Extremist groups in the nearby Sahel region, which recruit and train their followers online, represent Morocco’s biggest militant threat, the head of its counterterrorism agency said.
Although Morocco has had only one major attack over the past decade - the 2018 killing of two Scandinavian tourists - its location “makes it a target for the Sahel groups” said Haboub Cherkaoui.
“The terrorist threat persists as long as there are groups that recruit and train their followers online including Islamic State in the greater Sahara,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Since it was set up in 2015, Cherkaoui’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation has dismantled dozens of militant cells and arrested more than a thousand suspected extremists, he said.
The numbers point to the continued militant risk in Morocco after the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq last decade caused a surge in extremist activity that persists even after the group was defeated in its Middle East heartland.
ISIS refocused on the Sahel region, he said, and along with other extremist groups there has taken advantage of porous borders and trafficking networks.
Both Niger and Mali have battled militant insurgencies while Libya’s civil war has created space for extremist groups to operate.
In late February, Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Dine El Otmani took part in a Sahel security summit in Ndjamena and offered support for military action against extremist groups, including through training troops.
Morocco is also concerned that some of its nationals who joined ISIS in the Middle East might have relocated to the Sahel, Cherkaoui said.
In total, 1,645 Moroccans joined extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, including 745 who died in suicide attacks or in battle. Most of the 1,645 fought for ISIS.
Of the survivors, 270 have returned to Morocco and 137 were prosecuted, said Cherkaoui, adding that 288 women and 391 minors also went to the conflict zones, following their main income provider.
Moroccan law punishes by up to 10 years those who join extremist groups abroad.
Morocco has offered intelligence that helped arrest extremists or foil attacks in France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Germany, Burkina Faso, Sri Lanka and recently the United States, Cherkaoui said.
“Our success hinges on continued intelligence sharing with our partners,” Cherkaoui said.