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As ISIS Weakens, Morocco Faces Threat of Returning Fighters

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By Saad Eddine Lamzouwaq

Rabat – While the rope continues to tighten around ISIS’ neck in the Middle East, many of its foreign fighters will seek to return to their countries of origin, putting pressure on the security services of home countries like Morocco.

In May, Abdelhak El Khiam, the head of the Moroccan counter-terrorism Central Bureau for Judicial Investigations (BCIJ), revealed that there are 1,631 Moroccan fighters in Syria and Iraq. According to security officials, most these fighters are known by security services.

Morocco, whose security services have been internationally praised for their efficiency in fighting terrorism, is a major ally of European countries such as Spain, France and Belgium.

Coordination and exchange of information with the security services of those countries, where a number of Moroccans holder of dual citizenship have been arrested for carrying out or plotting terrorist attacks, have previously helped to uncover terrorist networks and might prove fruitful in tracking returning ISIS and Al Qaeda fighters.

A Troubling Scenario

The return of a sizeable number of highly trained, radicalized fighters might present a serious challenge for national security services.

Returning fighters are arrested according to Moroccan terrorism law, which criminalizes joining armed groups. Unless they re-enter Morocco with fake identities, jail awaits these fighters.

Abdellah Rami, a specialist on Islamist groups, told Morocco World News that these fighters can present a number of threats to Moroccan security.

“Some elements can represent a danger if they are not tracked and can manage to get forged documents, blend in with Moroccan in Europe, and enter the country,” he said.

Rami explained that these lone wolves might seek to carry out attacks on Moroccan soil. Another “troubling” possibility according to Rami is that some of those Moroccans might be recruited by regimes which are not on good terms with the kingdom and used in a way that serves their interest.

ISIS fighters might also look to establish terrorist networks in Morocco, something which Rami says is possible only if there is negligence from security services. This scenario is highly improbable, Ramid explained, as regional and international security services, including Morocco’s, are widely aware of ISIS’ retreat in the Middle East and are ready to the possibility of the return of the group’s foreign fighters to their countries.

While there are Salafi Jihadist pockets of support for Al Qaeda in Morocco, said Rami, ISIS does not enjoy a similar advantage. This situation, coupled with the fact its elements are under tight security surveillance, makes it difficult for them to grow.

“ISIS loyalists have no sheikh [religious authority in Morocco], and most of them are in prison.”

ISIS: Not Dead Yet

Despite the heavy losses ISIS has endured in Iraq, losing Mosul, the second capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate, the radical organization is still not dead yet.

“The [caliphate]has fallen, but the organization still remains strong,” said Rami, who pointed to the fact that the group is led by experienced former Iraqi army officers. In addition to that, ISIS continues to controls large territories in Syria and Iraq.

The expert on Islamist groups suggested that the different countries involved in the Middle East crisis are not serious about completely crush ISIS as it is not seen as a “strategic threat”, adding that there are other things at stake.

He explained that for Turkey the serious threat is the birth of a Kurdish state in northern Syria while Gulf countries are mostly worried of Iran’s influence in the region. As for the the United States and Russia, the two superpowers’ involvement in Syria is part of their global competition over energy resources as there were plans to make Syria a transit point for gas pipelines to Europe.

As a result, ISIS is set to stay alive yet.

“There are complicated geo-strategic calculations out there,” cautioned Rami.

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