As the siege on Islamic State closes in, particularly in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and Raqqa in Syria, the fate of Moroccan fighters is called into question.
Salafist sources with connections to the jihadist group numbered the Moroccan fighters still battling with Islamic State at 500 fighters, at most.
According to frequent news reports, these fighters are often left to their fates, either employed for suicide bombings or to fight on the front lines. Meanwhile, divisions have erupted along various battlefronts within the organization’s ranks, particularly among foreign fighters.
More than half of the group’s jihadists from Morocco have been killed in battle in Syria and Iraq since 2011.
One by One, They Fall
According to the latest official statistics from the Central Office of Judicial Research, Morocco’s primary intelligence agency tasked with counterterrorism efforts, the number of Islamic State fighters who have returned to Morocco has registered 199 fighters. However, these numbers contradict those fielded by the Coordination de défense de détenus Islamistes, which has been following up on the jihadists’ status.
“The official numbers do not reflect the real numbers of returning jihadists. We estimate them to number at around 300,” a source from the coordination tells Raseef22. He affirms that the group has information indicating that a number of Moroccan jihadists wish to return home, based on their conversations with families and loved ones.
Against this backdrop comes the testimony of the brother of an Islamic State jihadist, the latter of whom went to fight in Deir Al-Zour in Syria.
“We have lost contact with him for about a month. He told me that there is an unusual lack of discipline among the organization’s ranks, and that they now have control over only part of the city. Moreover, there have been instances of betrayal and insubordination to the central command, prompting some members to flee to Turkey,” the brother tells Raseef22.
He further notes that foreign and Moroccan fighters feel endangered, and do not trust the leadership forces, particularly amid the unexplained killing of Moroccan and Tunisian fighters by unknown forces in the city. Further, he noted that the organization’s presence in the city has been confronted by sharp opposition among the locals, due to the ruthless tactics employed by Islamic State in its battles against the Syrian regime and democratic forces across the Deir Al-Zour province.
Escapees, Prisoners, and Suicide Attackers
According to a source from the Revolutionary Forces of Syria’s media office, on February 27, a Moroccan jihadist was assassinated in Deir Al-Zour, prompting the jihadist organization to launch an arrest campaign among local civilians. Moreover, during March, another Moroccan jihadist, nicknamed Abu Abdallah Al-Maghreby, defected from the group in Mayadin, on the suburbs of Deir Al-Zour.
The source tells Raseef22 that “about two weeks ago, forces from Islamic State announced that they are searching for this escapee, who belonged to the group’s task force, declaring a sizeable bounty on his head”.
The situation evinces a sense of despair among many of the group’s Moroccan fighters. Many of them are neither satisfied with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s leadership during the current stage, nor with their exploitation on the front lines of battles. In particular, the killing of dozens of them over the past few months and their constant relocation between different battlefronts in Syria and Iraq have fueled strife among these jihadists.
Have Islamic State's Moroccan fighters begun to grasp that the caliphate is a big lie?
In this context, one recalls the story of the jihadist nicknamed Abu Muqatel Al-Maghreby, who was one of the most distinguished members of the task force. He was reported killed during battle in Iraq at the beginning of March. Moreover, a jihadist named Younis, originally from Casablanca, confessed to the Iraqi authorities, upon his arrest, that he had arrived in Mosul based on orders from the leadership to carry out suicide attacks there.
“I was injured and forced to hide out in an abandoned house in Malahma, but the Iraqi military forces took control of the area, forcing me to move to another abandoned home, where I remained for six months on my own. During this period, my food was restricted to dates and water, which I obtained when I went out at night looking for food, before I was arrested,” Younis said. He was the last of his three brothers, all of whom were killed, to reach the area under Islamic State control, specifically its stronghold in Raqqa.
According to the facts provided by Islamic State’s media organizations, a number of Moroccan jihadists were relocated to Mosul, parts of which remain under the group’s control. The majority of these Moroccan fighters are used as suicide attackers or infiltrators.
At least four Moroccans, one of whom was a child, executed two suicide attacks in the Al-Bakr neighborhood in Mosul since December.
Moroccans constitute the third largest nationality among Islamic State fighters. According to a recent survey, Moroccan fighters executed a number of suicide attacks over the past year.
Further, the Iraqi authorities announced the death of a number of Moroccan field commanders and officials, including Abu Hamza Al-Maghreby, who was responsible for bombing operations in what is known as the Nineveh Province. He was killed during airstrikes by the US-led international coalition against Islamic State, which targeted his vehicle on March 4.
Moreover, at least three Moroccan jihadists were reported arrested by Iraqi authorities and their militias since the government declared the start of the battle to regain control of Mosul. Most recently, on the pages supporting the militias of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, video footage was released, depicting the arrest of a Moroccan Islamic State member, after his hideout was stormed in the Khaldiya area. Signs of beating are apparent on his face, presumably from the excessive use of force following his arrest.
Mohamed Masbah, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House focusing on Salafism and political Islam, believes Moroccan jihadists are on their last legs with Islamic State.
“They’ve begun to comprehend now that the caliphate is a big illusion, and that the dream that was sold to them was nothing more than a mirage. Another group had already arrived at this conviction just two years after the establishment of Islamic State [then ISIS], and returned to Morocco. They had witnessed the death of their Moroccan friends, which may have motivated some of them to rebel and escape, and perhaps return to Morocco. Meanwhile, the remaining members will be used as suicide attackers, due to their lack of military expertise,” Masbah tells Raseef22.
“In general, we cannot speak of foreign fighters as a homogenous mass, and as such we cannot expect that they will display unified behavior in the face of their ordeal. However, what is certain is that the most radicalized among them would prefer to die as suicide attackers, or at the very least move to Libya, rather than go home or end up in the prisons of the existing or future regimes,” he adds.
The year 2016 recorded the highest number of killed Moroccan jihadists in Syria and Iraq, amounting to approximately 38% of them, compared to 25% in 2014 and 2015, according to a report published last August by the Centre Marocaine d’Étude du Terrorisme et d’Extrémisme. The Central Office for Judicial Research moreover estimates that more than 600 Moroccan jihadists killed since 2011.