Mali-based terrorists are setting their sights on countries beyond the Sahel
By Hassan Benmehdi in Casablanca and Jemal Oumar in Nouakchott for Magharebia
[Jemal Oumar] International jihadists are flocking to northern Mali, posing a threat to countries in the Maghreb.
Morocco broke up a terror cell that allegedly trained and recruited fighters for the Mali conflict, the interior ministry announced on Saturday (November 24th).
The suspects seized last week in Casablanca, Laayoune, Nador, Guercif and Kelaat Sraghna are accused of sending more than 20 young Moroccans to join al-Qaeda and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad (MUJAO) in northern Mali.
Once in Mali, the recruits were trained “to take part in terrorist operations planned to be carried out in the region later”, the interior ministry said.
The investigation also uncovered efforts by the cell to send fighters to Libya, before young people were recruited for the Mali mission. They were sent to the Sahel through the Algerian-Moroccan border with the aid of al-Qaeda, which reportedly “facilitated this operation in return for sums of money”.
Morocco’s arrest of the group brings to the forefront recent reports about the arrival of scores of young mujahideen from the Maghreb in northern Mali. Pakistani jihadists have also reportedly joined the influx of foreigners in the Sahel.
“You can find different nationalities among jihadists’ ranks in Timbuktu,” according to Ayman El Sisi, a journalist with Egypt’s al-Ahram daily who spoke to Magharebia after returning from Timbuktu.
“However, it is difficult to determine their original identities because they don’t speak about that to journalists whom they consider to be agents and spies. Yet, accurate observations of dialects may give you an idea about the identity of those young people,” he said.
El Sisi said that he was able to speak to a bearded young Frenchman wearing mujahideen clothes. “However, when he knew that I was a journalist, he refused to continue to talk to me and insisted on erasing the interview transcript and the photos I took of him.”
In his turn, Timbuktu journalist Sayed Ahmed Ould Abdul Qadir told Magharebia that “most of the newcomers are from Tunisia and Libya, with some Europeans and Sudanese, as well as, of course, the Mauritanians who are the majority”.
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“Northern Mali and the Sahel are now an ideal refuge for all Salafists of various nationalities where they can wage jihad,” said Abdessalam Attazi, an international relations professor. “This highlights the importance of security co-operation to curb the influx of fighters from other countries.”
Morocco has disrupted a number terrorist recruitment efforts in the kingdom Attazi noted. In the past, Moroccan security services have broken up organisations recruiting fighters for Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Since 2003, Morocco has been adopting a pre-emptive strike policy against the terrorist groups,” said Mohamed Akinou, a Moroccan journalist and political analyst.
“Morocco doesn’t want to be involved in supplying northern Mali with terrorist fighters because it is itself a victim of that. It seeks to solve the Malian crisis peacefully,” he told Magharebia.