Casablanca — The new group allegedly planned to attack security services and tourists in cities across the kingdom.
Morocco thwarted a large-scale terrorist plot to bomb strategic sites in several cities, the interior ministry announced on Monday (November 5th).
Eight members of a new Ansar al-Sharia offshoot group were arrested in Rabat and other cities for allegedly plotted attacks against "sensitive buildings, security headquarters and tourist sites", the interior ministry said.
Dubbed "Ansar al-Sharia in the Islamic Maghreb", the cell was seeking material and military support from its fellow al-Qaeda allies in northern Mali, the ministry added.
The cell includes a former Salafist Jihadist prisoner and al-Qaeda-linked activist known for expertise in explosives, intelligence officers from the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DST) determined.
The arrests came less than a week after police dismantled another terror cell that intended to create a training camp in the Rif mountains and "carry out terrorist acts against public authorities".
The operation came less than two weeks after the arrest of Hassan Younsi, founder of the "Co-ordination of Ansar al-Sharia in Morocco".
The new group made its presence known September 17th with the launch of a Facebook page and the posting of a doctrinal document on jihadist forums.
Younsi, who lives in Salé, was arrested October 21st in the northern Moroccan city of Tétouan after visiting Sheikh Omar Hadouchi.
He had asked Sheikh Omar Hadouchi to help resolve his dispute with the leaders of "Co-ordination for the Defence of Islamist Prisoners in Morocco", which includes veteran Moroccan jihadists who returned from Afghanistan.
Hadouchi, however, disavowed "Ansar al-Sharia in Islamic Maghreb", warning Salafist Jihadists against joining the new group.
It is not yet known whether Younsi is the leader of the cell dismantled on November 5th.
"Security authorities closely monitor the moves of extremists and then intervene at the right time to arrest terrorist cells in the bud before they pass on to the stage of implementing their plans," Moroccan researcher Driss Ksouri told Magharebia.
The analyst linked the appearance of the Ansar al-Sharia movement in the region to two factors. The first is the transfer of al-Qaeda leadership to Ayman al-Zawahiri after Osama Bin Laden's death. Unlike bin Laden, who targeted Western powers, al-Zawahiri has always been focused on combating local regimes and Arab rulers.
The second factor is the Arab Spring, which brought moderate Islamists to power. According to Ksouri, the more radical Islamist movements turned to Ansar al-Sharia, while the moderate ones "accepted the rules of the political game to benefit from the Arab Spring".
"The name 'Ansar al-Sharia' itself implies that the only thing that can satisfy these movements is the establishment of the caliphate system and application of Sharia law," Ksouiri said.
"Anything else, including democracy, constitutions, elections, parliaments, and man-made laws, are classified under kufr and secularism which they are fighting," he said.