emerge from the shadows.
Even if the Salafists were not part of the leadership of the youth movement, they were there on the side-lines. They thought that the February 20 Movement would bring the regime down, so they voiced their most radical demands. Some of them believed that this was the time to realise their ambitions.
Some within the movement said they had had enough of the regime. These people include individuals linked to AQIM, such as Abou Mouaad. Few people in Morocco know him, but he is a well-known leader within the jihadi movement at the international level.
He had always preferred to stay in the shadows. However, after the February 20 Movement came along, he made his first appearance.
For the first time, cells and groups established abroad showed their faces as members of the international jihadi movement.
Magharebia: Do the Salafists have any concrete objectives?
Al-Rami: There is no clear strategy or vision. They have diverging views. Some want to go out and demonstrate, while others want to express their ideas and ideologies, such as the calls to abolish the current regime, or to introduce Islamic law. There is one point, however, on which they have agreed: the release of Salafist prisoners.
Magharebia: You have talked about the emergence of a new Salafist figure, Abderrezak Ajaha. What have you learned about him?
Al-Rami: One figure who recently came out onto the streets and who is now seen as a leader of Salafiya Jihadiya movement is Abderrezak Ajaha. He was not known to the media or researchers. Yet now his video circulates on the internet and he is a figure in this movement with similar stature to, for instance, Mohamed Abdelouahab Rafiki, known as Abu Hafs. He gained fame as part of the attempt to get Salafist prisoners released.
There are some highly influential figures within the movement, but these were not the ones who spoke on the movement’s behalf and appeared in the media. Leaders known at the international level who have chosen to avoid the public include Omar Maaroufi. He participated in the Algerian Civil War, he had a great deal of contact with Salafiya Jihadiya in Europe and he travelled to Afghanistan.
While leaders such as Maaroufi and are not showing their faces, there are others, some of whom are of the same calibre, who are doing so. This is thanks to the current trends in Morocco.
Magharebia: Just a few weeks ago, Moroccan Islamist group Al Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Charity) severed ties with the M20F movement. How does the move affect the Salafist Jihadists?
Al-Rami: The Salafists are now waiting to see what will happen. They are hoping that the new government, which has Islamist sympathies, will take up the case of the Salafist prisoners and settle it. They anticipate that new Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid will sort this matter out, especially since he has so far been one of the defenders of their cause.
They have transformed this issue from a security matter to a human rights matter. They are hoping that this turnaround will be to their advantage.
Magharebia: Finally, how is Morocco’s security apparatus handling the Salafists?
Al-Rami: Security officers have dealt with the emergence of these Salafists just as they dealt with the February 20 Movement. In other words, they have limited themselves to watching and waiting to see what they will do.
Abdellah Al-Rami is a political analyst at the Moroccan Centre for Social Sciences (CMS2) in Casablanca. He has conducted extensive research into the internet activity of Salafiya Jihadiya.