Politics & Economics

What are the sources of extremism in northern Morocco?

North Africa

Activists and religious authorities in Morocco identify the main causes of radicalisation and why people are drawn to extremism.

Among the countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, Morocco stands out for not having suffered significant spikes in Islamic extremism or militancy. Much of the country’s success in combating extremism can be tied to its novel counter-extremism programme that was implemented in the mid-2000s, after a devastating series of bombings by al-Qaeda.

Since them, Morocco has imaged itself a “fount of moderate Islam” and implemented a number of laws accordingly, vastly expanding women’s rights and similar freedoms. In conjunction, the Moroccan Government has sought to combat extremist interpretations of Islam, identifying common justifications for violence and using scripture-based rationales to discredit such interpretations.

Despite the successes of the program, it has not prevented everyone from falling into radicalism. It is estimated that some 1,700 youths from Morocco and the nearby regions have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside ISIS. Some ISIS supporters have also attempted attacks within the country, though luckily no major attacks have taken place so far.

In a bid to understand why so many Moroccan youths flocked to ISIS’ banner, authorities have explored the main sources of radicalisation in the country, identifying three major sources.

First is the inability to cope with societal pressures and expectations. In a culture that is still fairly male-dominated, there are significant pressures among the youth towards earning a livelihood to support a family and contribute to society. However, Morocco suffers from unemployment levels that hover around 11%, making jobs searches particularly difficult. It is believed that the allure of ISIS’ utopian vision came as a result of such crisis of self, something that recruiters were easily able to take advantage of.

Experts also remark that some individuals have tried to fill the void with cultural activities and sports. This, on its own, is not a harmful way to deal with a crisis of self. However, ISIS recruiters have found that they could find many disaffected youths in sports clubs and cultural centres.

A third source has been the internet. It is undeniable that both al-Qaeda and ISIS had a particularly strong presence on the internet, allowing such groups to attract supporters across the globe and spread their extremist, violent interpretations of Islam. ISIS propagandists, in particular, were experts at appealing to the youth through mythologised, emotion-inducing and wish-fulfilling interpretations of Islam and life under the group’s so-called “Caliphate”. Many religious authorities in Morocco acknowledge that their own presence on the internet has lagged behind, allowing extremists to “capture the narrative”, so to speak.

In recent years, a number of other countries have looked towards Morocco and assessed whether its counter-extremism programme can be applied locally. In particular, the country’s efforts to provide a centralised, modernised interpretation of Islam to counter the fundamentalist interpretations have drawn particular interest. If such efforts are successful, they could guide the whole region away from the path of extremism.